Tag Along to an Invention Trade Show

The Ins and Outs of the Trade Show
"Inventors are [also] consumers, obviously," says Nicole Hait, communications manager at INPEX. "It seems like inventors come up with ideas because they see a need for a certain product, usually after going into stores and finding that [it isn't] available."

Just a day into her trade show experience, Christy displays plenty of self-assurance, saying, "This is definitely a fork in the road." She has collected numerous business cards, many from well-heeled notables in various industries, particularly from manufacturing and legal experts. She has presented her product to a panel from the Electronic Retail Association to see if she will be invited to its trade show in Las Vegas in a few months, which could lead to appearances on networks like the Home Shopping Network and QVC. That presentation, says Christy, "was a little like being on American Idol."

There is a Hollywood feel to the place, for sure. The Tonight Show is filming here, and the radio show Startup Nation is airing live.

Meanwhile, Christy is attending seminars, including one given by Lisa Lloyd, who developed a hair barrette in 1993. Lloyd says she needed a certain type of barrette that didn't exist at the time. Thirteen months later, she patented, manufactured and sold her product, the French Twister. She then licensed it to a hair accessories company. It has already generated $20 million in sales, which has meant some pleasant royalties for Lloyd. Since then, she has invented seven patented products, hosted a radio talk show called Invention Talk Radio and launched www.icaninvent.com, an online forum for inventors.

At the seminar, Lloyd talks about how she developed her first invention when she was a 23-year-old single mom headed toward welfare. She explains that a licensing royalty rate is generally between 3 percent and 8 percent, and reveals that trade shows are her favorite places to find contacts. She is a gifted speaker-everyone is listening intently, and some are taking notes.

"The most valuable thing to being a good inventor is learning how to learn along the way," Lloyd says to the audience, explaining that if you can't adapt to changes in your invention, there's probably little hope for collaborating with a manufacturer or retailer. Being able to adapt also means being willing to shelve an invention. "I haven't brought every idea I've had to market," Lloyd points out.

Christy breathes a little sigh of relief, or perhaps one of faith. She is hoping Lloyd is onto something. For every Lisa Lloyd, there are those anonymous souls who have an invention but can't unlock that magical combination of customer need, financing, manufacturing and distribution. Because of the cost of patenting fees, which vary but can easily exceed $1,000 per patent, inventing is a risk.

"You're gambling," says Dearing. "Think about it--that's what you're doing." The day before Lloyd's talk, a man who had befriended Christy and Dearing came up to their booth, where they had dozens of Sippy Leashes displayed. Small talk ensued, and soon the women learned how this man spent thousands of dollars in patent costs over the years trying to get 20 products to fruition--and none of them ever took off. By the end of the conversation, he was in tears.

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Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the May 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Mother of Invention.

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