For many startups, participating in trade shows and expositions can be a major step in getting their companies off the ground. It can expose them to venture capital, put them in front of potential clients and partners, and help create publicity.

That’s why it’s crucial for startups to approach trade shows carefully, and make sure that their trade show exhibits are working just as hard as they are.

Below are five tips for startup companies as they plan their trade show exhibits.

Know Your Goals

Before you even make the decision to attend a trade show, you should understand what your own goals are for attending shows. That will help you decide which shows to attend.

“We don’t attend a ton of shows,” said Nick Bradfield, co-founder of Divvy Investments, and one of our clients here at Zig Zibit. “What we look for is the best bang for our buck.” He added that they look at shows that allow them to get exposure through speaking engagements and meetings with potential influencers and partners.

Your goals might be different. You might want a show that exposes you to a high volume of potential customers and clients. You might choose a small show where you won’t get lost in the noise, or a big show that’s attended by the top media in your industry.

Your goals may even change from show to show. The important thing is to understand what you’re trying to accomplish, and that will help you determine how to manage your presence at the show.

Research the Show(s)

Once you’ve decided on a show to attend, you should research it, especially if you’ve never been to it before.

Talk to a trusted advisor who has been to the show, asking them about how the show is set up, how many attendees to expect, what types of prospects will be there. Try to understand where you fit into the overall landscape of the show. What competitors will be there? What other types of companies will be exhibiting? How can you be different?

Even if you’ve been to the show in the past, it’s a good idea to detail what you’re getting yourself into. That way, you can think about the show in the context of your own product or service, and your own sales process, and make sure you’re aligned with the opportunities the show offers.

Don’t Assume You Can’t Afford Help

With many startups, there is a natural inclination to do as much on your own as possible. This is a good thing, because it prevents you from spending cash unnecessarily. But it can also cause you to miss opportunities because you think you can’t afford expert help.

But that expert help might be more affordable than you think.

“Because we’re a bootstrap startup, my assumption was that (working with an exhibit house) would be too expensive,” recalled Bradfield. “I also assumed we wouldn’t get good service, because we’re a small sale.”

When we worked with Divvy Investments, we took a consultative approach to help them find a solution they could afford and that would work for their needs. There are plenty of companies like us who will be more than happy to help you find affordable solutions to your trade show needs.

Your trade show exhibit is a physical representation of your brand, so it will be important to get it right. The desire to save money is healthy, but working with an expert can pay dividends. 

Be Different

In creating the trade show exhibit for Divvy Investments, Bradfield had one, primary goal. “It needs to stand out,” he said.

That pretty much sums it up. When you’re at a trade show, you have just a few seconds to capture the attention of potential customers, partners, media and investors as they walk past. If they continue walking past, you may never know what opportunities you missed.

Your exhibit is a physical representation of your brand. It should look professional and well thought-out. But above all, it should stand out from the crowd.

Sometimes that means making simple design choices. “Most of the companies at shows we attend have tables with black tablecloths,” said Bradfield. “We went with a white tablecloth, which also presents a clean, uncluttered look.”

Other times, it’s more complicated than that. But it always comes down to understanding the landscape of the show and where you fit in (see above). Just remember that your trade show exhibit is your chance to get your big break.

Plan for the Future

With your trade show exhibit, like just about everything else, you’ll want to start small. After all, you probably don’t have a crew to help you set up.

“We didn’t want something that would require ten trips to the car,” said Bradfield. “It had to be compact and easy to transport and set up.” The need for simplicity and ease of use is important in the beginning, but you also want to be sure your exhibit can grow with you and meet your needs over the long term. 

Trade show exhibits can take a beating, especially if you go to multiple shows in a year. Spending a little extra on high-quality signage and other components will ensure they last longer and won’t need to be replaced every year.

Another approach to consider is a modular exhibit, especially if you attend multiple shows and your booth has different footprints. A modular exhibit will give you the flexibility to have an exhibit that is right-sized for different booth sizes.

It will also allow you to add more components as your company grows.

Trade shows are fun, exciting, crazy, stressful events. For startups, a well-designed trade show exhibit can be a catapult to bigger and better things. 

One startup I saw had a modest, but nice display at the Council for Entrepreneurial Development show in Raleigh. They were able to attract the attention of some investors, and now they’re getting ready to display at the Consumer Electronics Show, one of the biggest trade shows in the world.

You never know what opportunities exist at a trade show, so make sure your trade show display is representing you and your brand in the best way possible.