From 1-4 September 2019 I was one of the 12 lucky winners of a stand at the Autumn Fair sponsored by Dragon's Den entrepreneur Theo Paphitis. Held at the NEC Arena in Birmingham, and with over 20,000 visitors, the Autumn Fair is one of the biggest home and gift trade events for suppliers and retailers.
My SBS (Small Business Sunday) journey began in October 2018 when Theo picked me as one of his six weekly winners on Twitter. The exposure from this alone is crazy - Theo has over half a million twitter followers, so you become inundated with tweets and messages of congratulations and business enquiries. It's a huge boost for small businesses, who would never normally get this kind of recognition. Fast forward a few months and in February 2019 I was in Birmingham for the annual SBS winners event.
At the SBS event all of the winners get to meet Theo and have their photo taken with him. He takes a good few hundred photos and he's so friendly and engaging with each and every person; you can tell he's genuinely passionate about the SBS initiative.
This was a brilliant event to be at - not only was it completely free, but there was a range of quality speakers throughout the day. There was 1-2-1 sessions with experts, free headshots and a tasty lunch! We heard from a Google employee about how to best optimise our websites and reach new customers, and Scottish billionaire Sir Tom Hunter, who was the keynote speaker. Not to mention around a thousand other small business winners!
The SBS initiative was set up around 8 years ago, and since then there have been over 370,000 applications, and over 2,500 winners. Meaning around 1% win, so it's a pretty special feeling if you're picked.
When you win SBS you can join the Facebook group with other previous winners. This is one of the most valuable and supportive groups that I am part of. I've learnt so much from this group, and offered advice in return to others. It's such a supportive community of people helping each other to succeed in business.
Applying for the Autumn Fair
A few weeks after the SBS event I became aware of the opportunity to apply for a free stand at the Autumn Fair. Naturally I applied, as this was too good of an opportunity to miss out on. I never expected to win, as there's so many brilliant businesses who are SBS winners, but I'm very proactive when it comes to opportunities for my business.
A few months later it was announced that I had made the final shortlist of 36 businesses, and then a week later I had the phone call to say I was a winner! I was blown away - I definitely didn't expect to win when I sent off my application form a few months earlier!
Meet The Other Winners...
Trade Show Advice
Immediately when the 12 winners were announced I set up an Instagram group chat so we could all communicate over the next few months - this was SUCH a good idea (if I do say so myself!). None of us had any experience with being at a trade show, so we were all able to share any information that we learned along the way. And by the time September came around we all knew each other pretty well, which was nice.
I reached out to all of the previous year's winners to ask for their advice, and they were unbelievably helpful, I'll be forever grateful to them all. For anyone reading this who is thinking of doing a trade show, this is some of the main advice I was given and what I learned along the way:
- Know your minimum orders, shipping costs, terms and conditions, and have product sheets available to give to people (I printed FAR too many leaflets, so that was a lesson learnt for me).
- Know your product inside out, and if any health and safety information is needed, make sure you have printed documentation to prove it.
- Work out your trade prices. This is how much you sell your products to shops for. You need to make sure that it's an attractive cost to the buyer, but also enough that you still make a profit. This is definitely a tricky one which took me a while to figure out (happy to give advice, feel free to message me about this).
- Know how long it will take you to fulfil orders so you can give buyers realistic time expectations.
- It was recommended to me to have 'show deals' to encourage more orders at the show, but I had absolutely no idea how many things buyers would order (5 items? 50? 500?) so the deals that I had set up weren't really relevant to the buyers at the show. The buyers who approached mine and the stands around me were tending to buy in smaller quantities - maybe this is because we were new businesses to them and they wanted to test the waters first, or maybe this is just how most shops buy, I'm not fully sure.
- You don't actually physically sell anything at the show - this is against the rules of a trade show. The show is purely for buyers placing orders and networking. Keep in mind as well that a lot of your orders will probably come after the show when you follow up on your leads.
- Take business cards of everyone (relevant) that you meet. I kept a spreadsheet so I could make notes after each person I spoke to e.g. 'Helen and Mark from this company visited Monday morning, they're looking for blue boards to fit with the coastal vibe of their shop.' This way I could send much more personalised emails specific to them and the conversation that we had.
So, from when my win was announced in late June up until the end of August, I won't lie, I was in a bit of a mad panic. I was working on another big project with Etsy which was taking up a lot of my time, and I knew I had to make lots of boards in anticipation for orders that I would receive at the trade show.
September rolled around incredibly quickly and before I knew it, the day had come. I was setting up my stand at the Autumn Fair in the NEC. It was all a bit surreal - the place is HUGE. Colossal. Immense. Gigantic. I reckon I probably only saw about 10% of the whole show during my whole time there, if that. It was unbelievable how many different stands were there (stats on their website say there's 1,300 exhibitors and over 22,000 visitors. So yeah, it's big).
Decorating My Stand
I had planned my stand appearance quite a bit in the months leading up to the event. I knew what kind of 'vibe' I wanted to go for. I had researched other trade event stands, and I had a sense of what I thought worked better than others. But I didn't have a bottomless pit of money.
I wanted a very bright and floral look for my stand - I wanted to make a bold impression. As my work is nature and ocean inspired, I wanted lots of floral displays to mirror that theme. The floral pieces I bought off Amazon (I think I spent around £40 on them maybe), and I ordered two large banners to hang on the walls (I think that cost around £100). This was so that people would be able to see my work from a distance and get a sense of what it was. I also bought a few shelves (probably about £50) which I screwed into the walls so I could display my boards at different heights. Overall I was really happy with how my stand looked, it was what I had envisioned it to look like.
Meeting Theo Paphitis
The Autumn Fair lasts for 4 days, and throughout there are various talks happening. Luckily I was right next to the stage so I had prime viewing! The third day though was The Big Day. Theo Day. Theo was due to give a talk at around 2.30pm, but from 12 noon ish he came around all of our stands to spend a few minutes with us discussing our business and how the event had gone.
I won't lie - it was slightly overwhelming having a conversation whilst there's 5 film cameras and photographers and probably 50 people recording you on their phones. But he was such a lovely guy. He asked me about what I make and how I'd found the event so far. We discussed the SBS initiative, and we agreed that people who use the SBS platform to their advantage are the ones who get the most out of it. At one point I felt like I was on Dragon's Den as Theo asked me what my turnover was! Slightly shocked and amused I said, 'do you mean money?!' and he said 'yeah! How much do you make?' so I told him I did 'well enough for myself'. Cheeky chappy!
Had to get a selfie didn't I...
Once the craziness of meeting Theo was over he did a talk on the Inspiring Retail Stage, and was joined by three winners from last year - Sarah Hardy from The Edible Museum, Medina King from MK Kids Interiors, and Zoe Elsdon from Z-O-E. It was so inspiring to see how their businesses had grown over the year, and lovely to meet them in person after all of the wonderful advice they had given me a few months previously!
And that was that! Once the Autumn Fair finished you knew that the work was only just beginning. In the following days I sent out emails confirming orders and followed up on conversations with prospective stockists. Luckily I had made a good amount of stock in the months leading up to the event so I was able to post most of my orders immediately.
I'll be forever grateful to Theo Paphitis and the SBS crew for the incredible opportunities they have given my business. Applying for SBS is one of the greatest things I've done for my business, and I thoroughly recommend you give it a go. For details of how to apply click here.
Some of the Autumn Fair SBS Press: