CES: Is It Worth It?

I unlocked an achievement earlier this month: 10 years of attending CES. They even gave me a badge to mark the milestone. Walking around the expo, though, I started to wonder if CES was still relevant.

After all, in the world of e-commerce, there’s little need for a marketplace for vendors and retailers to meet. Meanwhile, the likelihood of giving a new idea a star turn has diminished as the show has grown. So, what’s the value of CES for a start-up?

The value proposition for large companies is clear. Walking around CES, you see all the massive installations the established brands have, starting with what the ubiquitous self-driving cars still in the works. Bigger still, smarthome technology – from Alexa to internet fridges – were on display inside of replica homes, so you could try out the devices in their “natural” setting. These immersive walk-around, sit-down experiences are great branding opportunities for incumbents.

What goes for major companies, however, does not necessarily go for startups. Those huge setups from established companies make CES a wonderful place if you want to lounge, but a terrible place if you’re a startup that wants to launch. (And, just between you and me, I saw many of the same toys last year, walking through the Xujiahui neighborhood in Shanghai.) You’re not going to have the CXX or Huawei pop into your pint-sized booth, in a sub-annex of the Venetian. Startups might get the crowds, but most only add to the noise.

Even though it’s become a bit of a circus, however, executives from every major company in the world come to CES to understand how tech will impact their business. And that’s where I think the value of the exposition lies. CES, today, is less a marketplace and more an incredible meeting place for tech companies and consumer brands to connect and forge relationships. And startups can accomplish a great deal if they think of CES more in this way, rather than trying to break through the impossible noise of media competition.

I saw, firsthand, some Foundation Capital portfolio companies and founders more effectively using CES as a platform to drive relationships and sales. Tube Mogul, TubiTV, and Conviva all approached it as an efficient way to meet a high volume of potential customers, partners, and investors. And they were systematic in their approach.

Watching them, I came away with a number of suggestions for other startups:

  • Plan well – and well in advance. Ideally, six months in advance. Why? Because you’ll want to start scheduling meetings months ahead of the show. You cannot go overboard in this department. If you’re doing 8-10 meetings a day, you’re on the right track.
  • Don’t suggest coffee at the Starbucks outside the Mandarin Oriental. Instead, invest in a reliable private meeting place, like a suite. Then consider hiring a limo you can send to pick up your guests. It’s all about making it easy for them to come to you, and ultimately about making the most of your limited time in Las Vegas.
  • Jointly host an event with complementary partners like investors, customers, and other startups, sharing the costs while also expanding the guest list. Ideally, schedule a long window of time so that people can drop in. It could be a pre-dinner cocktail party with enough food so that people can linger on if they don’t have dinner plans.
  • The “real” CES is listed on the official event schedule, but the really useful CES is actually the series of small events that happen around it. If you start planning well ahead of time, you’ll be able to get a bead on smaller, more focused gatherings, like the Fortune CMO dinner – perfect opportunities to meet exactly your kind of people.
  • Go into CES with a shortlist of 2-3 people you want to build a personal relationship with and wouldn’t have an opportunity to elsewhere. CES offers a casual, relaxed atmosphere where people are starting to ease back in from their holiday breaks. Everyone’s eager to connect with new people and consider new opportunities.

In summary, if you get organized, there’s still potential for startups to hit a lot of business goals at CES. Plus, you can’t beat the collateral benefits. It’s a forcing function to get the annual plan ready in the first week of the year, and it’s a chance for teams to have some fun together.