How I Started A $30K/Month Business Selling Custom Trade Show Booths
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Ryan Schortmann and I’m the founder of Display Pros. We are a custom trade show display booth company offering easy to use portable display “kits” for small and medium businesses wanting to get into the trade show game.
Our flagship products are our trade show display booth kits, which are composed of high-resolution graphic fabric on collapsible frames that break down into a hard case that doubles as your podium. This makes them easy to transport and set up (you can even check your kit on a flight). They are also great for companies that need to support multiple different shows because once you own your kit it is super easy to get it rebranded for specific industries or prospective audiences. Simply order new graphic fabric and you’re off and running. We have a great design team in house and expert design service is included with your purchase price.
Since the initial launch (we started with 9 core display kits) I have been adding new, innovative accessories to complement our trade show display booths like our collapsible product displays and anti-fatigue flooring. Some upcoming releases that I’m working on now include digital displays and trade show games that can help clients capture more customer leads when they are in the field.
I launched Display Pros last year on a shoestring budget and have been bootstrapping the company ever since. Most early sales were by word of mouth and to my own network. Now that we’re hitting more respectable revenue levels, I have been reinvesting in the marketing effort with the goal of increasing our sales online.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Ever since I can remember, I have tended to geek out on anything that I’m remotely passionate about – computer building, web design and development, business automation, inbound marketing, and the list goes on for personal pursuits. I love to dig into the esoteric and learn what really makes things tick. I have always been obsessed with entrepreneurship from a young age so that led me to read and study the subject voraciously.
It has been a bit of a roundabout journey to get to this point. I initially started in film school and eventually earned my degree in Business Administration and Computer Science. I’ve held some random jobs over the years working as a PC tech, technical intern for a video editing hardware company, camp counselor, photography teacher, guitar teacher, documentary filmmaker, and retail clerk. That list kind of sounds like Homer listing off his occupations in the Simpsons, but eventually I landed on something more aligned with my skill set.
In 2009, my dad founded The Griffin Groupe offering recruitment and staffing services. Around the same time, I recognized that he could use some help with the marketing side of things. It started slowly at first, with me offering help on the side, but as family businesses go, the gravity there is strong. By 2011 or so I was working full time there and that has been a huge learning experience. I quickly learned how important it is to add value when you are selling commoditized services or products. It doesn’t matter how great your product is unless you also have a laser focus on customer service, delivery, and quality. It is really critical to separate your brand from the competition. For example, we went from offering standard recruitment services to offering additional value-added services like payrolling and Talentbox.io which is a completely managed staffing service for funded startups.
Using what I had learned about inbound marketing and PPC I built out a large recruiting network and have been able to attract business from some of the largest companies in the country as well as internationally. The Griffin Groupe is now a national firm serving some of the most respected Fortune 500 companies. Now fast forward to Display Pros. I’m still the Director of Marketing and Technology at The Griffin Groupe, but early 2018 a seed was planted.
You can’t test and verify new ideas unless you get them out there. Just launch it and refine it, but don’t be embarrassed to put your ideas out there at a breakneck speed.
One of my best friends, Neil Scordato works with an industrial distributing and manufacturing company (Charter Industrial). He was launching a new product line for the petroleum industry and they needed trade show collateral and a booth display for some upcoming shows. He had checked online for options and was frustrated at the expense and complexity of most of the offerings that were out there. He’s an expert buyer and has experience searching out and evaluating wholesale suppliers for just about anything you can think of. Naturally, he decided to go to the source and called me up to see if I could help out with the design side of things.
We put our heads together on the design including different individual display components and the graphics, I produced it and we ordered the display. When it arrived, we were impressed with the quality and he was excited to take it out to his first trade show. When it came to that first show it was extremely validating because his kit was heads and shoulders above his exhibit neighbors when it comes to quality and professional appearance. If you are not familiar with exhibiting at trade shows, typically newcomers are relegated to their own corner because exhibit companies want to make sure they reserve the prime space for large companies and repeat customers. Once Neil set up his booth, he had competitors coming over asking where he had procured his display. Many of these companies were first-timers that were renting their displays and using wrinkled banners hung with Velcro, etc. Even with these less than ideal options, their costs for rental were likely higher than what you would pay Display Pros for an entry-level display kit.
When Neil shared this with me, a light went off and I knew that this idea had potential. I wanted to start a company using what I have learned so far in business – particularly using what I had learned about adding value to commodity products. I saw several areas that could be improved upon beyond the existing competitive offerings such as transparent pricing, free design service, and financing options. I wanted to create an ordering process so anyone can come to us with their design ideas and have a stress-free experience.
The plan was to take market share by differentiating the business with the following strategies:
- Time of service
- Best Price Guarantee
- Full Tradeshow design team at your disposal. Expertise not required
- Stress-free ordering
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Thanks to Neil’s order, I already had an idea of a good vendor. However, from everything I’ve researched about vendor selection, I knew that one of the most important steps is to do your due diligence.
At this time, there were a few important criteria to evaluate:
- Since these are custom products, communication, feedback and flexibility are crucial.
- Willingness to work with a new company that isn’t offering $500k orders from the start
- Turnaround times
- Printing tech and manufacturing capabilities
- Great pricing that I can pass on to my customers
One of the challenges was breaking down the individual component costs in order to design kits that were attractive and competitive while still selling for a healthy margin. At first, it was a difficult process because I had to convince vendors to offer competitive pricing on their entire catalog with the promise of future sales to come. This was definitely an uphill battle, but eventually, I found a vendor that believed in our vision/ was smart enough to work with us.
If you can motivate yourself with the small wins and learn from your mistakes, you will get to where you need to be eventually. The important thing is to be making consistent progress.
Also, I knew that one of the big conversion factors is attractive product photos. I have a lot of experience with design work, audio, and video, but my 3D design skills were lacking at the time (I’ve since doubled down on learning some 3D modeling to be able to strengthen our product offerings). Luckily, I’ve got some recruiting chops and was able to find a talented 3D designer from the trade show display industry to produce the renderings for our first kits.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Originally the idea was to set up a functional web store and see how it converted. Simple enough. I’ve used WordPress for my sites in the past, so I landed on WooCommerce for my store platform and set to work on putting together the initial site. I have always been a process-oriented person when it comes to business so when I dove into this project new questions kept cropping up like “How do we deal with proof approval?”, “How can we keep our inventory straight?”, “How do we deal with a handoff to our design team”, “How should we go about creating terms and conditions?”, and more.
Most of the time when this happened, I would veer off the initial course and create some kind of process to solve for these (mainly because of a misguided notion that I was about to “open the floodgates” at launch. I better be ready to handle all of the minutiae now because we’d be too busy counting money – more on this later).
Financing the Business
The original business plan was to set up everything using sweat equity as much as possible, get organic sales and reinvest that revenue to bootstrap the business. I knew that there would be some initial startup costs like licensing, insurance, necessary SaaS tools, bookkeeping, etc. so I got a $5,000 line of credit to get started. I used free services wherever possible. For example, I found a basic bookkeeping program that is completely free at WaveAccounting.
Since then we have held onto some free services and moved to paid where the additional features justify the cost. We are on Quickbooks Online for bookkeeping because it syncs seamlessly with our order management and inventory programs. Our project management tool (Trello) is still conveniently free.
I thought that when we “turned the switch” we would see an onslaught of customers, but that simply wasn’t the case. Building a super clean site from a technical and on-page SEO standpoint was not enough to gain any early traction (it turns out that this niche is hyper-competitive). We didn’t see any real uptick in organic traffic until we started focusing on off-page organic strategies like link building, partnerships and guest posting. Your mileage may vary for other niches.
This was a lesson learned, but in my case, it was okay (frustrating but okay) because this company is in addition to my income stream from my full-time job at The Griffin Groupe. This afforded me the luxury of being able to start with marketing efforts that are largely free and based on my own time and effort in the beginning.
If you were setting out to create a business that is going to be your main source of income from the jump, this would not be a feasible strategy.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
In the beginning, when I was selling by word of mouth and to my own professional network, I believe our value-added offerings like our quality free design, affordable graphic reprints, and financing options were helping to attract customers. I was able to negotiate a deal with Klarna early on to be able to provide my customers with the option to break up their payments over time, which I haven’t seen with my competitors.
PPC Advertising – Google Shopping
It did not take long to come to the realization that to compete at any reasonable level, we were going to need to take the plunge and invest in Pay Per Click ads and display. Like I had mentioned before I had cut my teeth on PPC marketing targeted towards B2B selling consultation style services. Ecommerce advertising was completely new to me, so it was a little bit of a “back to the drawing board” moment. Thankfully, I was still able to apply the foundations of what I had already learned about PPC.
From experience, I know that it is important to give Google’s hivemind some time to settle in before each campaign starts seeing consistent results (this is largely dependent on budget). A certain amount of PPC budget must be viewed as a “marketing research” expense and then you can look at the analytics data and make informed decisions on where to refine, tweak or plain scrap an idea.
Google Shopping was an entirely new concept for me. You can’t assign keywords to products so at first, I was asking myself “How the hell do you refine these?”. Then I found some good reading material and courses and learned of some advanced methods that the pros are using. It turns out you can utilize negative keyword lists combined with the priority setting on each shopping campaign to “shape” the keywords that are coming in and how much you are spending on them.
This presentation by Martin Roettgerding goes into more detail on this:
It is about 25 minutes long, but I promise it is worth a watch if you are struggling with your Google Shopping strategy.
Holistic Advertising Approach
Google Shopping is obviously only one subsection of the advertising funnel. Other than that, we have built out an advertising campaign mix with a focus on Top, Middle, and Bottom of the funnel. I think that is one of the most important strategies you can take when offering relatively high-ticket items. You need to educate and inform your prospective customers based on where they lie on the buyer’s journey.
Creating copy, display collateral and lead magnets designed to answer questions before they are asked is key. This is a super iterative process, but if you approach it with the funnel mentality in mind you can usually have some quick success. On a practical level, when dealing with this strategy on Google AdWords and Facebook my main advice would be to make sure that you have your conversion tracking properly set up so you can “follow” prospects once they enter and leave the funnel with the appropriate messaging.
Right now, we are in the process of releasing each campaign out into the wild, giving it some time to breathe and then refining. By year-end, we should have an entirely fleshed out campaign strategy that addresses each piece of the funnel in a more complete way.
Capturing customer emails is extremely valuable. Prospects can be educated and sold to and buyers can be reminded to return with special offers. We use a few strategies to accomplish email capture like lead magnets, modal popups and at the point of purchase.
Adding features to the product pages to show when items are bestsellers and when they have been purchased recently has provided an uptick of engagement.
Test and Retest
As a marketer at heart, I am fanatical about metrics and tracking. Set up your Google Analytics, Facebook pixel and make sure you have your goals in order so you can track your ROI’s. Know when to double down, know when to walk away from an idea and make educated decisions. Of course, not every move you make can be tracked and you will have to use a little bit of creativity and intuition, but if it can be tracked, DO IT!
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Simple Income Breakdown
This is a little difficult to parse out because we are in the transition process to hopefully be generating the bulk of our sales online, but I can still break down where we are at in some respects.
From the start, I’ve stressed keeping our margins at 50-60%. This allows us to offer more value-added services along with each purchase. We are growing site traffic about 30% month over month by focusing on organic and paid methods in tandem, doubling down on what works and cutting out what’s lagging behind. This especially applies to paid advertising.
Right now, I handle the bulk of marketing efforts and general operations. I have my remote design team that is great. I’m using a VA to handle some data entry and ordering tasks.
Short Term Goals
I would like to scale our online sales, start outsourcing more tasks (see hiring info on the bottom of this post) while I take on a more managerial role.
Long Term Goals
Once I have the machine running full steam, I would like to work on building more processes so we can start attracting larger corporate clients, providing them with an account manager and fully managing their trade show calendars. My goal is to have corporations with the budget to employ dedicated event professionals to trust us with their trade show plan for the year.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Mistakes: Market Research Is Critical
As I had mentioned before, I probably would have taken a different initial approach to the launch if I had known how insanely competitive this niche is. Instead, I just set out and built an MVP, launched it and then had to do some soul searching when it wasn’t performing the way I had envisioned.
Luck: Network Influenced Purchases
Thankfully this early lack of organic revenue was shored up with sales that I was able to make to my own professional network. This helped to keep the bootstrapping strategy of avoiding outside or personal investment and instead of using sales revenue to fund the expansion of the business.
Helpful Skills: Design, Recruiting, Systems
One of the things that encouraged me to start Display Pros in the first place was that I felt I could use my skills to “build a better mousetrap”. I had the design expertise to handle customer tasks in the beginning as well as evaluating my team for important skills. Also, I had a good amount of experience with business automation and process-oriented planning so I could apply that to creating the best ordering experience available online.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
- Sales Platform: WooCommerce
- Email Marketing: Klaviyo
- Email Capture and Modal Pop-Ups: Optinmonster
- Sales Tax: Tax Jar
- Chat: Tawk.to
- Automation: Zapier
- Project Management: Trello and Wunderlist
- Bookkeeping: Quickbooks Online
- Customer Intake Forms: Typeform
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
How to Write Copy That Sells ** by Ray Edwards**
Writing is one of the most important skills you can have as a business owner. Ray Edwards is a renowned communications expert and teaches how to write effective copy for business without the normal cliches.
Slicing Pie: Fund Your Company Without Funds
How to value sweat equity with potential partners and bootstrap your business.
The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
Mixergy: Startup Stories – Andrew Warner
Just what the title sounds like. Great in-depth founder interviews for your inspiration.
Startups for the Rest of Us – Rob Walling and Mike Taber
Rob and Mike, founders of MicroConf - microconf.com, interview other business owners as well as discussing what works and doesn’t work in their own businesses.
Smart Passive Income – Pat Flynn
Pat Flynn has some good resources on inbound marketing, content creating, entrepreneurship and general passive income strategies that you can implement in your own online business.
Tropical MBA Podcast – Dan Andrews and Ian Schoen
Good podcast on remote work, e-commerce, manufacturing and more.
Evergreen Ecommerce – Leo Ebbert
This valuable course teaches you how to take a well-rounded approach to e-commerce advertising with an emphasis on increasing ROAS through conversion analytics and remarketing.
Ecommerce Courses by Ezra Firestone
Ezra has launched more than one 7 figure e-commerce brands and has insight on things that have worked for him. He teaches about conversion factors on your homepage and product pages, site structure, email marketing, and other best practices.
Lynda has just about every software program training course that you can think of. You can also learn about various business-related topics like bookkeeping and PPC ads. They also have fairly extensive courses on coding languages. Since LinkedIn acquired them, IMO they have become even more of an excellent resource.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
The MVP Model is Alive and Real
Eric Ries’ Minimum Viable Product (MVP) concept is going to save you a lot of headaches in the long run. You can’t test and verify new ideas unless you get them out there. I need to remind myself of this often (even while writing this article). I’m sure that a lot of entrepreneurs are like me in their tendency for perfectionism. Just launch it and refine it, but don’t be embarrassed to put your ideas out there at a breakneck speed.
Manage Your Emotions
As an entrepreneur, you need to walk a fine line between unbridled optimism and somber reflection. Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn has this great quote, “Jump off a cliff and build a parachute on the way down.” I like this because you are focusing on the task at hand rather than thinking “How will this deal makes me feel?”.
It’s still important to motivate yourself though. Building a business can be scary or isolating at times and you might have moments where you question why you went down this road, but if you can motivate yourself with the small wins and learn from your mistakes, you will get to where you need to be eventually. The important thing is to be making consistent progress while genuinely reflecting on what is working and going down that path.
It can help to have a mentor or just a friend in another business that you can commiserate with. If this isn’t an option, there are plenty of online communities, meetup groups and mastermind forums where you can talk shop and learn from each other.
Know what you are passionate about, know your skills and know when you need to ask for help.
Ultimately doing and learning is what will propel you forward. No book or course is going to guarantee success. I remember being young and underpaid and in my head all the time about what I need to accomplish. If you’re the same way find a business where you can add value while working your ass off and “be undeniable”. Figure out a way to make yourself indispensable and learn all you possibly can.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
As we transition to mostly online sales, we are looking to hire for PPC management, SEO, content creation, design, inside sales and moreover the coming year. These are all paid positions (remote), but if you are a student looking to gain experience, we would also definitely consider letting you come aboard to cut your teeth. Display Pros has relationships with a few intern programs where we could provide college credit.
Please visit displaypros.net/gigs to register your interest/ upload your resume.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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