By Ben Langlotz | February 8, 2018 | Business, Firearms, Firearms Industry Advice | 0 Comments
First, my immune system is checking in “safe” after returning from the Show. I think there was much more health consciousness and courtesy at this show than ever before as we all come to grips with the fact that the show is unmissable even for the ailing, but one we each need to survive. I’d like to thank all those who offered fist bumps or apologies instead of germy handshakes – and all those who had hand sanitizer available everywhere. Maybe it used to be cool not to be nervous about germs, but these days everyone seems to have gotten smart that there’s nothing cooler than to head home healthy.
Everyone asks me the same question: “Ben, how do you think the industry’s doing now?” My answer is that there’s no one answer. Essentially, there isn’t simply one monolithic “firearms industry” with a single pulse rate or blood pressure we can measure. We’re a collection of thousands of different companies each with its own medical chart.
Like one of the proverbial blind men trying to describe an elephant, each of us can describe only the part of the industry we actually touch. People assume that because I have hundreds of clients and friends in the industry I must have a sharper view of things. While that may give me a broader view, I’m still like the blind man who feels the elephant’s leg and describes the elephant as being like a tree trunk (hopefully a front leg – to avoid also describing it like a dump truck).
From my perspective, there’s the firearms industry I know from the inside, and there’s the industry I see from the outside. I’m inside the community of innovators, start-ups, and those who invest in new product development and new marketing ideas. I can’t help it because the only people who need a patent attorney are those with new ideas.
Like the Tale of Two Cities, it might well be “the best of times” for some, and “the worst of times” for others. My best observations are that the innovators, especially those who never stop investing in new product development during the soft times, are the healthy core of the industry. Those who rest on their laurels, perhaps on past glory days, are not doing so well.
When I visit a booth of a company I’m unfamiliar with, I ask the same question: “What distinguishes your products from those of your competitors.” The answer tells me all I need to predict whether they will still be alive in five years. If they point to innovations and advantages that can be comprehended in a moment, or provoke enough curiosity to make me want to know more, then the prognosis is good. But if the answer is that the product is simply “better,” or “more precise,” or “quality” or any other hum-drum factor that every company cranking out barrels or bullets or rails or red dots would claim, then I put the patient on the “do not resuscitate” list. “Me-too” commodities just aren’t going to be the basis for success any more, if they ever were.
The internet wannabes might snark at whether anyone really needs a short-barrel firearm that avoids the National Firearms Act sales impediments, but the visitors were four deep at my client Franklin Armory’s booth. Some might think it sensible to go into business to develop yet another improved trigger for “G-word” pistols (I gotta be careful – the show was crawling with lawyers!) And they might think the folks at Full Conceal are crazy to think people will buy a pistol they literally cut in half to fold up in your pocket. But I have more confidence in the future of a company that comes out with true innovations, no matter how crazy some might think they are.
And I’m not just talking about technical marvels. Even the companies that sell the same old schtick but with marketing innovations that attract buzz can enjoy amazing success if they do it right. Of course, all of my own clients’ products have the innovations and superior quality to back up their marketing, but did anyone else notice the long lines at the Black Rifle Coffee Company? Good coffee, but the difference is in the buzz, not the bean. Seriously, put the top 20 AR-15 rifle brands side by side and tell me which are the ones that enjoy the big success? Is it really about the technology, or is the difference mostly in superior marketing and business methods?
One great example of something NEW came from one of the NEXT newbies upstairs. It’s a 3D printed suppressor of a shape that has never existed. It’s as different from other suppressors as anything I’ve ever seen. Granted, I’ve never shot it and can’t tell you how well it works or lasts (presumably well and long). But I can tell you one thing: It’s different. And it’s UGLY! So ugly it must
work amazingly. And so ugly that it will never be lost in a crowd of “cans.”
It’s from H&P, which is a brand name you’ll never remember. But the look is so distinctive, I knew right away what they should name the product (and the company). “This is the ugliest suppressor I’ve ever seen – name it the UGLY™ suppressor, and no one will ever forget you!”
They really did laugh at my unsolicited advice, which is a great test of a good brand. But something tells me that they still think I’m half joking. Which will stimulate this bold offer to them (now my patent client – I finally got to see what goes on inside, and why): Guys, name it “Ugly” and I’ll waive my legal fees for the trademark application. Seriously.
It’s ebbed and flowed in recent years, but there was much more talk about “the money” that’s out there looking for healthy companies to buy. Frankly, they’re also looking for unhealthy ones that just need a little cash infusion to restore the health. “The money” often asks me if I know companies looking to sell. Sometimes, they have a shopping list: “Any bullet makers out there looking to sell – we need one in our portfolio.”
For a company that’s thinkin’ about fixin’ to get ready to sell, the best time to start on that is a few years before its time. Ideally, you want to make your company look valuable before the buyer starts kicking the tires, instead of looking like a fixer-upper that gets low-ball offers. Besides ensuring your patents and trademarks are tight as a drum, there are other business systems and practices that add value before you sell. If you don’t adopt them first, the buyer will, and they’ll enjoy the benefit in value increase that you deserved.
Of course, I can’t tell the money guys anything about my clients because of confidentiality. They’d love to get hints as to who might be struggling with cashflow, or who’s growing like crazy and investing in the future. I just keep my lips zipped until a client asks me for more information, or to put them in touch with the right folks.
There’s some very smart new ventures out there too. There’s nothing wrong with coming up with a new product that you think people will want and building a business on that. Sell, profit, build value, and someday sell and retire. But there are some clever folks out there who are starting companies with the goal of disruption, figuring that the right product line that scratches the itch of a major company can make them ripe for a fast acquisition. In the next five years, I predict there will be companies who form, flourish, and are consumed, making their clever founder quite comfortable. Like a pop-up restaurant might have a notably talented chef, these industry pop-ups might have the best independent designers, engineers and marketers around.
Maybe it’s not a SHOT Show topic, but I can’t help think of those pop-up ventures with all the key people that gather for a project, then sell and disperse (and disburse, hopefully!) The smart ones do it right, and have everything properly documented. Others might think their little project with a few pals is on the path to success, but when these are based on handshakes and friendships, they too often end in disaster. I’ve actually become much firmer about ensuring that my own clients really have their act together. I’ll even turn away a client with a great invention if they are flying by the seat of their pants, and no one really knows who owns what. If the business fails it’s a problem because of all the finger-pointing and mess-cleaning. If it succeeds it’s even worse as everyone fights for what they thought was their fair share.
I’m not a corporate attorney, so I send these unformed new ventures to a good one who can help get the ducks in a row. I much prefer clients on the road to success, and I’m doing no favors to help partners who haven’t resolved their business arrangements.
– Shoes matter.
– More important than shoes is that a mix of standing, walking and sitting is easiest on the feet. Easier said than done for exhibitors.
– The bigger the rolling bag/box, the lower the situational awareness.
– Everyone’s too busy taking their customers out for dinner to have time to be taken out to dinner by their providers who appreciate them as customers.
– Some tips are too good to endanger with broad publicity, but if any non-exhibitor is looking for a home -away-from-home with business and comfort amenities away from the show floor – at a price – email me. It used to be reserved for folks like the long-time exhibitors honored in this sign, and is now open to riff-raff like me.
– It’s easy to forget how handy those escalators are – the other floor might seem a world away but it’s closer than you think.
– The NEXT newbie exhibitors on the 3rd level again were my favorite part of the show.
– Smart to group the NEXT tables in groups of 4 – everyone gets a corner, and traffic flows much better.
– The casino floor seemed smokier than ever, but there’s easy access from the shops and canal level right into the 3rd floor NEXT exhibits – no crowd at opening either.
– Everyone says I should check out the Supplier Showcase next year. Good venue for those who can’t get in as exhibitors.
– I wish I had a nickel for every example of “strictly-prohibited” booth-sharing I saw. I’d personally love to arrange an “Innovation Showcase” booth with a half dozen of my newest clients looking to get some early exposure, but the SHOT Show authorities tell me it’s prohibited. See you at NRA 2019!
– Most Improved Booth design: J&T Doublestar. At the very first entrance to the “20,000” ballroom, their old location now has a booth that presents a monumental two-story wall that’s the first thing every visitor sees.
Next up is the NRA show, on my home turf at long last. But my hotel is already booked so I can focus on the event and not commuting. Watch for special event news.