I’ve tried to sit down and write this post more than a handful of times since returning home from New York City, but the adage is true – the real work begins once you come home from a major tradeshow, despite how much work you put in before it. And when I say work, it’s not just the physical work that comes with the emails, the follow ups and the orders, it’s also the mental and emotional work that comes with the stack of business cards that sit on the corner of your desk; those that have the potential to change your entire fate, the relative weight that it could mean for you, and how it can change the future of your business.
With full transparency - I can tell you that what I voluntarily put myself through with an accelerated international business launch in 7 months is not for everyone. I am still very much a one-woman show a majority of the time and I don’t think I’ve ever felt as tired as I did in the two weeks following the show. I could not have done it without an exceptionally supportive family and network, 8 years in marketing and advertising industry with a lot project management experience, friends on the ground in New York, an innate promise to not to get distracted and the determination to overcome any challenge that presented itself. Ironically enough, all of the challenges that did end up presenting themselves, only my gut and a lot of yoga could prepare me for. There is a fundamental difference between the celebration that comes with the opportunity exhibit and the onus that comes with exhibiting well. I decided that if I was going to do it, to really do it – and leave nothing so that I could walk away from the experience and say, ‘I did everything that I could.’ As it would it humbly turn out, there is no feeling like walking into a venue that size, looking at your little boxes and set up kit, only to realize that your neighbour would be MoMA, the world-renowned, Museum of Modern Art.
I wish that I could say that in the months leading up to the show, my time was mostly filled with creativity — the part of Little Big Words that I enjoy the most. Everything became logistics. Through word of mouth and a lot of phone calls, I would quickly learn the astronomical expense that would come with trying to ship my booth across the US border and how to navigate around the notoriously strict Javits Trade Unions. It became abundantly clear that the experience of exhibiting for Canadians in the US, at that venue in particular is a well tuned business. I was shocked to learn the fees that came with not just shipping, but insuring it, those that came with the minimum number of days that crates had to be stored in load-in-bays in advance of the show, the use of only ‘hand tools’ during installation (yes, no power drills or ladders, folks.) alongside the ‘tasks’ that had to be performed by the unions. These nuances when taken literally at face value without creative problem solving would push so far beyond my budget it forced me to question the trip entirely and conduct full cost benefit analyses more than a handful of times before even going. That didn’t even consider getting us physically across the border from a tax perspective, and the rules, forms and red tape surrounding ‘commercial goods.’
Necessity, as always — is the mother of invention, and thanks to a lot of trial and error, countless digital forums and communities and willingness to help from some of our Canadian peers, our strategy would become flying in early to NYC, purchasing, producing and shipping almost everything within the US, teaming up with Uber as our chariots, and a promised donation post-show of our furniture to underprivileged families in Brooklyn and Harlem. I thank my lucky stars every single day for Google and consumer reviews – they were my keys to building a trusted web of suppliers in New York State that delivered correctly and on time. We made it across the border and through the load-in, remarkably unscathed.
After two, long unbelievably sweaty and well-choreographed building days, the true test of the entire trip would come just moments before the doors opened at the show. By sheer fluke, paired with exceptionally busy brains, my tiny team and I would hop in a NYC cab dressed in our finest, ready to go. Arriving at Javits, we got out of the car, and got caught up in conversation, making our way up to the booth for some last minute adjustments. Forty-five minutes would go by, until we realized that my purse would be left in the back of the cab. This is how to make a heart almost shatter on a tradeshow floor.
The show opened on a Sunday, so that would mean that everything was closed. The NYC taxi commission included. Together, my team quickly and calmly divided and conquered, emulating paramedics – and all of my important documents were cancelled within minutes. Our saving grace? I was carrying my iPhone in my hand, and it was excluded from the purse itself. Ironically enough, just moments before leaving the hotel, I took a random photo by accident when I went to close an app while standing on Broadway. The photo contained the medallion number of the exact cab that we took to the venue. And just like that, my identity was saved as well as my entire faith in humanity. It took us until Tuesday to fully recover it, but by the end of the day, the entire thing was there, including all of my US cash, untouched. As a bonus and a precaution, we had to head down to the 11th precinct to file a police report to prevent any potential fraud because it was in a stranger’s hands. An extremely good looking gentleman by the name of Sargent Brown greeted us, and we had the epitome of the true New York experience. I intentionally stalled filing out my forms so that I could relish in the fact that I was vicariously living in an episode of NYPD blue. Perps and all. It turned out to be THE highlight of the trip. After that kind of experience, everything comes down a notch in terms of perspective. I was just so grateful to be there, to have such an awesome family right there to help in the heat of the moment and have the ability to get home and back into my own country.
Meanwhile, the show had to go on, on the tradeshow floor. At first read, I thought that the show was very slow in terms of traffic. But what I would come to learn is that it simply was just different traffic. The wholesale business is incredibly different than face to face consumer shows. Buyers are efficient. They set up appointments and are exceptionally strategic about where they spend their dollars, their time and when. Pre-marketing is key. The true measure of show success is not immediately after – it’s within the months after. They broker different types of deals and are looking for different things. While there were some buyers from smaller shops, it turned out that a majority of those that walked the floor were from larger retail chains or larger manufacturers and distributors, likely thanks to Surtex, the art-licensing conference that shared the show floor with the National Stationery Show. The best time I invested before heading to the show was researching the art licensing and royalty industry and how it works. When you are a small, foreign company compared to domestic powerhouses, there’s no way that you can navigate internationally and cost compete the way they can, or have the marketing power that they have. If they make you an offer, build your value proposition around how to work best directly with them. It all comes down to choosing the type of business that’s right for you and what you’re prepared to manage.
Over the course of the few months leading up to the show, my goal shifted from to complete and utter world domination with this tiny but mighty illustration company to simply, just surviving the show in and returning to my country in one piece. And in one piece, I mean that in many ways. I have never had a teacher quite like the world of entrepreneurship and the preparation that came with that show. While I’ve never been afraid of hard work, you realize just how much work entrepreneurship truly is – its 365/24/7 if you do not set boundaries. It’s also about how scary it can be at times, how you have to learn to constantly commit to steadily improving your brand over time, sales need to justify that growth and that you can’t have everything all at once. Business never grows in a predictable way in the start up phase and every cent counts.. But it’s all worth while the second that you realize that you started something from absolutely nothing and it brings value to the world.
When I first started this project two years ago, I never thought it was possible for a person to grow or change this much. But I focused on my goal like my hair was on fire. What started as a few simple drawings in my tiny little solarium, two years later is a fully international business owned and operated by a 30 year old. Woman.
Which I think, is pretty neat. My Grandmothers would be proud. And it’s another notch on the belt for women everywhere who are knocking on that glass ceiling, and redefining what success and a happy life can mean to them.