Starting as a sales rep in 1979, I thought it was all about survival of the fittest–could my products achieve success by appealing to enough people to survive?  I see it differently now.  A different evolutionary principle is at work.

I was a sales rep for 19 years.  I ran my own firm, hiring staff, calling on clients, writing up orders.  I was The Far Side rep, the guy making sure everybody was supplied with Gary Larson’s The Far Side products, such as greeting cards and calendars.  I represented more than 100 companies for more than 19 years, selling calendars, greeting cards, mugs, posters, books, tee shirts, gifts, clothing, backpacks, etc.  Though there was a stretch of about five years where I worked hideous hours, making myself sick and half crazy, the hours were mostly minimal and I was able to devote myself to starting other ventures while running the sales firm.  It wasn’t too bad.

Central to my profession as a sales rep was that institution called the trade show.  I exhibited in two shows each year in January and July in Chicago.  In May, I walked the New York National Stationery Show, looking for new companies to represent.  These were exhausting, mind-numbing experiences.  Perhaps the aspect most taxing was the emotional and logistical repercussion of hundreds of exhibitors committed to behaving in an excited and enthusiastic way about each and every possibility discussed or considered during these events.  The universe of trade show exhibitors is one where all possibilities are probabilities and all probabilities certain.  Every acquaintance is your friend, every friend your best friend.  Every stranger is a possible future member of your family.

I found this experience deeply fatiguing.

As the pea hens were walking up and down the aisles, we booth-based peacocks would strut our stuff, seeking mating opportunities with the buyers.  It was mostly men in the booth, mostly women walking the aisles.  It was about waiting for the fleeting opportunity for copulation.

It was worse when I was walking the aisles once a year at the national event, talking to exhibitors and looking to court and coax them into a relationship by letting me represent their products.  These exhibitors were locked into peacock mode.  Getting a read on how serious these manufacturers and publishers were to do business was not easy.  After I’d become a website designer, it was particularly difficult to figure out whether the behavior of a manufacturer or publisher locked into peacock mode, expressing enthusiasm for my doing their website, would translate into their really wanting to do a website.  I returned from one trade show with just over 100 business cards representing 100 business people excited about doing a website.  More than 100 phone calls later, I had three people wanting to continue the conversation.

In the beginning, as an exhibitor watching the thousands of buyers walk buy, I surmised that a massive exercise in natural selection was taking place.  Products competed to be able to achieve another factory run and propagate progeny across the American retail landscape.  My opinion has changed.  I now believe it’s about Darwin’s theory of sexual selection.  Trade shows aren’t about survival as much as they’re about seduction.  America’s economy is about sex.


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