Monday, January 14, 2008

Perspectives on exhibiting at TNNA for the first time...

I've been getting asked about how it went as a first-time exhibitor at TNNA this past weekend, so I thought I'd write a blog post about it for everyone to see. There were many things I could've done better, and many things I feel very good about. All in all, it was an amazing experience and one I'm planning to repeat in June. I'll be buying a full booth space this time, assuming I can design enough fall/winter stuff to fill it up! A half booth was plenty of space for the approximately 20 designs that I have in my line right now.

My only complaint with a half booth is that we were all stuck way down on the end, and it happened to be the opposite end from where most of the yarn was. There was a huge sea of needlepoint between us and the rest of the knitting-related stuff, but we were pretty close to the Unicorn booth so people wandered through as they went to and from the various book signings. Honestly, I was surprised at how many people sought us out because they'd heard about me from some source or other. The fashion show garment and new product areas brought several folks by, and I got quite a few other customers who knew me from Ravelry. I think that now that I've gotten my name out there, bit-by-bit, I'm going to pony up for some more print ads in the big magazines to reinforce my brand before June. I'll have to see if I have any money left over to do so!

Having a booth at TNNA is a big investment. You need to join as a wholesale member, which is around $225 (if I remember correctly). I also took advantage of the myriad of advertising opportunities available, including a business-card-sized ad in the show directory, a spot in the New Products Display area and a yarn group membership. I also paid the fee to have a garment in the fashion show and had miscellaneous materials costs, including a booth banner, lights and other miscellaneous booth set-up equipment. These are things that I'll be able to use for future shows as well. Finally, there's the cost of hotel (by far the biggest expense of the trip), meals and transportation. I used a frequent flyer airline ticket, but because I was worried about timing I took a $70 cab ride from LAX to Long Beach on Thursday when I arrived.

Everyone says that it's a great show if you cover your booth costs the first time, and that it really takes three times exhibiting to be taken seriously. I definitely experienced this - on Friday I was starting to get really worried because we didn't write a single order! We handed out lots of catalogs, though, and got great feedback on the patterns. On Saturday, the day started out with a string of very nice orders (Saturday was by far our best day), and Sunday followed up with several additional orders that put us over the top as far as paying for the booth (although I don't think I covered every single show cost, which I still consider successful due to the fact that I would've attended the show anyway). I got several customers who I think will be great long-term customers and definitely started to build my brand recognition. There's always the fantasy that people will go absolutely crazy for your product and you'll be a runaway success, but sadly this didn't quite happen. However, I'm extremely happy with where we positioned ourselves and I'll definitely be exhibiting again in June.

I got amazing advice from my friend Chris de Longpre of Knitting at Knoon, who was happy to answer every question I ever asked her in great detail. I wouldn't have been nearly as prepared as I was if it wasn't for her. It's so great to have a mentor before you show for the first time. I printed out about 100 catalogs to give out, and have about 25 left over, so that estimate was pretty close (better to have too many than too few). Next time, I'll plan ahead better and order some order forms with carbon on them (this time we wrote out two order forms for each order - one to give as a receipt and one for us to keep track with). I'm also going to be reconsidering my minimums - right now I have it set as a 6-pattern minimum per design, which is fine for bigger stores but not for the little shop in Alaska who has a very limited customer base and just can't sell six of a pattern because there probably aren't six people in her town who will want to all make the same thing! I'm thinking of allowing shops to order 3 per if they order over a set amount. On the one hand, I want shops that are going to take my designs seriously and work to promote them rather than stuffing them in a folder on a dusty shelf somewhere to languish for years. On the other hand, I don't want to put my designs out of reach of the smaller shops. Running your own business is a constant balancing act, and there's nobody to make these decisions for you! Our minimum did turn off one disgruntled shop owner who actually chewed poor Donna out because of it - we decided that I probably don't want a customer like that in the first place!

This is something that you need to be in for the long haul. I've been told by several different sources that you can't expect to make a killing at your first show. It really depends on your business plan and where you want to take your patterns. There are certainly much less labor-intensive ways of selling your designs, but I love having complete control over what I make and how it looks in its final form. Of course I'll still keep designing for others because I value the name recognition that comes along with having a design in Interweave Knits, for instance, but I feel like I'm finally in a place where I can begin to be very choosy about how I spend my limited design time.

I'm fortunate to be in a position where I can exhibit at TNNA. Designing in general brings in such piddly amounts of money, it's hard to build up a base with which to reinvest in your business in the amounts needed to do TNNA. Teaching locally has really helped me, along with my regular trickle of designs for the magazines and various books. I use that stream of cash as a means to an end - investing in equipment, professional memberships, and stuff like that. It's really nice to have a class fee coming in when the design biz is slow, and vice versa. It's impossible to make it in this industry without having your fingers in lots of different pies (unless you're incredibly lucky, have been around forever, or both).

Another great thing about having a booth, which hadn't occurred to me before I did it, is that you attract people who are just wandering by. When you're just roaming the floor at TNNA, sometimes it's hard to run into people (or else you see them when they're talking to someone else, or you just lose your nerve and decide not to approach them). With a booth, they'll often walk by and come over to you. I got to chat with both Clara Parkes and Debbie Stoller as they were meandering down our aisle, looking for new stuff. People can find you in a booth, which isn't always the case when you're just wandering around.

The other really fun thing about this conference, which I think I mentioned in yesterday's post, was just meeting and reconnecting with everyone. I've gotten to the point where I've worked with so many different people, I seem to have connections that cast a pretty wide net. It's great to be able to introduce myself to someone and say "I worked on such-and-such design for your such-and-such book" or something like that. Networking really does make a difference (plus it's so much fun), and I think that the two TNNA shows I attended last year have really made an impact on my business. They're expensive, but it's money well spent. Sometimes you have to spend money to make money, right? I'm finally starting to see a little bit of the payoff of all the money I've invested in my business over the past couple of years. I still have a long way to go (and who knows if it will ever really be profitable), but I feel like I'm heading in the right direction.

Now I've got a ton of work to do to wrap up the loose ends from this show (as in, I need to get all of the patterns ready and mailed out by the end of the month) and I've also got to start thinking about what I want to design to debut in June. I've got several yarn companies lines up for yarn support, and I've got lots of ideas (I just need to figure out when I'm going to implement them). I've also got several thoughts about how to improve the look of my booth next time. It was pretty rudimentary this time around but I got some good ideas from others' booths. The biggest thing will be to have a dress form sent out - it makes such a difference to have at least one garment on an actual body shape instead of just flat on the wall. I might order some more plastic feet, too - we'll see! It's delicate balance between having the ideal display and having a display you can actually get to the show without spending hundreds of dollars shipping it there and back!

Again, thanks to everyone I talked to over the weekend and to all the shops who placed and order and decided to take a chance on something new. I won't let you down! I'll be sending out a newsletter update and getting the new stuff up on the website very soon. Now, however, I need to get some sleep! All that adrenaline is exhausting! I'll fill you in on our delightful dinner with Jess and Casey of Ravelry in another post. For now, I will just say that they are disgustingly sweet, smart, thoughtful and just generally fun to talk to. If you get a chance to hang out with them, take it. I feel really privileged that we were able to get them to ourselves for nearly three hours last night - it was great!


Blogger Ron said...

Wow, sounds like you did it right!!

Congradulation and welcome to the TNNA survivors club. Isn't it awesome! Just so many of the "Rock Stars" of knitting all in one place and they are all so friendly, it just makes you wish it happened more often.

Good luck with it, and see you in Columbus!

9:16 AM  
Blogger MBT said...

I am so impressed you even got one blog post up let alone two - I am still staggering around here in a daze!

So nice to spend some time with you in real life -
Mary Beth

6:52 PM  
Blogger Betty said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3:10 AM  
Blogger Betty said...

You're mentioned in this week's Knitters Review article on TNNA. :)

3:12 AM  
Anonymous Karida said...

Hi Chrissy! It was great to meet you at the show, and you're absolutely right about the show. And Columbus will be WAY better.

6:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You were mentioned on Knitter's Review today!!!! How exciting!! I am jumping up and down for you. :) And I was reading Sheri's post from The Loopy Ewe and saw that she is getting your patterns. Yipppeee!!! :)

7:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am glad to hear that you had a successful time at TNNA. You were also written up on Knitter's Review today. Congratulations and I look forward to seeing more designs.

11:00 AM  
Blogger Rob said...

So glad to have been one of those orders on Saturday! We cannot WAIT to get your designs in the shop.

I hope some of the people we talked to hiked through the "valley of needlepoint" to get to you, as we did tell some folks it was worth the trek.

3:00 PM  
Blogger Ginger said...

Congrats on the mention on Knitter's review today!

11:35 AM  
Blogger msubulldog said...

Sounds like you had such a great time and that it was an awesome business experience! Congratulations! Can't wait to see where you go from here. :)

9:26 PM  

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