In my opinion, attending a trade show is hands-down the best way of maximizing your return on investment. It's probably the most cost-effective way of building your network of companies looking for ideas, actually, if you're serious about this, and especially so if you plan on sticking to one category. If you want to make relationships, it's the way to go. To put it simply, everyone who matters is there—sans gatekeepers. Case in point: At the International Home + Housewares Show in Chicago this year, I met OXO President, Alex Lee, on the floor. Getting to the right person is easy! Don't bother getting a booth. A better strategy is to work the show aggressively by covering as much ground as you can and forging connections.
For starters, make sure you attend the right show. You'd be surprised—there are a lot of trade shows. Will the companies on your list be there? Check the trade show's directory, which is usually located on its website.
Be ready. First impressions matter, so dress sharply. If you look good, people will want to talk to you. Put another way: Look like you're important! Wear comfortable shoes so you can walk further. I recommend spending two days at the show instead of just one, because trade shows are exhausting.
Psych yourself up by creating a game plan after you map out where the companies on your list will be located. If I can fit a sample in my pocket, I always carry one. (If you can't, consider having your product marketing video queued up on your phone.) If the situation is right, I pitch. But it's all about pitching at the right time, if at all.
Networking at the International Home + Housewares Show in Chicago. Image via IHHS.
When you approach a booth, smile. Don't pitch. After all, they're there to sell, so be sensitive to that. Begin looking at their products and say something loudly like, "Wow, these are fantastic!" (Give a salesperson a reason to approach you, in other words.) When one does, let him or her tell you a little bit about what they have on display. Act genuinely interested! At some point, this person will ask you, "What do you do?" And that's your opportunity to introduce yourself as a product developer. I follow up with: Does your company take outside submissions? Who would be the best person to talk to about that?
When it's clear you're not there to buy, the salesperson you've been talking to will want to move on. And that's a good thing—hopefully, you'll be brought over to someone who can help you, like a vice-president of marketing. This person has more time, and might say yes, we do take outside submissions. Briefly tell them what you do. In my experience, at this point, people are curious. They ask, "Well… what do you have? Is there anything I can see?"
I don't spend much time pitching, nor at any one booth. I work the show, I move on quickly. Card. Move. Card. Move. Card. Move. If there isn't a good opportunity to pitch, I don't: I get a card and I move on. Big-picture wise, that's what you should focus on: Getting a card so you can follow up later. You want to be able to make the next move. Following up makes all the difference in general, and absolutely when it comes to licensing.
A few more tips:
— Avoid approaching booths that are crowded and busy. For that reason, I like to get to trade shows early and stay later. When it's less hectic, accomplishing the task at hand is easier.
— When I attend trade shows, I tend to stay at hotels associated with the event even if they cost more, because hey—you never know when and where you're going meet someone interesting.
— If you plan ahead, you may be able to make appointments with some of the companies you'd like to know better, saving you time.
— Pick up a physical directory as well as a copy of every trade publication you can get your hands on, because they'll give you a sense of where opportunity lies. The same goes for carving out time to listen to a few speakers: They're often fantastic, and almost always touch on existing challenges and the future of the industry. Check out the new products section as well, which always inspires me.
There's so much other great information you can get about companies you're thinking about working with just by looking at their booths, which is priceless.
Without fail, I leave any trade show I attend feeling invigorated—not just with a stack of business cards. If you want to live the licensing lifestyle, mark your 2017 calendar now. Which trade shows will you be attending?
Stephen Key is a lifelong product artist who has licensed dozens of his ideas. His bestselling book "One Simple Idea: Turn Your Dreams Into a Licensing Goldmine" has been translated into five other languages. He speaks, writes, and vlogs extensively about licensing, entrepreneurship, and intellectual property strategy.