I am often asked “how did you find your customers – especially when you were a new company?” This question was especially pertinent to me because I was far from an industry insider when I started over twenty years ago. I was actually an early career banker who started his business without any industry knowledge, small business experience and, sadly, capital. So, trade shows were my life blood for new customers and, to an extent, they still are!
I remember vividly my first trade show. I was a banker living in Germany and desperately hoping to make a career transition to food entrepreneur. In my spare time away from the bank office, I had made a few connections with small Pennsylvania-based food companies happy to have me represent them (at no cost!) overseas. For them it was a no-risk way to see if their products could fly overseas. For me, it was a low-risk way to begin exploring the industry and hopefully pick up a few nickels in brokerage.
After about a year of little or no progress, I discovered that there was a large food show in Cologne, Germany in which I could take a small stand at a very reasonable cost. I took a few days of “vacation” from my real job, threw a few cartons of samples into my car and drove off. Believe it or not, I even made up rudimentary sell sheets on a primitive word processing machine and made photo copies.
When I walked into the exhibit hall complex for the first time I was completely overwhelmed. Having never ever been to a trade fair of this magnitude, the seven different exhibit halls posed a huge challenge just finding my booth. After four hours of walking (with my sad collection of sample cartons propped under my arm) I finally stumbled across it having already missed half of the first day of the show.
Once settled, I propped myself on a bar stool next to my meager samples and sad sell sheets and waited for the action. Four days later all I had was six business cards to show for the entire experience. Undaunted I spent the next six months pinging these poor prospects with weekly telephone calls to the point that one of these hapless targets ended up changing his telephone number.
This past January I returned to that same trade show in Germany for the 23rd consecutive year. Happily, over the years I became increasingly more adept at the trade show “game” and have found them a virtually unending source of new customers. Every once in a while I cross paths with another veteran of the German trade show and we laugh remembering the rather pathetic looking banker hawking pretzels with photo-copied sell sheets….but it was a start!