Regional, highly specific events may improve your odds for key contacts, customers

Many inventors, especially those on a tight budget, can benefit by starting their marketing efforts at smaller regional or highly specific trade shows and conferences.

Such shows are usually less expensive. Focusing on smaller regional shows makes it easier to meet industry people in your geographic area who can become your mentors and help successfully launch your product. Highly specific shows allow you to target customers who particularly benefit from your product.

Success at conferences

Twenty-five-year-old Thomas Larson was a student volunteer in the mechanical engineering department at the University of Washington when he noticed the need for a mobile microscope.

Existing products cost in the hundreds of dollars, and they were large and difficult to transport. Larson came up with an idea for a lens that fits over the camera lens in a mobile phone. His Micro Phone Lens raised more than $230,000 in three Kickstarter campaigns, and he built the equipment needed to produce 4X, 8X, 15X and 150X lenses. More than 7,000 people funded the campaign, with promise of a 15X for a $12 donation in the first campaign, and a 150X lens for $29 in the second campaign.

Larson’s dilemma was that the funders had a wide variety of applications ranging from educational, crime scene investigations, inspection of documents and artwork for forgery, and gardeners looking closely at plants. He decided to focus on education and started attending science teacher conferences in the state of Washington area, where the number of exhibitors could be from a handful to 50.

“The conferences were great for me,” he said. “I received feedback about what teachers wanted and was able to set up classroom demonstrations where I saw how the product worked for students.” An added plus: Most of the attendees stopped by his “booth”—a 5-by-2-foot table with a few posters and some literature. He has generated word-of-mouth publicity, and his sales are starting to occasionally exceed 1,000 units per month. To learn more about his story: [email protected].


Inventor contests are another avenue for inventors to expose their product without the big expense of a major trade show. NBC’s “Today,” along with QVC, sponsors the Next Big Thing Contest every January and February ( The Small Business Administration runs the InnovateHER contest for innovative products and services that help affect and empower the lives of women and families.

These contests come and go; companies such as Wal-Mart, Staples and Hammacher Schlemmer have all had contests in the past. Google search for invention contests, then click on the News tab. Scroll to the bottom of the screen and click on the button for “Create alert” on the right. This will deliver to your email news of invention contests as they open.

Calls for new products

Retailers, home shopping networks, mail order catalogs and members of the direct response industry frequently call for new products to review. For example, Pets at Home has announced that it is to hold two ‘Innovation Speed Dating’ days in 2017. One day focused on

food and treat innovations; the second day focused on non-food and accessory innovations. See

QVC has a program, QVC Sprouts (, where you can submit your invention at no charge. Viewers then vote on which idea they like best, and QVC puts the most popular program on TV.

Direct response TV companies are always looking for new products. An example is Telebrands (, which has an active program that seeks new products from inventors. You’ll find many of the other major companies have similar programs. Response magazine (, is the industry’s major trade magazine. You can get information about many of the programs from its website.


The best way to find out which companies have contests or are looking for product is through industry trade magazines—magazines targeted generally to industry retailers and suppliers. This includes manufacturers and distributors. One website that offers trade magazines is A much more complete source is the Gale Directory of Publications and Broadcast Media, which is not available free on the internet but can be accessed through larger libraries. Gale ( provides the most complete list of trade magazines.

Finding regional events

Locating regional trade shows has become easier as websites have started to add more of the smaller shows to their information package. The one that I’ve found most helpful is Other sources that provide much more detailed information include trade magazines and associations.

Trade magazines

HBS Dealer is a trade magazine targeting hardware and building supplies retailers. Inventors should always start getting relevant trade magazines when they start with an idea. These magazines have information about new products, marketing managers and research and development managers at industry companies, articles about new industry strategies—and most important, they almost all have a list of large and small trade shows, as well as industry conferences. For example, hardware distributor House of Hanson has three local trade shows in Tennessee. Those trade shows typically would have an announcement in the trade magazine.


Industry association websites such as the National Retail Hardware Association ( also frequently post upcoming trade shows. Generally, the only way to find out about upcoming small conferences is by looking for the particular small association. For groups such as the Washington Science Teachers Association, Gale is the only comprehensive source.

Goals at a small show

Some inventors sell their product exclusively via the internet, either through their website or at stores on Facebook or Instagram. These inventors should still attend small regional shows. They receive the same benefits as inventors who are looking to develop a retail distribution plan, such as:

  • Direct feedback from many users, which is essential for improving your product. This also gives you a much better idea of whether your product has a reasonable chance of success.
  • Finding other people in the market that are in your geographic area. If you can find other local inventors or marketing people in the industry, you will have options to explore. You can combine efforts to overcome resistance to a small one-product company, or you might be able to share contacts to help expedite sales. At a minimum, you can share market experiences with other contacts.
  • Setting up local tests to demonstrate your product’s effectiveness. You should be able to generate testimonials from people who use your product successfully.

Preparing for a small event

Thomas Larson went with just a 5-by-2 table and some simple posters and literature for his first shows. Some companies had much bigger displays and much better literature. But that shouldn’t concern you.

Your goal should be to minimize your costs of attending the show until you are sure your product will sell. Remember: The advantage of a small show is that there is a limited number of booths for people to review, so they will often come over to see you. You can increase your visits if you highlight that you are a local inventor.