Tricks of the Trade (Show)

After exhibiting at hundreds of trade shows since 1984 in the U.S., Canada, England, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, and Nuremberg, including exhibiting hemp foods even in the U.S. Embassy in London, the following is my advice. These aren’t actually all just my tricks of my trade, my offensive and defensive tactics, but also the tricks I learned by watching others in the trade. Their tricks of their trade. Wisdom comes from observation.

Despite competing in the notoriously unethical fresh food industry since 1980, it wasn’t until those whom my work inspired to get into hemp that I saw the envelope of ethics get pushed and pushed hard. None of the mafia-front companies or the ruthless others I competed against for decades ever pulled any of that. They were honorable gentlemen, not gutless grifters latching on to every good new idea that separates people from their money. Most of the early advocates for hemp were marijuana activists; even the first hemp trade association, HIA, was started by a marijuana smuggler, a convicted marijuana smuggler, and a drug defense lawyer, among others. Was it the black market origins of hempsters not steeped in the accepted modes of business but desperate to pay rent this month, which drove down ethics? Or is it because so many came from other industries where lying and conniving were accepted, perhaps even rewarded?

Even if you draw the line at some particular unethical behavior, there’s always someone in the wings willing to do what you are not in order to get ahead. That’s the person you have to protect yourself from, the hard-cores; and there are more of them daily. The trend line is towards more market noise and dirty competitors, the former President successfully lying 30,000 times in 4 years inspired a whole new breed. The problem is worse because while the hempsters may have been the first in my space to do it, their success has led to a proliferation of it since then. They take the millions they made on hempseed and invest it into other businesses, thereby spreading their Gospel of Grift far and wide. And now you have to deal with them.

Do not be naïve in business; I’ve been there done that, didn’t even get the T-shirt. Don’t expect people to rise to your degree of ethics, you’ll just be taken advantage of. Nor should you necessarily fall to their level either. Treat it as seriously as they treat it; find the appropriate (for you) spot in between.

  • Therefore, during and then nightly at the end of the trade show, secure all your competitive intelligence, such as price lists, sell sheets, leads, business cards you received from attendees, etc. Bring them back to your hotel room; they are valuable, they’re a main reason you spend all that money to be there. Especially that prototype product you are displaying, lock it down good. I made a one-off copy of the first edition of my The HempNut Health and Cookbook to display to retailers before it was printed, within minutes I watched a literal Chinese corporate spy steal it off the display stand. Chasing him down and snatching it from his hand, I gave him a piece of my mind then tied it down with a sturdy string and brought it to my room each night.
    • Keep your future show schedule away from competitors, don’t publicize it until just before the event. Ask the producer if it is possible to hide the fact that your company will be there. If you don’t, your competitors will be there and act like it was all their idea. Make them learn how to do business the hard way, like you did.
    • If you pioneer the business model successful in your segment, do everything you can to hide the actual mechanics of that model from them. One way is to rent a suite in the show hotel and hold your important meetings with trade buyers and brokers there. It gives you privacy in discussions and hides the identity of your buyers from your competitors, and don’t think for a minute they aren’t watching. Don’t put out all your brochures and prices, hold them back and only give to qualified Buyers. Consider seeding competitive disinformation with brochures on fake products just for their consumption left where they can easily snag them, so as to distract and confuse them. Sun Tzu would approve (The Art of War). Done right it can send them down a fruitless path, wasting months of their time and money.

It’s human nature to misread people, it happens daily. How that relates here is that although your hemp products company is light-years ahead of the others, they will still look at you as though they could have done all that themselves. Seriously, no matter how many decades longer you’ve been doing it, no matter how many millions more you’ve invested in it, no matter what kind or how large an organization you built years ago to execute it, Dunning-Kruger noobs will always think “there but by the grace of God go I.” The arrogance of ignorance and resulting false equivalence is strong in many.

 That means that the further ahead you are, the harder they will work to stop you. In my case, it was competitors who also enlisted a hemp trade association that I actually helped get on its feet. Therefore, I suggest keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. I could never do that, if I don’t like someone it’s obvious to everyone. People without ethics are not my type of people to be around, I prefer those with good character; I’m funny that way. Had I been as nefarious as my competitors you would never have heard of them today, I had the wallet and the tools to put them under in their early years. It was a bad business move on my part not to be, but it isn’t my style; conscience trumps greed. When you are pioneering a new industry, suing those whom you inspired to join it is bad form, so I had to just STFU.

  • When you spend an enormous amount of money in order to talk to some of the 100,000 attendees at a trade show, you really want the right people to seek you out especially if you’re new. How we did that back in the pre-internet days was by using direct mail, faxes, and trade ads. Today, email is your best friend. Also, broker reps visiting the stores gave them our marketing flyer or postcard enticing them into visiting us. We also mailed postcards with an offer of something nice for free, like a branded tie-dye T-shirt or a 100% hemp cap, branded (see left). We also offered those who stock perishable food branded hemp gloves to protect their hands (see below). In the suite we used to talk with Buyers, we also had a Hemp Salon in the evenings, with conversation, live acoustic music, munchies, a loaded bong, and more. It became the place to be for stoners and the stoner-adjacent at the show. We booked the nightclub in the show hotel’s lobby for one night and hired a pro band to back us, and all our industry buddies got up and jammed.

At our double-wide corner booth we would always have a colorful backdrop, and a 16-foot banner hanging above us from the ceiling. For a few years in the mid-90s we made our booth background look like a Netscape browser from that new thing called “the internet.”

Giving out free samples is critical, it is expected. For years Yves Fine Foods was the booth everybody visited around lunch as they gave away an entire tofu dog in a bun, with the fixins. Crowds attract more crowds, so anything you can do to get a mob around your booth is good, including book signings, drawings for prizes, celebrity meet and greet, etc.  

While renting decorations for your booth is expensive, it’s critical that you do so because otherwise you will look cheap, small, and insignificant. Padded carpet, lights, chairs, and a table are the minimum, plus your product displays and booth backdrop. Or design and build a custom one, but at many venues Union carpenters will have to construct and deconstruct it for you. Don’t fight them when you encounter Union rules, you won’t win and they will make your life hard like being the last of the 10,000 booths to receive your crate to put your booth back into.

In the ‘80s I would take pictures of Buyers and send framed to the person a few weeks later. While today more pictures are taken every day than all those taken before 1980, back then it was genuinely received. I would visit their office and see the picture on their wall; it was a big deal to them.

  • But today, you can learn from my mistake. If you have an advanced hemp products company, the last place you should be spending your precious marketing dollars is exhibiting at a hemp expo or conference. Here’s why:

While few qualified wholesale buyers who do a large volume are there, all your competitors and wannabe-competitors will be. Your exhibiting makes their efforts to steal your products, process, business model, employees, marketing, and/or customers just that much easier. Exhibiting means your competitors will know everything about your new product even before your customers do, thus making it easier for them to copy it. Will they? Oh hell yes, in a heartbeat if not sooner. I’ve seen new flyers made in an hour in response to a competitor’s new product intro at a trade show, back when “me too” meant something else.

  • In 1998 when they were first starting and we had already been making vegan foods for 18 years, one upstart Canadian company new to food had us firmly in their sights. Selling to our customers the product we pioneered but more expensive and with no value added, they even stole our HempNut brand name calling theirs Hemp Seed Nut. Their packages were so similar to ours that when I showed it to my General Manager, she asked if it was our new package.

 When choosing a booth location for the next expo, they would always pick a spot line-of-sight of ours. That wasn’t hard as our name was on the booth map (after years of exhibiting we had seniority picking locations), so after realizing their trick we had the expo management take our name off the map. Those are the same guys who would follow us to every food trade show, no matter how esoteric.

I once had to chase away one founder as he would eavesdrop on our conversations back to us pretending to read his program, then run after the customer to pitch them. Another told the VP of R&D for General Mills that they produced for us, a total lie. They later became “socially-responsible” B Corps.

While the others will be enhanced by the presence of your advanced hemp products company at the expo, you do not enjoy that same benefit. You lose a little luster, they gain a little. You’ll be a big fish in a little pond and the one everyone will be gunning for.

My biggest obstacle to introducing hemp foods to America was always hempsters, not DEA or FDA. As I found back then, they’ll try to drag you down every chance they can to help jealous competitors, their “crab pot mentality” pulling the leader back into the boiling water with them. I hired a private investigator to present to a Canadian competitor as a potential investor to see what they said. She reported back that when asked about me, they said “Richard has no heart, but we do.” Yes, the guy who could shut them down at the border for copying his trade name and trade dress for years but doesn’t, who could sue them in California and make them come all the way from Canada to defend it but doesn’t despite having the far-deeper pockets, the guy whose booth they hang around all day to snag his customers, who years earlier pioneering new foods using his long experience in the food industry provided proof of concept of the business model that they were copying while they were still in diapers, yeah that guy has no heart but you, the ruthless ethics-challenged copy-cats who lie to the Kraft VP of R&D and everyone else too, do.

You can even use some of the other tricks your favorite “socially-responsible B Corp-certified” hempsters deployed on me, such as: hire your competitor’s ex-CEO, or their former Brokers. Move to their small town and pick their brain as a non-competing Secretary of their hemp trade association to learn their business model then sell their product to their customers under your label. Slag your competitor to wholesale buyers every chance you get, “negative selling.” Make trivial spurious complaints to show management about your competitor. Hassle the staff working the booth over petty manufactured grievances. Steal your competitors’ trade dress, and brand and product names. Accuse them of sundry nefarious schemes, all of which later turn out to be just confessions projected onto them. Slander, libel, and defame them in order to get a competitive advantage, even in federal Court. Lie to said Court and public repeatedly with impunity. Kill the industry for years on a lie in order to force your hemp foods-only competitor to retire, while you pivot to coconut, chia, and other “superfoods” to stay alive. Get personal intel on your competitor and when he is at his most medically-vulnerable… strike hard. Apparently those are all now best practices for “socially-responsible B Corp-certified” hemp companies!

  • Conversely, if you are a startup then you really do need to be at every single hemp expo so you can size up your competition, and find their business weaknesses. Corporate intelligence, no that’s not always an oxymoron. Start just by walking shows until you see a need to actually have a booth. Snag every brochure you can, and look for ones you aren’t supposed to have. Pitch prospects in the aisles like everyone else does.
    • Even if none of that is your thing, it sure wasn’t mine, at least you now know the depths humanity is willing to plunge in order to make a buck, so you can recognize when they are being deployed on you.
    • All this goes for hemp associations, too. Bad guys use them to do some of their dirty work, that’s the New Normal. Ironically both socially-irresponsible companies mentioned here received social responsibility awards and became B Corps, doing so unironically. One was even put on probation by hemp association HIA for slagging them to his hemp association, NAIHC. Later he contracted Saskatchewan hemp farmers to grow him more seed than they ever did, they did then he used that to get a better price from Manitoba farmers. The SK farmers lost six-figures on that deal and not one hemp trade association called him out, they kept it on the QT. Today, hemp trade associations are taxpayer-funded (non-profit) arms of for-profit company marketing departments.
    • In this den of thieves we inhabit today, if you are the smartest one in the room, just STFU and sit in the corner with your back to the wall since there’s a huge target on it. Believe me, I have the scars to prove it. My vision was hemp food, especially shelled hempseed to compete with soya, and I invested $2.5 million and 8 years of work culminating in my 22 years pioneering new vegan foods to realize it. I walked away from all that rather than pimp the popular lie sweeping the industry at the time, “DEA Bans Hemp.” I was right, as “our side” killed the hemp food market for years, almost taking Canadian hemp down with it, and made “will this get me high?” again the main question after we deftly dispatched it years earlier. Funny how when you sue to be allowed THC in foods, people think there’s THC in your foods. That killed hemp food’s “Golden Era.” Even Justice Kozinsky dissented in the case, calling it “gratuitous.” In other words, an unnecessary dumb bad idea, the same thing I told them years and one functioning hemp food market earlier.
    • Save that hemp expo money and instead exhibit where real buyers are. For food, that’s such events as Natural Products ExpoEast and Expo West, FMI if supermarket, Fancy Food if gourmet, SupplySide and IFT if ingredients. Decades ago I exhibited at most hemp expos, and even five Cannabis Cups in Amsterdam. The former was an altruistic mistake I now realize, but the latter was just for fun; serving 80 HempRella pizza slices at 4:20 every afternoon, talking to people about hemp foods, covertly getting a bunch of hemp into the VIP dinner. There is no better way to make new friends than to give away free slices of pizza at 4:20 in a smoky room of stoners.
    • OTOH, if you too wanted to be hinky then do what I’ve watched others do at hemp expos in Colorado: become a Sponsor so you can take control of panels to make you look better than you are at the expense of your competitors. For instance, get your noob CEO placed on a panel with old industry OGs, for a patina of credibility. Sabotage the presentation of those you don’t like by pretending the projector is broken. Use a hater as the moderator for on-stage interviews of your competitor. At a “Future of Hemp” panel, the clueless Sponsor/moderator even asked if there were any questions from the audience at the beginning! First question: “what’s the Future of Hemp?” Duh. That’s why the Q&A is after, not before. And all that’s what I witnessed in just one hemp expo, plus more! The depths of the human soul will no doubt create new, worse ones.
    • Who is hurt by a lack of ethics? All of us, bad people with bad ideas do bad things to make money, even if it means the industry is harmed. The bad drive out the good, an unlevel playing field in a conniving, duplicitous environment. It has happened over and over before: HIA lost us the birdseed market permanently, killed hemp foods for years and almost took down Canadian hemp with it, then tried to work that same magic on CBD. It went bankrupt in 2020 owing state chapters over $100,000. Bad ethics steal our hope and reward the bad for being bad, penalizing the good for being good.

Legendary investor Warren Buffet says integrity and ethics are foundational attributes for leaders. Therefore, a lack of ethics is not sustainable, whether in leaders, associations, businesses, or an industry segment. And that is where we are now in the U.S. hemp industry. Only in the hemp industry can those who have done the most damage to us due to sheer incompetence or greed be celebrated and promoted, while those who have done much good are vilified, ignored, or worse. It’s not a Meritocracy, it’s a Griftocracy; a hustler’s and scammer’s paradise.

This is the state of the market you’ll be competing in today. While I paint a bleak picture, it is only in order to overcome your Dunning-Kruger naïveté and properly prepare you for your future in the way I wished someone did for me.

I’m quite reticent to get back hard into business again, it almost killed me last time. It was only by the Hand of God that it didn’t, although retiring to Amsterdam helped. I let my passion for the plant get the better of me, it made me easy prey for “Bros” with $ $ for eyes.

  • So don’t let them catch you in their tsunami of legerdemain, stay above the fray… no matter how many times they call you “Bro.” Best of luck, you’re going to need it!
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