Is attending CES marketing gambling?
Updated: Jun 2
After returning from CES (13th time attending. Phew!) we want to take a moment to jot down our thoughts. Spoiler alert: if you want to learn how awesome the new tech showcased is… this is not the post. (There is already wide coverage on tech by reporters, bloggers, live-tweeters, and podcasters.) What we want to reflect on is the effectiveness of technology tradeshows for companies, in general, and then narrow in on how startups can maximize their CES experience.
Let’s think about why startups should consider participating in a trade show. How will they know that they actually met their objectives? We spent a lot of time walking CES and Eureka Park which is a dedicated section for startups to push their products. With 1,200 startups exhibiting at this side-venue it is safe to say that the experience can be both an overwhelming and underwhelming: tons of tiny booths (stands?), from tons of tiny startups (although maybe big in their own right), with very little space to advertise themselves, to differentiate their offering, to attract potential visitors; the layout was questionable with wearables close to gadgets, close to sensors, close to software startups,..
Startups-wise, we think CES could do a much better job to facilitate genuine connections, and learn from tradeshows like Slush with its excellent match-making system. Looking at it from a potential buyer’s perspective (or potential investor) Eureka feels more like a street market/bazaar than a shopping mall. Don’t get us wrong, we love the magic of bazaars but . you would have a better chance of finding a needle in a haystack than finding a match for your needs.
After witnessing this chaos, we wonder how many of the 1,200+ startup exhibitors had really thought through the decision to attend and for how many the money and time spent was actually worth it.
It might sound as though we are dissing technology tradeshows, but this is not the case. We actually believe there is a lot of good to be gained from these events. LifeFuel’s 2018 breakdown of their success is an inspirational and instructive example on how to take advantage of CES. What we question is not the tradeshows themselves, but the go-to approach (or lack of approach and planning) that the majority of startups that participate take.
Let us share with you 5 ways that Startups can make the most out of CES.
1. Consider CES as your office meeting-room for the week
Tradeshows like CES are awesome meeting hubs. Tens of thousands of stakeholders from thousands of companies from all over The World visiting the same location over the same period of time. No roadshow or trip can potentially aggregate so many meetings.
Contact early your business partners, your customers and suppliers, find out if they are going to be attending CES and schedule face-to-face time with them. Try to consolidate meetings based on location as CES is spread over a wide area. Wynn, Encore, and Westgate are easy to get too.
Another benefit of planning ahead is that you can get free or discounted tickets when booking in advance. August/Sept timeframe.
2. Resist getting a booth
Companies don’t need to have a booth to do business at CES. Arguably, there is more business to be made by startups outside of official CES venues than in them.
Shawn Gunn, CEO and Co-founder of PLLAY Labs, one of KAHI’s customers, a leading video gaming platform for skill based wagering, commented on the exorbitant price that companies pay to have a big booth presence at the show, he continued says that “it’s probably because the decision-makers are not lean entrepreneurs and are spending other people’s money”.
This contrasts with what nflux.ai, a computer vision startup backed by Amazon and NASA and another of KAHI’s customers, did. According to its co-founder Seyed Sajjadi “CES is all about meeting face to face with enterprise customers. We didn’t spend a single minute on the show room floor. We front loaded our agenda with partner and prospective customer meetings. From Monday to Friday AM. It really sets the tone for the rest of the year”.
If your startup can afford it and it has the right maturity... renting a hotel suite is probably the most efficient way to maximize your results. Not only the are they significantly cheaper than proper booths, they are quieter, more spacious and comfortable to host meetings in. Plus, you get to have ´home court advantage” instead of having to waste your time rushing from meeting to meeting. To this end, hotels like Venetian, Wynn, Encore are ideal due to their proximity to the official CES locations but book early.
Another alternative to optimize your budget and to boost your visitors is to piggyback on someone else’s booth. Having a stand in the booth of one of your strategic partners, customers or investors portfolio companies can be much more productive than trying to show off by having a booth of your own. With a few exceptions, your brand is not going to be anywhere as popular as theirs so operating from their booth not only can save you money but help you attract more visitors. Consider this: having you in their booth is also beneficial for them as a way to spice it up by showcasing your startup as a shiny object.
3. Tailor your strategy to the maturity of your startup
There is no rule-of-thumb or one-size-fits-all. You really need to be honest with yourself and design and plan your CES according to the stage of development your company is at.
There is value to be extracted from CES at every stage. Embryonic startups can use CES to do market research, find similar value propositions, competitors, etc. Startups in seed stage can use CES to hunt for potential customer’s by visiting their booths. Beware, cold calling on someone’s booth requires some technique. We will probably address this in a different post but navigating customers to avoid giving your killer elevator pitch to the wrong person is a critical task in order to succeed in doing business development.
Daniel Marcet, CMO of a stealth patented medical device startup, and a KAHI customer, that attended the show stated “It’s interesting to walk the show floor and find uncommon partnerships that are hiding in plain sight. Like hardware OEMs that are curious about licensing patented tech. It’s all about navigating the booth to talk to the right person and quickly trying to identify the use case they care about and that your startup up can support”.
As Daniel hints at, another thing that seed-stage startups can do is to identify and source potential suppliers and partners. If you need additional technologies, solutions or elements to round out your value proposition or your solution, technology tradeshows are the perfect hunting ground for them. Either by making direct contact or by being referred to suppliers of participants. The only catch is, try to stay away from sourcing your technologies from other startups. Not all that glitters is gold, as we usually say: Startups working with startups is generally a bad idea. Better to follow the money.
4. Be Laser-Focused
If you are walking the floor or if you are hosting meetings... try to stick to contacts that match your goals and proven value prop(s). Dedicate time to think about who your company needs to meet (e.g. verticals) and list qualification criteria, and religiously stick to these to avoid being distracted by shiny objects, because if there is something abundant in CES it is shiny objects (like the Lamborghini massage chairs).
One week may sound like a lot of time but your energy gets sapped as you commute from location to location, as you get trapped in long queues, as you get pulled into ineffective meetings, waiting to get someone’s attention when visiting booths, etc. Some private events can prove effective, but you must have an objective for attending (e.g. Twitter party w/ Snoop Dogg DJ’ing is cool but are you trying to do business with Twitter or people in the twitter ecosystem? If the answer is no, then resist no matter how rad it would look on your Instagram stories.)
Are you looking for customers: consult before-hand the list of participants and identify those that you want to meet. Check the layout of the floors and try to plan your journeys taking location into account. Sharpen your pitch to get to the right stakeholders faster, and to avoid being sold (instead of selling, because CES is full of sales reps).
You also need to ruthlessly qualify your contacts to avoid going back home with unnecessary homework. If a contact you make does not match your goals, it’s better to discard it as soon as possible and avoid a bunch of unfruitful follow-up calls. Trust your gut feelings and exercise your critical thinking. If it’s not going to work... its better to detect this asap.
5. Nail your Value-Prop
Cool technology doesn’t sell just because it is cool, it sells because it is useful and solves a real-world problem. No place better than CES to prove this theory. Walking down the isles finding companies that are pushing technology with very questionable value adds. You will be surprised by the abundance of “Solutions in search of Problems to solve”. Location, location, location... but good location doesn’t make up for a product that no-one cares about.
Before you attend to CES make sure that you have validated with potential customers that your products and services are appealing, make sure that you fine tune your sales pitches and the way you describe the products, make sure you know your competitors, if your customers have budgets available for your type of product, and make sure that you have answers for the questions that you get asked more frequently.
Going to tradeshows may help amplify your marketing efforts. They can be like marketing machine-guns, but what good is a machine gun if your bullets don’t fire. Before going to CES make sure your value proposition is a killer one, make sure your gunpowder is dry.
We love CES. We will continue attending CES and we definitely encourage startups to do the same. As fellow entrepreneurs ourselves, and working with them on a daily basis, we are sad to see how many startups are wasting their resources by gambling in Vegas. We hope that these small pieces of advice help you make the most of your future attendance at CES.
If you like our post, if you agree, or if you disagree, we’d love to hear your voice. Comment below or feel free to contact us.