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Bob the Box researches hacks to bootstrapping a trade show on his computer.

Hacks to Bootstrapping a Trade Show

Last June, we exhibited at the Internet Retail Conference & Exhibit (IRCE) in Chicago where we made some fantastic advancements in propelling the ShipMonk brand! Not only that, I’d argue that, when it came to this particular trade show, ShipMonk made the biggest impact with—by far—the littlest budget!

As you well know, exhibiting at such shows isn’t cheap. But you also know that ShipMonk doesn’t operate like any other fulfillment company on the planet. Still, we surprised even ourselves with our bootstrapping abilities, so we absolutely must share our tips and hacks. Let’s start off with the design of our booth.

Everybody Grab a Paddle, Please

Hiring an Experiential Marketing or Special Event Production firm was clearly out of the question, but we also didn’t want to go with any of those prototypical modular displays that you’ve seen a million times. If we were going to stand out, we had to think way outside the box (pun totally intended) and take things into our own hands. So we did what we always do when we need to think up something clever: We played ping pong.

White Ball Brainstorm

What could we build a booth out of that’s cheap—really, really cheap—and is also readily available? Also, what could we do that’s off the charts atypical? After a whopping 30 seconds of whacking one little white ball back and forth, it hit us: Pallets! Pallets, pallets, and more pallets! Plus which, not only do we have dozens of pallets in our warehouse, what better way to represent a shipping and fulfillment company than a booth constructed completely out of wooden pallets?!

We drafted a basic sketch, built a test section in our warehouse, and it turned out great. But no way were we going to pack our own pallets and ship them to Chicago. What we needed was a pallet distributor close to McCormick Place. One quick Google search later, et voila! We had 12 brand new pallets waiting for us when we landed at O’Hare Airport.

Just one small problem, the pallet company wouldn’t deliver the pallets. But that’s OK, because here’s where it starts to get really good.

Our Awesome Answer

We hadn’t planned on renting a car or truck, so now we had to figure out a way to get all those pallets all the way across town to the Convention Center. Lucky for us, there just happened to be a Home Depot between the pallet company and the convention center, so for $20, we were all set.

To avoid overtime fees, though—which add up QUICK—we had to get the truck loaded, get it to McCormick Place, unload it, then get it back to the Depot, all in 75 minutes. Not as simple as it sounds—and for sure not in Chicago—and certainly not with only two people. But, with ShipMonk ingenuity to the rescue, needless to say, mission accomplished!

Our Tools of the Trade Show

By now you may be wondering just how and what were we going to be putting all those pallets together with. Well, we’ll tell you! Before we left for Chicago, we pick-packed all our tools and supplies and shipped them to Where We Were Staying (more on this later). With our discounted shipping rates, it was cheaper to ship everything rather than buy or rent anything on location. Also, knowing what we needed in advance, we were able to shop around for the best deals leading up to the show. It even saved us a ton of time to have everything ready to go upon arrival.

Benjamin Franklin said, “Time is money.” Hence, we saved more than a few Benjamins by purchasing and then shipping everything we needed ahead of time.

Trade Show Tip #1: Create a spreadsheet or project in Asana to streamline each task that needs to get done. Then assign each task to one designated person. This achieves optimal efficiency of your time, like so: While one person builds the booth, the other returns the truck.

DIY Build-a-Booth ShipMonk Style

When it came time for booth construction, we saved another boatload of money by doing it ourselves, especially considering Chicago is a premiere “union city.” Besides, isn’t there something nostalgic about building your booth yourself? We got tons of compliments on our design that felt even better because we not only designed and constructed it ourselves, but other people liked what we created! Not only that, but we made sure to find the perfect booth for our needs using some handy tips.

A pallet and strips of wood serve as the main materials of ShipMonk's trade show booth.

Kevin celebrates as ShipMonk's trade show booth nears completion.

ShipMonk uses hacks to bootstrapping a trade show in order to build their own booth out of pallets.

Trade Show Tip #2: As much as possible, do not purchase anything from the hosting company or the vendors. Take the extra time to shop around with outside vendors to save on items like TV rentals. We avoided a gargantuan Internet bill by bringing a Hotspot—and it worked like a charm!

On With the Show

Once the trade show started, the hustle had just begun. We’d worked our butts off to create an amazing booth, so we weren’t just going to wait for people to walk by. We enlisted the help of our Secret Weapon to bring attention to our brand and booth. This increased foot traffic and thus the opportunity to meet more attendees. After walking the show floor for only 20 minutes, we’d handed out 41 brochures, 53 business cards, 8 referral partnership sheets and took 100+ #selfies. For the next two days, people stopped by our booth just because they had to find out what the heck we were all about!

Our Secret Weapon

A guy in a 7-foot tall ShipMonk costume! (Yes, you can figure out something just as clever or maybe even better—providing you have a ping pong table.)

Budd the Monk flashes a smile and gives his signature hand gesture.


BWhen it came time to commute from the convention center to Where We Were Staying, or just to grab a bite to eat, we were in luck. The weather in Chicago was A.M.A.Z.I.N.G so instead of taking an Uber or Lyft, we opted for Divvy Bikes. For a mere $9.95 for a 24-hour pass—and a location on pretty much every street corner in Chicago—we saved money and experienced the whole of that amazing city with full control of where—and when—we wanted to go. (To get to the airport and back, UberX was our go-to mode of transportation.) And we promised, and you waited, so now on to…Round, Round Get Around—Chicago, that is

The team rides their bikes in the Chicago streets.

Jan, Jonathan, and Kevin smile for the cameras while riding their bikes through Chicago.

Where We Were Staying

Contrary to popular belief, we did not spend the night in sleeping bags in the middle of our pallet booth using the Monk’s head as a pillow—although we were at the convention center all the time. We actually stayed in the suburbs in someone’s basement, embraced by the vibe of Mother Earth. (No, it was not creepy at all.) It’s an Airbnb that we found a few weeks before. The Very Nice Lady—our hostess, Janine—was kind enough to let us ship all of our packages to her house, so we didn’t have to pay any of the outrageous fees we’d be stuck with by using the trade show company. Janine’s place was very cozy, super clean, and it even included a fresh loaf of pumpernickel bread from the Polish market. It doesn’t get much better than that!

Trade Show Tip #3: Shop around for alternative places to stay other than the pricey convention hotels, as well as healthier and cheaper ways to eat than restaurant or takeout food. Airbnb rentals sometimes have full kitchen privileges, which can come in handy if you’re running on a tight schedule.

Bootstrapping a Trade Show Hack Wrap-up

So there you have it—our hacks to bootstrapping a trade show. Sure, it took a little extra effort to create something different, but it was ours! Yes, we rode bikes and slept in a basement. But we had a blast! Of course, everything wasn’t perfect, but we did it, and so can you. And the exposure you’ll gain far outweighs the time and what might, from the outside—if viewed with a closed mind and heart (which you absolutely do not have)—seem like a lot of trouble.

But it’s no trouble at all if you’re a lean and mean startup at heart like us. It’s in your DNA to get the biggest bang for your buck. And that means not only is nothing “too much trouble,” it means the trouble you do take makes it all your own!

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