What Inventors Need to Know About Trade Shows
You have a great idea for a product invention. You might even have a working sample or prototype of what you invented. Now, you want to get it out into the world and sell it.
You might be tempted to take your invention to a trade show to see if you can generate interest from someone who can help you take the product to market.
It could be a company that buys patents or makes licensing deals with product inventors. Maybe you’d even meet someone who wants to invest in the company you hope to build around your product, if building a business is your goal.
Attending vs. Exhibiting
Two ways that inventors typically participate in trade shows are by exhibiting or attending.
Exhibiting. When you exhibit at a trade show, you are essentially renting a specific amount of floor space in a large room with other exhibitors. Each exhibitor sets up their space, usually referred to as a “booth,” to introduce attendees to a product, service, company or organization. The set-up might include tables and chairs, video monitors, products on display, and even more gimmicky features like costumed mascots and free “swag”, like tote bags and water bottles printed with the exhibitor’s brand name.
As an exhibitor, you have an opportunity to show off your product to potential buyers, licensees, and possibly even investors.
Attending. When you attend a trade show, you pay a fee to be admitted to the show. Depending on what your ticket includes, you may have access to the exhibitors’ floor, speakers’ presentations, workshops, and networking events.
As an attendee, you have an opportunity to learn about trends in the industry, meet people, and see what other exhibitors are offering.
There are many, many events that call themselves “trade shows.” Most are a complete waste of an inventor’s time and money. Others, however, could open all the right doors for an inventor to bring their product to market.
The True Trade Show: A true trade show is intended to enrich people who work in a very specific industry.
These are typically large annual gatherings that include speakers, workshops, networking opportunities, and an exhibitors’ floor. Examples include the International Construction & Utility Equipment Exposition, which brings together utility professionals, and World of Concrete, attended by concrete and masonry professionals.
In order to attend this type of trade show, you usually need to prove that you work in a particular industry. They don’t give admission badges to the general public.
If you rent an exhibitor’s booth at a true trade show geared toward an industry that fits your product invention, you will cross paths with people who work in the companies you want to do business with.
The Not-So-True Trade Show: Then, there are the not-so-true trade shows. These are gatherings that may call themselves a “trade show” or “expo,” but they’re open to the public. Anyone can buy a badge or ticket and wander around the exhibitors’ hall.
These shows are seldom attended by key decision-makers at companies that buy, license, or invest in product inventions. If you rent a booth at one of these events, you are unlikely to connect with anyone who can help you profit from your invention. Your money and time will be wasted.
Shows for Inventors: Some shows are geared toward hopeful inventors like you.
Attending or exhibiting at one of these events may seem like the best place to invest your dollars. However, the people who have the power to buy or license your invention are probably not attending these shows.
Instead, you will encounter other inventors, and many companies who claim to be in the business of helping inventors make money, but whose end goal is to make money from you – not for you.
The marketplace is loaded with invention submission companies, inventor coaches, and service providers who charge inventors big money for bad advice, services you don’t really need, and/or guidance that ultimately gets you nowhere.
The “Real Deals” Won’t Ask for Money
Two types of professionals who can honestly help you get a deal for your product are patent brokers and licensing agents. Patent brokers connect inventors with companies that may want to buy the patent for their invention outright. Licensing agents bring together inventors and companies that license product inventions.
No legitimate, reputable broker or agent will ask you for money up front. True professionals work on a contingency basis, meaning that they get paid a percentage of any deal you make – but only after you make it.
If a company or coach wants to charge you money to help you become a successful inventor, be wary.
By law, such companies must make their “success numbers” available to the public. For example, a company that says it guides inventors through the process of licensing their invention may have successfully obtained licensing deals for 20 inventors – but what if that’s only 20 out of 50,000 customers? That’s not a great rate of success. Working with that company, you’ll likely be throwing your money away.
Additionally, not all of these companies share their success numbers, even though, theoretically, they’re supposed to.
How to Pick the Most Worthwhile Trade Show
With so many “trade shows” and “expos” out there to choose from, how can you tell which shows could give you the biggest bang for your buck?
Take these two steps when deciding:
- Target the right industry. First, figure out what industry your product belongs in. For example, if you think home builders would love your product, you might consider exhibiting at or attending the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) International Builders’ Show. If your invention is a toy or game, the North American International Toy Fair might be the place for you.
- Find out who can attend. After you’ve targeted a potentially worthwhile show, contact the organizers and find out who is allowed to attend. If the show is open to the general public, it’s likely a waste of your time. If industry credentials are required to attend, the show is a better choice, especially if it attracts buyers.
A Warning to Exhibiting Inventors
Selling Product On-Site. If you’re planning to exhibit at a trade show and you already have some inventory, you may see the show as an opportunity to sell a few units of your product and make some bonus cash.
However, some shows don’t permit exhibitors to sell product directly from their booth. Be sure to inquire about the show’s “cash and carry” policy.
Idea Stealing. Additionally, you don’t want to share your idea with anyone until you’ve filed a patent application for it.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office doesn’t care who came up with an idea first. They will give a patent on an invention to the first person who files an application for it, whether it was the applicant’s original idea or not.
If someone else sees your idea and gets a patent on it, you’ll be blocked from making and profiting from your own invention. Oof! That would hurt!
At the very minimum, have a registered patent attorney file a provisional patent application on your invention before you unveil it at a trade show.
A Warning to Attending Inventors
Renting a booth to exhibit at a trade show can be very expensive. Instead, you may find that a show will allow you in as an attendee.
If you attend a trade show, it’s possible you could cross paths with someone who may want to license or buy your invention. However, it’s typically considered bad form to prowl around a trade show pitching your product. In some cases, the show organizer may not allow that kind of rogue selling at all. If you’re caught, you may be removed from the show and forbidden to attend future industry events.
If you’re lucky enough to be an inventor who’s permitted to attend an industry trade show, look at it as a learning opportunity. Soak up as much information as you can about what’s going on in the industry, especially in product development.
How Renting a Booth Can Be More Affordable
Trade shows charge big money for booth space. Often, the expense is prohibitive to the average inventor.
Rita Crompton, otherwise known as The Inventor LadyTM, is a licensing agent and educator to inventors who helps make exhibiting at trade shows more accessible to inventors.
Every year, she organizes a group of inventors to share a booth (and its expense) at the National Hardware Show. If you think your invention may be a good fit for the National Hardware Show, you may want to reach out to The Inventor LadyTM to ask about joining her team.
Trade shows can provide real breakthrough opportunities to inventors who want to bring a product to market, license their invention, or sell its patent, but making the right choice is critical to avoiding wasted money and time.
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