There are a lot of companies that a product manager can work for and it sure feels like I’ve worked for many of them. During my career so far, I’ve worked for four very large international firms and four startups. I can tell you that when I’ve been working for a startup, money has always been tight. However, as a product manager, I still needed to let customers know about my product and why they needed it. Product promotion on a budget is a skill that every product manager needs to have!
The Problem With Getting Attention
One of the main ways that a small startup can get some attention is by attending a trade show. Trade shows are a great place to be because your customers will be there and they expect to see vendors there - they are ready to be sold to. All of a sudden you have as much of a chance of getting your potential customer’s attention and telling them about your product development definition as the big boys do. However, as we all know, a trade show can be a busy, crowded, messy place. You are going to have to work hard to get your customer’s attention.
When I’ve been working for the big boys, getting a customer’s attention was a relatively straightforward process. First off, we always had a big booth. This made it easy for our customers to find us. Next, we made sure that our booth was well staffed - if a customer dropped by, there would always be someone knowledgeable about our product there. Finally, we generally had a professional presenter give a show once an hour in our booth talking about all of the new things that we were bragging about at this show. People who sat through the show were entered into a contest to win a valuable prize such as a iPad, Kindle, or some sort of Bluetooth device.
When I’ve been working at startups, the world has been considerably different. We haven’t had a big fancy setup. Instead, more often than not we’ve had a table with a banner on it. That’s it. Our staffing of the table has been slim. Generally there are just two of us there because that is all that the company could afford to send to the show - now there’s something to add to your product manager resume! Finally, we had no big ticket items to give away. This is where my product management skills came into play. I always like to give away chocolate - everyone in the world loves chocolate. I’ll buy chocolate bars, take off the paper wrapper (not the foil wrapper), and then rewrap them with a wrapper that I’ve made that talks about why my product is so great. Once people at the show learn that I’m giving out chocolate, they come flocking to my little table.
The Problem With Remembering Who You Are
No matter how much chocolate you give away at the show, you want your potential customers to remember you long after the show is over. In order to make this happen you are going to have to get them to pick up and keep some of your product’s promotional literature. This of course means that long before the show starts you are going to have to create the material that you are going to want to be handing out to them.
While working for large firms, I have become the master of creating promotional literature for my products. For every trade show I’d show up with US$100’s of printed material. When potential customers dropped by the booth, I’d make sure to hand them one copy of everything that I had and if when the show was over if I had given away most of what I had brought, then I felt as though I had been successful. I never really gave much thought to what everyone did (or didn’t) do with what I gave to them. I will confess there were a few times that I discovered my material in a trash can on the show floor.
Once again, things were very different when I’ve been working for startups. We simply didn’t have enough cash to create lots and lots of promotional material. What this meant is that we had to be smart about what we did. Two things that I’ve done that have worked out well have been to create an odd sized booklet: 3″ x 6″. This fits into a suit coat pocket well and does not look like any other vendors material. Additionally, I’ve written and self-published a book. Unlike other promotional material, nobody will throw a book away - they’ll take it home and put it on a shelf somewhere.
Another thing that we had to do when I’ve been working for startups is to be a bit more careful who we gave our promotional material to. Since we had a limited supply, we couldn’t just hand it out to anyone who passed by our table. Instead, we had to have a chat with them and evaluate their level of interest. If they seemed like they might really have a need for a product like ours, then we’d give them some of our literature. If they said that they were a decision maker, then we’d give it all to them!
What All Of This Means For You
In tough times and when working for startups, product managers have to get used to doing more with less. This should almost be a part of a startup’s product manager job description. Large firms come with large budgets and so when you attend a trade show you’ll have the cash that you’ll need in order to do the show the right way. If you are working for a startup, then you’re going to be on a budget and you’re going to have to do things just a bit more carefully.
Startups have to approach a trade show differently than a large firm will. One of the most important things that they have to figure out how to do is how to capture a potential customer’s attention. My approach has always been to give away chocolate. Once people learn that I’m doing this, I always have a line at my booth. The next challenge that a startup has to solve is how to be remembered. I’ve tried to accomplish this by creating oddly shaped promotional material and by writing and giving away a book.
Limited funds means that you are going to have to become creative. The good news is that creativity comes free and you’re just going to have to find the time to think about your customers. If you can understand what problems they are trying to solve and what kind of solutions they are looking for, then you’ll be one step closer to being able to provide that to them. Winning another customer does not take money; it just takes good product management thinking.