As I write I'm just a few hours from the opening of the 2017 Colorado Pen Show, which is both my first pen show and my first product launch. One of those makes me more nervous than the other, but both excite me. To be quite frank, I don't really know what to expect, at least not fully. A lot of unknowns fight for my attention, not least of which is, will anyone like my product? That's a pretty vulnerable question to ask, but it's fair, and pretty important to me. I've spent quite a few tangible and intangible resources on getting to where I am, and this feels, at least right now, like an all or nothing endeavor. The rational side of me knows that isn't the case and was never intended to be so. This is a poolside toe dip of sorts, it’s a tool to gauge the temperature of the market. From there I can better calculate a plan going forward. I don't doubt I'll be able to glean much from the event, and am anticipating the feedback from the attendees most of all.
Concerning the show at large, I don't suppose I'll have much opportunity to walk the aisles as an attendee, and with that in mind I don’t have much of a shopping list. I do hope to get my hands on a Pilot 823 to see how it feels, and I wouldn't mind looking into some nib work for a vintage flex pen I have. Beyond that and checking out some vendors I'm only familiar with at a distance, I'm keeping my shopping aspirations low.
Speaking of familiar at a distance, I'm quite looking forward to meeting folks I know only through podcasts, blogs, websites, and social media. As more of an outside follower looking in, it's as if I've been on the other side of the glass watching all the other kids have fun. But, from everything I've come to understand from other folks that have plunged into this, the pen shows are a fantastic equalizer and great social leveler. I look forward (with some introvert-spurred hesitation) to the pen meetup Friday night, and hope by the end of the weekend I get to know a few folks in real life, and in turn they get to know me a bit as well.
My overall expectations are optimistic, but I'm trying to be careful not to craft unrealistic outcomes in my mind. Not knowing the venue or the world of pen shows in general I'm trying not to set my hopes too high, but the excitement of the new makes that a problem. I would prefer to enter this new world with a more tortoise than hare style approach to things. I obviously hope to discover positive reception to my product. My opinion of my own creation doesn’t count for much when I'm asking folks to determine if it's worth their money. They decide whether the product is a value to them, and that pretty much decides the future of Penwell Co. Along with that, I want to establish Penwell Co. from the start as a company that takes an interest in the very folks that make it possible for it to exist. It's this reciprocity that I hope to work hard to establish right from the Colorado start. I'm looking forward to tomorrow, but also to the next month, year, and whatever may follow. Now for an attempt at sleep before the big day.
As I write I'm traveling east on I90 headed home, having left the Colorado Pen Show in body, if not yet in mind. There were many unknowns going into the event as I previously laid out, but fortunately for us as new company many of those are now known, at least in part.
Going into the show I was confident of the simplicity of the product, it's ability to explain itself, and my own ability to do so in words if necessary. Here I was sorely mistaken. To hijack my previously used analogy and reimplement it, I was in a room with my own product while my customers were on the other side of the one way glass. It was only when I adopted the perspective of one who has never seen the product before did I stand a chance of helping to enlighten the viewer to what was innate to me.
When I'd succeed in doing this the response was fantastic, and more than once I heard audible "aha" moments. From a distance the Penwell appeared no more than a fancy single pen "pencil cup" if you will, with nothing to commend it beyond that. Frankly, I'd be uninterested in my own product if that's all it did. Given the opportunity to demonstrate the product and explain it more fully was key to unlocking interest. It’s primarily to me a useful product, designed to make my own use of pens more enjoyable and more frequent. In communicating that I could finally help my customers experience the same enthusiasm I have for the product.
On our terms as a burgeoning business, we were successful. We had positive reception to the product and received sufficient outside insight to help us see past our biases and direct our next steps. The prototypes showcasing different materials and finishes were received with such enthusiasm that we have two in the works we plan to have available this holiday shopping season. Maybe the most intangible benefit of the show was establishing a rapport with our customer base. Through this we were better able to understand who exactly finds the Penwell intriguing, and therefore who it is we get to design for and provide with a good product.
The folks who stopped by our table weren’t the only people we had the joy of interacting with, and this was probably the biggest surprise of the weekend. The Fountain Pen Meetup on Friday evening was a great time. The atmosphere was laid back, down to earth, and as unpretentious as could be (probably the opposite of what some outside folks might expect of fountain pen users). My introverted nature seemed to be at least half on hold, so this wasn’t uncomfortable at all as I might have expected it to be. Besides, it was less about my nature than the nature of those around me that put me at ease. Well done, fountain pen community.
Beyond that, the fellow vendors with which we had sufficient time to interact with were generous to us in their kindness, acceptance, and advice. We were accepted as a part of the vendor community right off the bat by folks from all realms, demographics, and generations of the pen show circuit. My gratitude to these people runs deep, and such a reception will be integral to our decision to pursue more shows in the future. We came to the show hoping to make some contacts, and were fortunate to leave with so much more—friends.
To end on a lighter note, I’ll recap my shopping experience. Let’s just say I’m glad I had low expectations. I did get my hands on a Pilot 823, but that was because a gentleman had one on him while I was chatting him up about Penwells. It was heavier than I imagined but it fit my hand perfectly. (It also fit in a Penwell just right if anyone’s interested.) In that vein, I also had opportunity to hold a Nakaya for the first time (which also fits in a Penwell quite well, I’ll shamelessly add), which was quite a pen to say the least. Beautiful is a completely understated way to begin describing such a pen. I didn’t get my vintage flex worked on, but I did get to see it handsomely craft my name at the hand of the skilled Nikola Pang during the meetup. While not on my list, I did end up with pen sleeves and notebooks for the kids. And, it turns out, there was a greater satisfaction in giving these gifts away to others than I could have found in bringing an 823 home for myself.
That sentiment does a good job encompassing so much of what I saw at the show. While people rightly go with intentions of buying, it’s the giving nature of this small community that holds it together so tightly. The pens are a great reason to attend a show, but it’s the people that give reason to keep attending shows. Our hope is that this is the first of many, both because it’s good for the company, but also because it’s good for me. Hope to see you out there.