Trade Shows Are War

Note: this post is applicable to trade shows, conferences, symposiums, and other cross-company gatherings.

Last week a first-time founder asked me about getting ready for a trade show. The summary of our conversation was:

Trade shows are the ultimate zero-sum game.

Whether you attend a trade show as an individual scoping out a new industry, as a startup breaking into a market, or as an established industry player, you have a single goal: monopolize the time and attention of your targets to maximize the probability of continuing the conversation after the event.

I generally deplore zero-sum thinking. In the world of startups and technology, I always want to expand the pie rather than fight over a fixed pie. But trade shows are a weird, backwards universe. You’ll spend copious amounts of money and time and you will not close any business or recruit any candidates at the event. None. Therefore your goal is to maximize the probability that your targets want to speak to you after the show so you can actually make something happen.

It’s important to recognize that at a trade show, every single person, piece of signage, video reel, coffee station, workshop, afterparty, etc is your competition. Everything and everyone are competing for the fixed amount of attention that your targets could otherwise devote to you.

Make no compromises in taking as much of their time as you possibly can. Trade shows are war for time and attention that masquerade as civil discourse.

Here are some implications of this lens:

1. Trade show time is precious. Therefore, you need to be on your A game at all times. Therefore, do not drink. Trade shows, either directly, or indirectly through after-parties, hand out what amounts to effectively unlimited alcohol. Do not waste your time getting drunk. You have cooler friends back at home you can get drink with. If you drink, you will talk to less people than you otherwise would have, you will be sloppier in your conversations, and you will not be on your A game the next day.

2. About a month before the event, identify everyone who will be at the show that you want to meet with and coordinate explicit meeting times and places with them. Naturally, you’ll want to meet with them somewhere where you can control their attention. Do not try to meet with your targets in your booth or at a location in the exhibit hall. The exhibit hall is effectively raw anarchy: a state of unmitigated entropy. There is simply too much noise and too many other people vying for your target’s attention on the show floor. As a startup, you likely won’t have the budget or staff to justify have a private meeting room in your booth or to rent out a private suite near the exhibit hall. So instead, meet your targets just outside the exhibit hall, or in a food area. Anywhere that’s easy to find and that has less stimulation than the show floor.

3. I suspect that > 50% of trade show attendees are scrounging for battery cables by 6pm. Turn off all non-essential services on your phone to maximize battery life. Get an external battery pack if necessary. Don’t let your phone’s (lack of) battery distract you from your targets.

4. 50–90% of the people you meet will not be worth your time and attention. Put those business cards in one pocket, and the valuable business cards in another. In the evening, after not drinking, write custom follow ups to each person whom you care to do business with. Make sure to remark on your specific conversation so they know it wasn’t a mail-merged email template. Do not expect a response the next day. In your note, make sure to let them know that you’ll reach back out to them ~2 days after the end of the show, and do exactly that. Do not be afraid to email them multiple times after the show. Your only goal at the show was to get follow ups after the show, so you better damn well make sure that you do.

5. Do anything you can to be memorable. Anything. Trade shows are stimulation overload. Within three days of leaving a trade show, no one will remember what your booth looked like, or even what you looked like. Most people will just remember the hotel they stayed that and some particular events they attended (e.g. a workshop or an after party). The average attendee likely speaks with over 200 people at an event. Of those 200 people, that attendee will likely remember five of those people. Do whatever you have to in order to be one of those five. Unique and tasteful attire is solid, but do more. Have a unique opening. Memorable business cards. An amazing pitch. Whatever. It. Takes.