Al Bsharah Business Minded, Technically Inclined

Demo Booth – 12 Tips to Make Your Table a Success

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I get asked pretty frequently how I manage a successful “demo booth” at an event.  Through my company, Embarke, I’ve had tables at two Founder Showcases, one Launch Conference, two San Diego Venture Summit (Cool Company) events, a March Mingle, and many others…  I’ve met with people that eventually became customers, investors, mentors, and advisors…sometimes even years later.  Once in a long while you even find a good service provider in the bunch!  <smile>

Through those experiences, I’ve learned a thing or two.

The first four tips focus more on WHY it’s important to do a demo table, the following eight tips focus on HOW to make it happen.

First, the WHY.

Key word?  DENSITY.  These four items are from a guest post I did on the Founder Institute blog, but it applies globally to any type of event:

1. Density of Productivity:

First, we set a date to launch the 2nd iteration of our product.  That date was the Founder Showcase, and we booked a demo table to show it off.  I can tell you there’s no better forcing function than an event like this to make sure you hustle to deliver a completed product on time.  Pick a date you have NO control over, and lock yourself into it by getting a demo table!

2. Density of Customers:

There’s no better way to get a bunch of people interacting with your product, and you, in just a few hours.  Stop running around trying to find people to talk to, and let the eager ones come to you!  Make sure there are at least two of you manning the booth, because we could barely keep up with the traffic.  Catch their eye with something interesting on the screen.  Those that focus on that will spend about 15 seconds before they’ll want to know more or move on…so step in before that happens.

3. Density of Mentors / Investors:

We met quite a few mentors and investors that we still keep in touch with to this day, and I’m sure we will continue to over time.  The Founder Showcase draws in investors and mentors from all over the place.  Be on your toes and on your game, because you may not recognize an investor until you’re exchanging business cards.

4. Density of Pitch Practice:

When it’s all said and done you might have a hoarse voice…but you will have met some amazing potential customers, some amazing potential mentors or investors, received a ton of business cards, set up a ton of follow-up meetings, and will have learned more in a few hours than you could have in weeks on your own.  Best of all, by the end of it your pitch will have morphed into a perfectly flowing work of art!

 

Next, the HOW.

Next is a list of tactical tips to assure you execute on your four goals above

1. Stand Out

If you do nothing else, do something they remember.  I’m not talking about cheesy booth babes, or obnoxious noise, or clothing that makes people’s eyes bleed.  I’m talking about something creative, smart, powerful, and related to your business.  People have very short attention spans, and even worse memories…especially if they’re visiting 10-50 other companies in a short period of time.  Be creative with how you present your company, what you give them as a take-away, or what your booth looks like and provides to the by-passer.

The goal here is for them to say, “Check out those Embarke guys…awesome stuff”.  The goal is NOT for them to say, “Dude, look at this awesome pen I got!  What?  Oh, I don’t remember what these guys actually do…but check out this pen!”

Embarke at TechStars Demo Day 20132. Know Your Audience

Are there customers there?  Peers?  Partners?  Investors?  Make sure your booth grabs the attention of your target(s).  If the event has color coded name-tags, learn them quickly so you know who’s heading your way.  In other words, don’t give your investor pitch to your customers…in time you’ll learn how to pitch on-the-fly to whoever you’re speaking with.  If it’s not clear who you’re speaking with one of my favorite tricks is to jump in first and say something like, “What’re you up to?”  It puts them on the spot first, and also helps weed-out some of the service providers who you may not be interested in spending as much time with.

3. Get to the Point

Your message (banners, videos, pitch, whatever) needs to be quick and to-the-point.  You’ll be lucky to get 10-15 seconds of their time looking at your banners and presentations before they ask a question or keep moving on.  Don’t overwhelm with words.  Keep it VERY SIMPLE.  What are the top 2-3 bullet points you want to grab their attention with?  Focus on those, and start a conversation as they’re staring at your points.  Trust me on this, keep it simple and they’ll ask questions about the details.  People will not stand there and watch your 2 minute video.  They won’t, so don’t bother trying to cram it in…you’re going to explain it to them verbally anyway.  Keep every slide or message bite-sized and tantalizing.

4. Scope it Out

Get there early, check in early, and find out where your spot is.  For some events, location is critical.  Getting stuck in a low-traffic corner is brutal.  Make sure you’re in a high-traffic area, and realize you may have to “work” your way into that spot.  You’re an entrepreneur, so you’ll have to wing that one and figure out how to make it happen!  <grin>

Embarke at Launch Festival 20125. Know Your Event

A 4-hour event like the Founder Showcase is a much different environment than a 2-day event like the Launch Conference.  If you’ve ever had a booth at a 4-hour event, you know that you get bombarded for those 4 hours…non-stop if it’s a good event!  Don’t expect a non-stop flow of people at a longer event, people come and go and there are slow times as they engage with other activities.  You might actually get similar traffic volume in those two different events.

Regardless of the duration of the event…

6. Be an Attendee!

If they have events that are beneficial, GO TO THEM.  Smart people will be in those sessions talking, participating, and interacting.  Get out there and meet them in a way that isn’t as “salesy” as your booth.  The Launch Conference had amazing break-out sessions with awesome (well-known) speakers.  Go to those and engage with them, you never know what might come of it.

However, don’t sacrifice your table for side events.  Always make sure you…

Embarke at TechStars Demo Day 20137. Man the Booth

Go with more than one co-founder.  Take your team if they’re good at mingling and meeting.  Wander around and meet other companies (we’ve found customers there).  But, always man the booth.  You never know who’s going to wander by.  Smile and say hello.  Be bold, but not annoying.  In other words, open the door for conversation, but don’t push them through it.  Wear matching “uniforms”…whatever they are (t-shirts, typically)…and try to be “branded”.  Logos, colors, styles…all matching from attire to presentation to the booth itself.  It helps for brand recognition.  If they see your people wandering, they saw your booth, maybe talked to one of you, that’s the kind of mental reminder that is beneficial to getting you stuck in their brain.

8. Be Prepared for Anything

Power outages, loss of Internet, hunger, thirst, stained shirts, not enough power outlets, a dead laptop, a corrupted thumbdrive, lack of adhesives or zip-ties to hang your stuff, forgetting business cards, or even being selected to go on stage and pitch the main event!  Everything can go wrong (or right), and something eventually will.  Be ready for it!

Embarke at Founder Showcase 2011

That’s it!  Demo Booths / Tables may seem daunting if you’ve never done one…but you’ll be amazed at how you talk about your company when you’re done with it.  You will have done customer validation without even trying, you will have pitched hundreds of times refining it to perfection, you will have engaged with various types of people which helps you refine how you tell your story, and you will have met people that may not impact you now but very likely will in the future.

Get out there and have some fun!

Would love to hear any other tips and success stories you’ve had in the comments!

About the author

Al Bsharah

Al’s been involved in multiple San Diego startups since 1999 after leaving the Detroit auto industry as an electrical engineer. He's started two of his own companies where he's raised capital from both VCs and angels, and sold one of them to both Seismic and Return Path. He resides on the board of Startup San Diego, is a Tech Coast Angels member, and has graduated both Techstars and Founder Institute accelerator programs where he now mentors. Al is currently the Vice President of Product Strategy at Seismic and in his free time he manages to play a little beach volleyball, trade stocks, and camp with his wife, son, dog, and friends.

By Al Bsharah
Al Bsharah Business Minded, Technically Inclined