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May 2013

5 Basic Rules for Startups at Expos

By Everything

Not NY Tech Day. But definitely NY.

Last week I happened to be in New York City while the second annual NY Tech Day was taking place. It was an expo of hundreds of NYC-based startups showing off their companies and products. For my fellow Boulderites, think of BoulderBeta, but 50 times larger, and without beer. And in New York. So I guess it was nothing like BoulderBeta, except that it had tech companies showcasing their products.

It ended up being very productive for me on a number of fronts. However, the biggest takeaway for me was not any one particular company, but an observation of how the exhibitors set up their tables and worked the crowd.

I’ve been to big, flashy, expensive trade shows all over the world, where every exhibitor been doing tradeshows for years, or has been attending for years before their first time exhibiting. In those environments, everyone has the basics down, so the exhibitors go to great lengths to stand out from the crowd. NY Tech Day was very different; it seemed few of the companies had experience at trade shows, and did not have an understand of the basics for exhibiting. If I ever end up showcasing a company at an expo such as that, I’ll follow these guidelines:

1. Use your tagline on your banner

Your logo is great. Really, it is. I love it. But unless your logo spells out what your company does in one succinct sentence, then you need to add your tagline to your banners. Unless of course your tagline doesn’t spell out what your company does in one succinct sentence, in which case, you need to take a day to rework your tagline until it does. And then add it to your banner.

2. Put your tagline at eyelevel or above

Now that you have your tagline on your banner and promotional materials, don’t just hang it off the front edge of your table where it’s blocked by everyone’s legs and completely unreadable. Buy a pop-up banner, or hang your banner up above your table, do something–anything–that gets your logo (because you love your logo) and tagline where everyone can see it.

3. Have more than one person

Working a booth at an expo is a long, tiring job. And it’s far, far worse when you have to work it yourself. But more importantly, you can only talk to one or two people at a time in a crowded, noisy convention hall. Realistically, each person you talk to about your company has a different need, and you need to tailor your pitch to each of them individually. So while you’re talking to the one guy with a small use-case that’s not exactly the right product fit, the woman who is your ideal client just grabbed a flyer from your table, probably never to call you again.

Have your partner there. Have your staff there. Have as many people there as you can fit, and rotate shifts so no one person gets exhausted. If you’re flying solo—which every book on entrepreneurship will tell you is a bad idea—then ask friends to come and help you. Even if it’s you and your partner, still ask a few friends to come and help, you’ll be glad you have the support.

4. ABP – Always Be Pimpin

You know that logo we all love so much? Wear it! You know those friends you invited to come and help you out? Get them wearing it. Get t-shirts for every single person at your table. Everyone at your booth should be branded. Also, make sure you have some sort of takeaway, either business cards or flyers. And make sure they are not glossy on one side, so your booth visitors can jot down notes about how incredible your company is. Before it gets lost in their bag of other flyers.

5. Stand up & engage (but don’t harass)

You’d think this would be Expo 101. You’d think that, and you’d be wrong. I saw at least a dozen tables where the exhibitors were sitting down, behind the table, staring at their phone. Being an entrepreneur is hard, and you’re constantly pulled in a million directions. I get it. But if you’ve paid to be at an expo, then you best be expo-ing. Stand up, come around in front of your table, put your phone away, and engage people.

Of course, don’t take it to the opposite extreme. There was one booth with guys using aggressive sales tactics, trying everything from guilt to shame to false flattery to get people to listen to their pitch and sign up for whatever it was they were schlepping. That doesn’t fly in the startup world, not even in the NYC startup scene.

Advice for the attendees

Lastly, I have one bit of advice for attendees, stop and talk to as many people as your schedule allows. My friend, Eric Schwertzel of Booshaka, broke all of these rules, except #5. Yet despite his poor showing (sorry Eric, I got nothing but love for ya!) you wouldn’t know he’s one of the best in the biz at signing major media contracts for startups all over the world.

If you’re wandering the floor, stop and talk because you never know what you might discover. In startups, as in NYC,  “you gotta be willing to be lucky.” (quote from Al Pacino’s character in City Hall.)