The Convention Survival Guide, Part 1: Rules of the Road
Con season is almost here!
To tell you the truth, this would be an interesting and difficult topic to tackle even if we didn’t have the overarching nervousness of a global pandemic to deal with. As it stands, though, conventions are back on the up and up, and we here at BeetleMilk hope they continue to grow as people get more comfortable in large spaces with huge crowds.
It will be a process, however, and less people means less opportunities to make money and get your name out there – so today, I’m going to break down a few ways to maximize that potential.
I should start by saying that BeetleMilk, as a company, was built on the back of convention appearances. Many people get big and then go to cons to cash in – we went to cons to get big and have since then cashed in. The base we built at conventions provided us with a solid base of fans, with friends both inside the industry and out, and with a solid directive of what people buy when confronted with a choice. Without cons, there would be no BeetleMilk- as least as it is today.
I’m going to divide this blog into two sections. In the first, we’re going to talk about general ways to make sure that your con experience is safe, fun and profitable. In the second section we will get down to the fun stuff. How to turn a profit. So make sure to check back next week for part Two!
One of the first things we learned at our appearances is that there is a code of sorts to attending cons. A lot of it I would think is obvious, but we’re artists. Introverts. Many of us live our lives on the web and deal with real humans only for employment or family purposes. So maybe some of it is obvious, but a reminder never hurt anyone.
Rule One: Get the appropriate table
Look, I know. We all want that mega corner booth that costs $750. We want people to see us as established, successful, and a force to be reckoned with. All super understandable. But, if you’re just selling some stickers, why would you need a booth of that nature? Get into an Artist’s Alley, spend $150, and multiply your chances to ROI (Return on Investment). Some quick back of the napkin math here:
If you are selling stickers at three dollars per piece, on a $750 booth you’d need to sell 250 stickers just to clear your table. Nevermind gas, travel, hotel, extra fees (We’ll get into that), or food. Do you even have 250 stickers? Stickers cost roughly a dollar per to make, depending on size, so don’t forget the 200 something dollar outlay just to stock. All in all, this con has cost you a grand or so before you even walk in the door. Can you move that many stickers? Or paintings? Or anything?
Rule Two: Obey the Law
This is a highly controversial topic, but I’m going to be rude here and say it: I’ve seen bigger and better artists than you get taken down by a C&D letter. If your entire business model consists of “Follow what’s popular”, I advise you to stop looking at cons and start looking at how to make something original. You might be able to move 250 Pikachu stickers, but can you fight Nintendo’s lawyers? You didn’t create Pikachu and you can be the most talented artist in the world and still get in major trouble. Don’t sell other people’s stuff, period. Remember, kids: Imitation is the highest form of flattery, the lowest form of creativity, and the best way to get sued. Also, conventions are beginning to ban this type of content to protect themselves against legal repercussions. Don’t find yourself on the wrong side of a C&D.
Rule Three: Be Respectful
Speaking of Pikachu, I think we all go into this with a very Pokémon attitude. We want to be the very best, like no one ever was. That’s amazing! But your fellow vendors are your lifeblood at a con. Be nice to them. Competition is great, being an asshole isn’t. Through cons, BeetleMilk has made some of the most important friends we ever made. People we met at cons have led to jobs, friendships, and lasting associations that go way beyond art. The way we did it was that we were always nice to other vendors. We buy stuff from other vendors to help support. The smaller, the better. Hit Artist Alley. Support the small guy. Hell, at this point you are probably the small guy (or gal) as well. Also, pro tip: If you sell well and crush the game, don’t brag about it. It makes other people feel small. Say you did better than expected and congratulate your new friends on their success. If they weren’t successful, then remind them there’s always next con. We all have bad weekends, remember to be a friend no matter your tip jar’s final amount.
Rule Four: Don’t Snipe Customers
This should be so obvious it barely warrants a mention, but I’d be remiss if I excluded it. Seeing a customer at someone’s table and walking over to try to get them to your table is a dick move, and will make you very unpopular, very fast. If someone did it to you, you’d swear eternal vengeance and fire and brimstone, expect the same. I’d like to offer another version of this move: When you see someone at a vendor’s table, fuck right off and let them make their money. If you must interfere, walk over and buy something while not talking to the potential customer at all. People are followers and will buy if they see social justification. Help your vendor friend out. You never know, they might just return the favor. Despite this, the preferred method is to let people shop and only talk to vendors when the table is empty or, better yet, before and after the con.
Rule Five: Prepare in Advance
You got food? Do you need electricity? Wifi for your card scanner? Do you have your square reader? Think about this, because getting it all on the day of the con is expensive.
It seems to me that there’s sort of a cottage industry at cons, dealing with things that vendors might need. You’re going to pay for electricity, you’re going to pay for the wifi password. Shit, you wanna bring someone else with you so you can step away and use the restroom or – god forbid – actually take a look around the convention site? You’re paying for that extra chair. And, once it’s all said and done and tabulated – it’s expensive to make money. I will note here, however, that expenses vary by con and some provide some of these creature comforts for free. Either way, you need to check the contract and prepare well in advance. You can get around WiFi by having an LTE capable scanner. Electricity is harder, but generally make sure your devices are charged and you have backups. Tatiana and I have a computer that will function as an LTE enabled Kiosk.
Rule Six: Today’s Profits are Secondary
Many people who go to conventions have websites or storefronts where they are trying to hock their wares outside of con season. Generating traffic, clicks, and purchases online from just online interaction is hard – you need to be paying attention to one of the most important metrics in the industry – Customer Return Rate. Of course, when you are at a convention, the first problem you need to solve is making the table back. But then, I advise you shift your focus away from driving profits as high as they can go and instead focus on building relationships. The people that stop by your table are people (duh), with their own lives, concerns, and problems. If they were to write out the list of things they give a shit about at that moment, your table is going to be near the bottom. Therefore, your main issue isn’t going to be getting people to buy stuff, although that is an issue. Your main problem is getting them to remember you exist in the first place. Speaking of which…
Rule Seven: Be Original, and be Kind
I can see the responses now. “Pope, I’m an introvert and people scare me and UwU so shy 👉🥺👈” That’s all fine and good, but it isn’t going to do any favors for you in a competitive marketplace, especially if you have the bad luck of tabling next to me. I’m a pretty shy dude myself, but at cons I leave that shit at the door and go all out. The key here is to conversate. Challenge people (in a nice way). Give them a reason to want to be in your company. Going back to my previous point, they have problems and issues and you will only concern a fraction of their attention. Make sure it’s a positive fraction. Also, give something small away for free, even if they don’t buy. A sticker or button or something. You want your name to come up after the con is over. Trust me on this. How many of you have a BeetleMilk sticker on your laptop? We’ve never sold them – they are always free. A great example of applying this - at one convention I had my iPad for beats and would challenge people to rap battles. If they won, they got something free. They always won, because I’m a shitty rapper. But it was engaging and involved people in my world - and I in theirs.
Rule Eight: There Is Always Next Con
If I was to sit here and tell you that every con we’ve ever done has been successful, I’d be a liar. We have had devastatingly bad conventions where we didn’t get anywhere near our goals, although I believe we at least covered the table. The thing about it is, every con has its own vibe. I don’t know how to explain it, but you can sense it the moment you walk in the building for load-in. It feels like potential, sometimes it feels like a thunderstorm.
I can’t tell you how to kick ass and take names at a thunderstorm con because I’m challenged at those as well. Irate customers, douchey neighbors at the next table, bad weather outside, celebrity appearances are not nice, or you get the double edged sword of being tabled next to a celeb. The only secret I can really give you is that we all go through it. Even the most established of us have bad conventions. All you can do is your best, and try to make it up at the next one.
Next week, I’m going to tell you all about how. Sales tactics, thoughts on different merch types, and how to run your table like a champ. That’s right, we’re getting into how to actually turn a profit. Stay tuned.
Pope is Co-Owner and Co-founder of BeetleMilk. He has more podcasts than you have friends and doesn’t know the meaning of sleep. He is also responsible for the POPE line of clothing. Go to www.beetlemilk.com for more info and more blogs