Is exhibiting at a trade show worth it for a small tech startup?

Luis Manjarrez
Oct 22, 2018 · 4 min read

TL;DR - yes… no…maybe… it depends.

It’s probably not the answer you were looking for, but you shouldn’t be surprised, I mean look at the question/title, it’s impossible to give a one-size-fits-all answer.

Some people might say: “Are trade shows still a thing?” And I would respond: “Yes, absolutely”. Because even if you have online ads, a hefty newsletter, a good blog and nice SEO, there are still people out there you aren’t reaching.

In our case we attended an expo targeted to event managers. We do name badges, event managers need badges. Perfect fit.

When you go to a trade show you can be certain that you will be hitting your target audience.I don’t know the exact number, but I believe more than 50% of the attendees will be decision-makers. I don’t think there’s a “target decision-makers” option in Google Ads.

Also, trade shows aren’t just about getting leads. There are many other upsides, for instance you could:

Change your business process

We have a very reliable way to process orders and all is done locally near our HQ’s. But we know that 61% of shopping cart abandonment cases are due to high costs in shipping or other fees(1).

I met a guy who has a network of printers all over the US. Why not explore a partnership and offer cheaper shipping options?

Better promote your product

I knew turnaround time was important to people, but not to this magnitude. More than few attendees were amazed by how fast we can deliver the badges. A couple of people went to see all the competitors and came back to tell us we were the fastest, by far.

You can harness this kind of first-hand information and use it to better promote your product/service.

Add unexplored sales channels

When you’re a small online business, you mostly think of digital marketing as the only affordable, effective way of showing your product.

But there’s a myriad of other options, for instance join an organization like a chamber of commerce (we were approached by one) or attend networking events for your niche (we were invited to a couple).

Get a boost of confidence

There’s nothing nicer than physically meeting your customers. For tech companies, especially SaaS ones, you rarely get to put a face on them.

When someone swings by, praises the company and tells you they steal your time because they already know and love the service, you can be happy.

Get a change of air

Last but not least, we all need change of scenery from time to time, so working for a couple of days in another environment, meeting new people and pausing the routine can be refreshing.


Now, let’s get practical. How do you choose the event and how much does it cost?

Which event to attend?

Do extensive research and look for the top 5 events in your industry. Then do a small comparative analysis and determine cost/exposure ratio for each one, choose the most convenient for you. The ideal event is the one that has the best reputation, the most attendees, the closest location to home and the one that fits your budget.

Most of the time events with the best reputation and the most attendants are usually the most expensive.

In our case we chose an event that was not very far from home (500 miles away), that had a decent turnout (but it wasn’t the biggest) and had a great reputation (but not the absolute best). This one had the best cost/exposure ratio for us.

How to budget the cost?

If this is the first time, like it was for us, there are some sneaky costs that might catch you off guard. Here’s a list of most of the things you should take into account.

  • The exhibitor fee, mostly charged per square feet. Contrary to what you might think, this is not the biggest cost.
  • Plane tickets
  • Hotel rooms
  • Taxis, Ubers, subway or bus
  • Meals
  • Printed material (business cards, one pagers, banners)
  • Structured booths (for small companies it’s not worth it, as they can be extremely pricey)
  • Shipping costs for marketing material
  • Internet (most events charge exhibitors for this)
  • Electricity (most events charge exhibitors for this)
  • Storage for marketing material (most events charge exhibitors for this)
  • Swag (pens, bags, etc)
  • Swag insertion fee (the event charges you for putting the swag in a bag)
  • Lead retrieval services
  • Extra tickets for colleagues (depends on how big is your booth)

Not all items in the list are needed, but it’s best you know about them.


Now, last item on the agenda, how to measure ROI (return on investment). This depends on what your goal is. Do you want to increase brand awareness? Get sales leads? Get customer feedback? Eat lots of free snacks?

If you want leads, then measure the amount of business cards you get or custom promo codes redeemed and once they convert calculate your ROI.

If you want brand awareness, well, that’s very hard to calculate, but if 500 people pass next to your booth, at least one is likely to become a customer. In our case one large purchase could offset the entire investment.

I think the most important thing to consider is the worst case scenario. What would happen if attending a trade show brings absolutely nothing to your business?

A. I’ll be buried in debt and my business might cease to exist. You probably should not go.

B. I’ll lose months of hard earned money. Create a budget for this and go next year. It might be worth it.

C. I can recoup the money in a short time. Go for it.


Now, back to the beginning of this post. Attending a trade show as a tech startup is worth it, it depends. It’s up to you to decide, but now you have more elements to make an informed decision.


(1) Baymard Institute report

Thanks to Etienne Lemay and Rafael Masson

Luis Manjarrez

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