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For Designers Only: A Trade Show Pep Talk

A trade show pep talk for designers and craftspeople.

04 June 2016

I’m doing my annual ritual rounds at the Las Vegas jewelry shows: Part information gathering for my blog and industry articles, part assisting clients who are exhibiting, and part checking in with designers. Working a trade show is hard. I don’t mean for me – I mean for the people who are selling. And it’s particularly hard for the artists who are selling their own designs. If that’s you, I’m writing this for you. I hope you get a chance to read this before you do the show all day Saturday, Sunday, and Monday.

When you create a piece of art, you put a big piece of yourself into it. You dug around in your essential self and you figured out something to say. You’ve done something unusual, something special. Many people spend an entire life without searching for and finding something authentic to say. Then, you take it one step further. You take that expression, that thought, that idea, and you turn it into a physical thing. Then, you do the nearly unthinkable. You stick that physical object out there in public for other people to look at, comment on, fall in love with . . . and reject. Of all the people who do the work of finding something authentic to say, only a fraction of them go on to express it and risk exposing it to others.

But you do this. And you don’t do it because you have this excess of confidence – because while some of you may have that, most of you have the normal amount of confidence which involves a lot of self-doubt. You don’t do it because you have a thick skin, because having a thick skin seems to be somewhat at odds with having the will and the ability to create art. No, you do it because you must. You do it because you want to live your life creating art, and that means you must also learn how to sell art.

Which is why I often encounter overwhelmed designers at trade shows.

Never mind the weeks you’ve spent preparing your inventory (and the debt you went into to do it), or the fact that you’ve spent a small fortune just to be here. You’ve learned to work crazy long hours and take massive leaps of faith; the contestants on Shark Tank have got nothing on you when it comes to true entrepreneurial spirit. No, the deeper test comes when the show opens.

You understand that your product is right for some stores and not others. You get it when someone says to you, “You have great work – I just don’t have the client for it.” You readily smile back at people who smile at you but walk by on their way somewhere else. But still, those rejections add up (and a lot of buyers are much ruder and cruder than that). It’s really easy to start thinking, “Why don’t they like my work? What’s wrong with my work? There must be something wrong with my work.” And since that work is something you dug up from inside you, what you’re really saying is, “There must be something wrong with me.”

It’s not true though. There is nothing wrong with you. Those rejections are not even about you.

What you are experiencing as rejection is something entirely different from the perspective of the person on the other end of the transaction. The person on the other side of the transaction:

  • May actually love your work and would buy it for herself, but has learned the hard way that the people in her area really don’t buy your type of design. Let’s call this person the “I’d buy it if I could sell it” buyer.
  • May not like your style, but it has nothing to do with you – it has to do with her own tastes, and she merchandises her store as if all her customers share her tastes. This is the “my clients are all reflections of me” buyer.
  • May only know enough about merchandising to consider things she finds familiar. This is the “buys the outfit in the department store window” buyer.
  • Is sitting under a crushing mountain of inventory and totally cash poor. This is the “saving face by acting like I’m shopping at the show” buyer.
  • Is so terrified of losing her one or two big brands that she’s buying their minimums even though she still has some of last year’s buy and some from the year before. Let’s call her the “Rolex Retailer” buyer.
  • Knew enough about jewelry to buy in some great designer lines, but lacked the experience in marketing to know how to attract the right customer, and now she’s scared to invest more. Let’s call her the “an awful lot like me” buyer.
  • Is running the store that her grandparents started, and doing everything right, but she’s in a town made up of middle America and her customers no longer have the money to buy jewelry. Let’s call her the “same reason we have Trump and Bernie” buyer.
  • Is just a jackass. Kept you assembling an order for 90 minutes only to walk away; told you how he already did something like that, only 20 years ago and better; picked the line apart for no other reason than to make someone else feel worse than he apparently feels inside; nickles and dimes you to pieces. Let’s call this one the “karma can’t come fast enough” buyer.

I share all this not to bring you down, but to remind you that there is a reason behind each rejection that has nothing to do with you. And when the malicious little shame monster starts telling you you’re not good enough, you must silence it. You start with:

That buyer didn’t just reject me. That buyer is having an internal negotiation that actually has nothing to do with me. Whatever is going on with that buyer has nothing to do with my designs, their value, or my value.

And then you add:

And if you choked up a little bit just reading those words, if they made you uncomfortable, sad, or angry, I want you to go to the nearest mirror and say them out loud. Don’t mumble it, don’t rush. Just say them with conviction.

Yes, the market is tough right now. Nobody can really say if this is a just a down cycle or the beginning of a new consumer era. But consumers will continue to buy and wear jewelry, and there is a consumer for you. You may or may not find what you need at any particular show, but that customer is out there. And one sure way to build the energy and enthusiasm you’ll need to keep looking for that customer is to put each rejection in perspective firmly and quickly.

So for the next three days, turn the passers-by, the no-thank-yous, and the maybe-next-years into a game. Think about which buyer type they are (hey – if you have a new type to suggest, put it in the comments!!), then quickly remind yourself that you are enough, and that it is not you or your work that has been rejected. Doing this will help you stay strong, stay positive, and stay in the game, because your buyer is out there too, and you want to be in a positive, confident place when that one arrives.

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