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The Con Survival Guide Part 2: Turning a Profit

The Con Survival Guide Part 2: Turning a Profit

What’s Up?

Pope here! I’m back for the second part of this blog series on cons (I actually decided I was going to do a third part, a con survival checklist, to help you prepare as well, so stay tuned!)

In my last blog, I focused heavily on convention etiquette. The reason for this is because it was some of the first things I learned upon hitting the grounds at a convention. But, once you get done saying hi to people and with introductions, you are going to find yourself with a much bigger problem: leaving that convention in the black. After all, we are generally nerds, and where else do you find Golden Girls mystery boxes than cons? 

I should offer a disclaimer here that there is no one size fits all approach to con success, and your definition may vary. This guide is mostly for the complete newbie. For example, you started making art or merch during the pandemic and now want to sell it. I hope there’s some good info for the seasoned pros as well.

Ok, with all of that out of the way, let’s get started.

Rule One: Figure Out How Much Merch You Need

One of the biggest challenges that you will face before you even walk in the door is determining the amount of product you need, not only to clear your table, but to make a profit and service everyone who might want your stuff. 

The general rule that BeetleMilk used in the beginning was 1% of a convention’s annual attendance. Most conventions, on their website, list their annual numbers. It’s always good practice to dive into a convention’s website or Facebook page beforehand anyway, to make sure you’re only taking stuff that the audience would connect with (For example, Beetlemilk works great at anime cons, but I’m not so sure POPE would). Research is absolutely essential and should be your first port of call as soon as the payment for your table clears. So, the way this will look in practical usage is that you should budget for 50 buyers out of a 5000 person attended con, roughly. As you get more recognizable and get a better handle on your personal numbers, feel free to break away from this and make it lower or higher - I just want you to have a good starting point.

Assuming 50 customers, this is the point that you start to take a look at your stock. Different people like different things, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a challenge to stock to accommodate a crowd you’ve never met, especially if you don’t have the benefit of statistics on your side. The way I would handle it is take 50 or so of everything you sell. Keep in mind that unsold stock can go towards the next con or an online store, so not selling everything is not a huge deal. Many people don’t have the budget to buy 50 of everything they offer (Hell, I barely have the budget to buy ONE of everything we offer on BeetleMilk.com and we’re pretty far up there), and that’s ok. Go with your gut on what you think will move according to your research. Rate your products objectively (I know it’s hard, but you have to try. After a few cons you will have actual data to prove or disprove these intuitions), and list them out. Something like this:

Mushroom sticker ($3) : 7/10: Take 30

T-Rex Painting ($10) : 4/10: Take 10

Sarcastic Cat Shirt ($25): 10/10: Take 40

Chances are these will need to be ordered well in advance of the con, so make sure you’re up on that.

Another factor that’s important is cost. Let’s say you took my advice and got an artist alley table for $150 (Once again, prices vary). Are your prices going to be such that you can sell your products and clear your expenses? Remember that people go to cons to spend money and can tolerate a bit of a higher price, especially if you offer a freebie or an autograph or something to go with it. With the numbers I gave above, assuming you move a good amount of Sarcastic Cat shirts, you are going to more than clear the table. 

Before we move on, a quick note on pricing: It should go without saying, but customers today are incredibly savvy when it comes to price. Do not attempt to gouge. Adding a little bit to your prices to help cover expenses is one thing, but bumping prices astronomically, especially if you are unknown, is a great way to leave with a full tub of product and a chip on your shoulder. At BeetleMilk, our general rule is to double the cost of fulfillment, although we also factor in other things, such as if it’s a one of a kind original or was handmade. Be smart about your pricing and you should be fine. Note also that some people give discounts instead of increasing prices. Whatever works, works, just be open to experimentation. 

Rule Two: Setting the Stage

When you first arrive at the site, probably at the crack of dawn and feeling like shit (never drink the day before a con, just trust me on this, I’ve seen people break the rule and be fine, but for your first few, please listen to me here), You are going to walk into, usually, a massive room or a hotel, lined with blank tables. The Early Birds will be there, chirping and in high spirits (If BeetleMilk is at your con, look for us at this point - we like to get in as early as possible!), and if you didn’t know better you’d never think that in just a few hours this space will turn into one of the most amazing and perplexing Bazaars the world has to offer. 

The setup process for nothing is glorious. Whether it’s a concert, a con, or getting skinny, the preparation aspect is ugly and unsexy. Only the final result matters. I say this because you can get caught off guard in the early hours of a con, with a few people setting up their tables and the smell of McDonald’s coffee in the air. In a short time, this place will burst open with color and life - commercialism at work, and the small guy/gal taking back what’s theirs. Shit, I love conventions!

The first thing you’re going to want to do is locate your table. Most conventions will mark it by putting a piece of paper on the top of the table, some even have small banners (Fun fact: Tat and I keep ours, and we can’t get over the amount of times we’ve been called “Bettle Milk”). Some cons will provide a map. Use it if they do. The less time you spend wandering around, gawking because The Holos or Bunni are there, the more time you have to set up your table.

Ok, I’m going to pause here to talk about tables, because it’s insanely important. How you structure your table is incredibly important, and I want to advise you to not be like BeetleMilk and do your first few cons on the fly without planning table layouts. Learn from our mistakes and plan it in advance. Generally, when you order a table, conventions will let you know the dimensions. Either invest in a dummy table to use at home (functional for many uses) or tape off a portion of a flat surface in your home and PLAN. Look up past cons and see what people did that you like and don’t like. Invest in a banner. Give this a lot of thought, because a dinky table makes you look like a scrub and no student of Pope is going to look like a scrub at a con.

Your table doesn’t have to be complex, but one thing you don’t want is for it to look insanely busy. If you only have four products to sell, make sure they are arranged tastefully and that you have a tasteful tablecloth under them. If you’re selling shirts or clothing, or Hell, body pillows (No judgment, as long as it’s not Geralt of Rivia, which exists and I saw people buying and WTF), you will want a rack to stand behind you and display them. Art prints work really well on display as well, on a small rack on the table. Enamel pins work well in this context too, if you have enough different types.

Your goal here is to have your table look clean, organized, and appealing. Set out a price sheet. The less questions that a potential customer might have at a glance, the better. This is where you doing your homework comes into play. Let’s stick with my previous product examples, and assume I’m selling those at my next con. The table would look neat, and all products are displayed prominently. Remember: if your customer can’t find the product they like and its price at a glance, all the Christmas lights in the world are not going to turn you a profit. You have to think of the customer first, last, and always. Later on, when you’re like Rebecca Sugar or something, you can back off of that angle, but you’re not (Or are you? Hi Rebecca! Huge fan!).

Rule Three: From Artist to Salesperson

I’m going to try to approach this topic with as much delicacy as possible, but I didn’t write out this massive document just to lie. Most of us are introverts and enjoy our bubble, but at a con you need to be The Wolf Of Wall Street. There are hundreds of your friends and colleagues (and maybe your enemies if you didn’t follow the advice of the previous blog) competing for the same dollars that you are. To win that competition, they will try every dirty trick in the book. You have to be better and smarter. Some will be more famous than you, which will automatically net them profit. Don’t let it get you down. Just keep trucking and set the example.

For your convenience, here’s a short list of behaviors that I have personally seen at cons that resulted in the artist leaving with little profit and less respect:


    1. Checking their phones while customers are at the table. Unless your mother is on fire and your father is awaiting the Jaws of Life while your brother is desperately trying to suck the venom out of a snake bite, get off your fucking phone (Unless it’s your cash register, in which case the hope is that you’ll be too busy swiping cards). You are there to make your name and a little spare change, not to monitor what Billie Eilish is up to. Post some setup pics and the finished table on Instagram and shift your focus to what’s important - your customer.
    2. Being rude/dismissive of potential customers. Ok. So, it’s hour three of an eight hour convention. You’ve sold one sticker and you suspect that was a pity purchase. This whole thing is going up in smoke fast. What do you do? Well, there are a million things you can do, but being an asshole to prospects is a great way to turn a bad situation into a self-fulfilling prophecy. They are innocent in all of this. It is nobody’s obligation to spend their hard earned money on anything, much less at your table. Every purchase is a gift you should be thankful for. They didn’t have to. So, when things aren’t going as planned, instead of projecting your frustration onto the innocent (the prospect), take a look in the mirror and figure out where you went wrong. Chances are it was something small and stupid - it almost always is.
    3. Getting shitfaced. I really feel this needs no explanation. Drinking doesn’t make you funny, it makes you sloppy. Hitting on Triss Merigold cosplayers of questionable legality does not help you, it makes you look like a creep and might as well place a barrier around your table. Not only that, but it can negatively affect your neighbors, making you enemies instead of friends. Save the drinks for after the last day (You should invite some of your new friends to dinner!). Also, don’t hit on anyone at a con for any reason. People are there to express themselves and support the artists and franchises they care about. Cons should be a safe space, but losers always try to fuck it up. 
    4. Being constantly away from your table. Cons are a wonderland of sorts. Dope Cosplays, The 501st or Mandalorian Mercs trooping around, full sized Jurassic Park and Ghostbusters cars, and a life sized Slenderman walking around snapping pics with people. It’s amazing. I highly advise that you walk the floor a few times and buy some stuff and stretch your legs. But the vast majority of your time should be spent at your table, dishing out your hard work to a happy public. If you wanted to go as a participant, you should have gotten the day pass, which is much cheaper. I can’t stress this enough - there is a lot of fun to be had, but please make sure it’s tempered with your top priority - making the table back and winning lifelong friends and customers.
    5. Spending all of your money. I refuse to explain this one. Don’t do it.

Man, I’m glad I got that off of my chest. Ok. So, something I’d like you to think about for a second is Amazon. Seriously. Not only because any customer can go on there and buy something similar to you for cheaper and have it at their door before they get home, but because they have the single most impressive business model in the world. They make it easy to spend money. They accept most forms of payments and make the process painless. Focus on ease of use, like Amazon. Easier for your customer, easier for you.

Another thing is to make sure you take change. A lot of people will want to use cash and you want to make sure to be able to give change. But, you know, keep an eye on the cash box. Just to be safe. Additionally, always price things flat, so you only have to worry about paper money. So, $7 instead of $6.75.

Rule Four: Be Safe

Most people at conventions are exactly what you’d expect. Normal folk that want to get out of the house, dress up like their favorite characters, and spend money. They are, generally speaking, great people. Some of the most awesome people I have met have been at cons, and the power of being in a room with like-minded people is strong. 

But.

That doesn’t mean that nothing bad ever happens at cons, and it definitely doesn’t mean it’s anything resembling sanitary. Setting COVID aside, us on the con circuit have a term for the sickness you are almost guaranteed to get: Con Crud. Who would have thought that spending a few days in an over-air conditioned airplane hangar with thousands of people would make you sick? 

When it comes to Con Crud, I don’t know what to tell you except pack some Day-Quil. I’ve spent at least 75% of my convention time with the sniffles, and at MomoCon by day two I wanted to die, running a fever. I didn’t prepare and I paid the price. Don’t be like me.

Aside from sickness, you always have to remember that Hell is other people. In that teeming mass of happy and nice fans, there are likely some agents who don’t want the best for you. Thieves and worst. Guard yourself. Remember that load in and closing are usually both when it’s dark outside. Bring a buddy, bring pepper spray, or both. I genuinely, writing this, hope you never find yourself in a scenario that requires pepper spray - but make sure you practice with it before the con and get comfortable. Assaulting assholes deserve a face full of bear mace, and if life chooses you as the deliverer of said mace, then so be it. Give them the whole fucking can.

Other than that extremely grim scenario, keep a close eye on your table. Someone swiping a sticker is annoying, but losing a high cost item can be crippling. If it’s a multi-day con, make sure you take important items with you before leaving the table for the day.

Again, most people are very cool and nice - but it’s not most people that are concerning.

Rule Five: Think Logistically

It’s very easy, when planning to go to a convention, to forget that you have to survive. Food, lodging, hygienic essentials… it gets lost in the mix sometimes, and that’s completely understandable. But I encourage you to remember that every dollar you spend on the road is chipping away at your profit. For your first few cons, there’s a better than average chance you leave in the red in the best of scenarios. Don’t make it a virtual guarantee. Prepare. 

You’ll want to get your hotel booked, bring food or vouchers, and other essentials so you don’t have to hit Walgreens. You really, REALLY don’t want to buy food at the convention if possible. It’s usually terrible and is crazy jacked up in price. They have to clear the table as well, so it doesn’t help to get mad about it. Just prepare. On Monday morning, as you get back home, you’ll thank yourself.

Rule Six: Have Fun!

There is no place on Earth like a busy convention. It’s madness! You just don’t get to see ten Deadpools in movie accurate costume and Pennywise the Dancing Clown scaring kids shitless (What’s up, Buggy Days?) every day. It’s special and unique and beautiful. Enjoy it. Take it all in, and don’t be like some of the road warriors that we’ve met and see it as another day at the office. These types of things just don’t happen every day, and no two cons are the same.

The thing that makes them special is the attendees. Fun and engaged fans of art, comics, TV, movies, games, and other interests. Cons cannot happen without them, and your business cannot happen without them either. Treat them with compassion, with care, and with respect and most of the time they will return the favor. I want to leave you with one of my favorite encounters I ever had at a con to prove my point.

We were at a convention, I believe, in Georgia. Things had been going well and in the morning I took a walk around the floor to stretch my legs and get a feel for the other vendors. I said hi to some, got some business cards, you’ll know the dance after a few. So, I found a booth selling really cool nerd apparel and identified something I liked - a snapback with the TMNT logo in Japanese. It was like $25 dollars. I stewed on it all day, and eventually went back and got it. Remember, all costs deduct from profits.

Later in the day, I was wearing the hat while vending and a gentleman named Kevin stopped by with his girlfriend (Maybe wife. I’m not positive. Kev, if you read this, correct me if I’m wrong). They were buying a commission from Tatiana, and they were very cool people. Kevin remarked on the fact that he liked my hat, because there wasn’t a whole lot of Turtle Love at the con. I mentioned that I had seen someone making like… these melted plastic things in the shape of turtles, emulating Super Mario 3, but that was it. We kinda commiserated on it for a second and I made a decision. I gave him my hat. Why? Because I felt like it. He really dug it and it would give it meaning if it was a gift. 

So, that was that. He thanked me and him and his girlfriend went back into the con. Except, that wasn’t that. They came back later to pick up their commission and Kevin had tracked down the plastic turtle art, which was easily double what I paid for the hat, and gave it to me as a gift in thanks. It hangs on my wall to this day. Kevin and I remained friends, although we haven’t talked in a long time. It was so beautiful, because I hadn’t asked for nor wanted anything in return. It was instant Karma.

My point being that the Golden Rule is important, and never more so than at cons. So, the Golden Rule of cons is, in my opinion, The Golden Rule of life. Treat people how you want to be treated.

I end this with the hope that all of your cons are fun, profitable, and amazing. I hope this guide helped prepare you, and I hope you always walk away in the black. Thanks for reading.


Pope is an entrepreneur, writer, podcast host, and husband. When he’s not writing blogs or comics, he spends the rest of his time staring at the Ninja Turtle on his wall and missing Kevin. Learn more at www.beetlemilk.com.



Next article The Convention Survival Guide, Part 1: Rules of the Road

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