Do you know who Adam Osborne was? You could look up his book Hypergrowth, with co-author John Dvorak. At its height, in 1983, Osborne Computer was shipping more than 10,000 computers a month.

As a guest speaker at a class I took in business school, Osborne shared, as a joke, his “trade show theory of economics: 92 percent of the gross national product is finished the night before the trade show opens.”

Last month I had one of those days that reminded me of Osborne’s joke about trade shows. And it also reminded me of many things that I like about starting a new business.

The trade show in this story was a Eugene (OR) Chamber of Commerce event. Local businesses pay the chamber for 10’ by 10’ or larger booths. They dress up their booths and share their businesses to people who walk through the aisles looking. They give samples, explanations, and pitches.

For me it was a delightful revisit to the past, when Palo Alto Software was just getting started, in the late 1980s. We bought booths in three successive MacWorld Expo shows in San Francisco, and introduced the company and its products to Macintosh users. Trade shows can be particularly useful for new introductions.

In the old days it was introducing a new company and a new software product. For this recent one, literally 20 years later, it was introducing a new company I’m working with called Eugene Social. I have daughters involved, and I guess I can’t resist rolling up my sleeves for a good startup. (And that isn’t instead of Palo Alto Software, my main business; it’s in addition to, and in close cooperation with, Palo Alto Software.)

And also, more to the point, trade shows create a deadline for a lot of things involved in starting a new business. We had the legal entity done, and we had the website up and running, but what happened the last few hours before the show opened made it feel like a real startup. That was:

  1. We took our main web design image, the banner at the top of the web page, and had a print shop make into a banner eight feet by three feet. That’s to hang at the back of the booth. That cost about $80 (not including the design, which we just took from the web).
  2. We took our most important product image and had the copy shop do us a 24” by 18” poster sit on top of the table. That cost about $40.
  3. We took our dozen or so most important web pages and made them into hard-copy pages inside two matching binders, with each page in color and wrapped in clear plastic, for placing on the binders. That took us most of the day before the show that opened at 4 p.m. And we were lucky we had color printer cartridges on hand.
  4. We designed a sell sheet, letter size, in color, front and back, and had the copy shop produce 50 of them. That cost about $50.

With that, in what felt like a single day, we went from website only to company with a booth in a local trade show. That felt to me like the bare minimum required to have a decent presentation in the booth.

All of which led to my most important insight from the event: There is incredible value in the opportunity to stand in front of a stream of people, all potential customers, walking the aisles of a trade show. Talking to people directly, looking at their faces as you do, gauging their reactions, even listening to yourself as you talk, is not just exciting, but also extremely valuable to the business. There’s no insight more important than understanding what people actually want to buy; and a trade show event is one of the best ways to get that insight, quickly, and with intensity.

And two weeks later, we trashed the poster on top of the table because we don’t like that image very much. And we threw out the extra sell sheets because we changed the pitch. And the startup goes on.

Tim BerryTim Berry

Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Follow him on Twitter @Timberry.