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Why CES Is a Bad Scene For Startups 89

Nerval's Lobster writes "If you're a small-to-midsize tech company, CES isn't exactly the best place to get noticed. Every January, thousands of developers and startup executives flood Vegas with dreams of a big score. But they're not headed to the poker and blackjack tables in pursuit of that filthy lucre—instead, many of them have dropped thousands of dollars on a booth at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), arguably the highest-profile technology conference of the year. (In addition to the tens of thousands of dollars it costs to reserve a space on the convention-hall floor, that money goes to demo units, flying employees to Vegas, and much, much more.) If they haven't managed to secure a spot in one of the Convention Center's massive halls, they've set up a demonstration area in a suite at some hotel on the Strip. And if they're too under-capitalized or unprepared for a hotel, they're lurking in the Convention Center parking lot. Seriously. It's a little insane. But in a certain way, you can't blame the startups: at some point, someone told them that CES is the best way to get their company noticed, even if it means blowing the equivalent of three employees' yearly salaries. On paper, the get-a-booth strategy makes sense—aside from SXSW, CES hosts possibly the greatest concentration of tech journalists in a relatively small space. What many first-timers don't realize (until it's too late) is that startups have a hard time standing out amidst the chaos: there are too many companies at too many booths attempting to sell (at top volume) too many variations of the same core ideas. If that wasn't bad enough, a fair portion of those companies are trying to draw attention with flashing screens, giveaways, music pumping at top volume, and other gimmicks. (Hey, it's Vegas.) So not only does your Nike FuelBand knockoff need to compete against a hundred other 'smart bracelets' on display, but you somehow need to make yourself visible despite the plus-size Elvis impersonator belting out 'Don't Be Cruel' in front of that chip-vendor's booth a few steps away. That's just the sort of quixotic endeavor that would drive even the most stalwart startup founder to drinking before 9 A.M."
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Why CES Is a Bad Scene For Startups

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  • They should put their money into their product, which by definition is heavily under development and **needs** money. They should put it into hiring just the right rock star developer. There, nuff said.
    • by ranulf ( 182665 )

      That's a bit of a jump, there's no reason to suspect that startup companies turning up to CES aren't quite far along in development. Otherwise they'd not exactly have anything to show.

      But yeah, it's pretty obvious to anybody that a massive trade show isn't the best way to get exposure. Getting key evangelists on board with your concept will get you far more exposure in the long run and for a lot less money than a booth at a trade show.

      Every company I've ever worked at that's done the trade fair thing ha

      • These are VERY important ideas about trade shows from the end of the comment above:

        "... there's basically loads of people wandering around just trying to get as much free stuff as they can. Possibly only 1% of the people who visit a booth actually want to know about the product, and most of them won't actually generate any business." [Edited for clarity.]

        We need better trade shows. We need trade shows that don't allow companies to give away free things, and don't allow other distractions. And no "dry
        • And no "dry hustle" booth babes; they are, basically, prostitutes.

          What kind of rule could you possibly make to get rid of these metaphorical prostitutes?

          1. No hot girls at booths?

          2. Only allow smart/talented people at booths?

          3. No slutty outfits?

          These are all pretty subjective judgements. I am not saying it can't be done. I just have no idea how.

          I think the booth babes will disappear when they are no longer profitable and when this fact is clear to the companies that currently hire them.

          Given that CES happens in Vegas at almost the same time as the pron trade show, and

          • "What kind of rule could you possibly make to get rid of these metaphorical prostitutes?"

            Just say that every person must be technically knowledgeable about the company's products. Have each company rated by everyone who goes to the show.

            The show managers have strong reasons to demand the availability of real help and understanding. Otherwise a show can get a poor reputation.
            • Have each company rated by everyone who goes to the show.

              Seriously? Most people won't even bother to fill out your surveys, and the few that do will probably "grade on the curve(s)" and give the hottest women the benefit of the doubt, at the expense of the those who are "plainly" more knowledgeable. You'd probably get lots of technical people voted out and even more bimbos voted in.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            I think the booth babes will disappear when they are no longer profitable and when this fact is clear to the companies that currently hire them.

            You thought wrong. Both women and men like looking at women's hips and breasts. Youth and beauty are signals for fertility. Advertising leverages this innate human response to associate products with desirability. When you've undone millions of years of instinctual evolution and sexual selection pressure, there won't be any "booth babes", because there won't be any damn booths.

          • How about anyone on your booth must have been employed by your company in a product-development role for at least a year before attending? That would filter out both the eye-candy-but-no-knowledge and most of the sales people, so the people wandering around would actually get to talk to people who knew stuff.
            • It would probably lead to a better trade show, but I suspect that if you ban sales people, many companies, especially larger ones, will pull their sponsorship of the show.
            • I thought of something like this too, but how do you prevent big companies from hiring 1 super attractive person to their product development team whose title indicates some kind of technical knowledge but in reality all she does is visual PR? I don't think this would be a high enough cost to big companies to prevent companies from doing it. There is no shortage of beautiful young girls willing to take a medium paying job where the only thing they need to do is look pretty in front of people.

              What if she w

              • Depends. If you manage to create the expectation that people in the booth should be knowledgeable about the products, then a booth with attractive but ignorant people will backfire - your company will look like it's full of clueless bimbos when everyone else is able to answer technical questions intelligently. That said, most companies of the size that typically attend these trade shows almost certainly employ at least a few attractive engineers of both genders and so could quite easily put them on the bo
      • by Penguinisto ( 415985 ) on Monday January 06, 2014 @07:32PM (#45882873) Journal

        But it's not really about publicity - I know when I've been to the show myself, there's basically loads of people wandering aroudn just trying to get as much free stuff as they can. Possibly only 1% of people you turn up to your booth actually wants to know about your product and most of them won't actually generate any business.

        The reason why? Easy - if I want to know about your product, I'll go Google it, see if your company/product turns up, then maybe call you up if I want/need more information about it.

        Trade shows are a vestige of the pre-Internet age. They formed at a time when getting info on new and upcoming tech was actual work, or involved slogging through phonebook-thick magazines containing up to 80% ads, 15% fluff, and 5% actual useful information.

        Back in the day, you went to COMDEX, NetWorld, and all those shows because that was the only way you were going to learn jack about the products. You also got something the trade pubs and (at the time) embryonic web could not provide you at the time: a working demo of the damned thing. Even on a non-generic level, you didn't go to Novell's Brainshare to take in the party atmosphere of Salt Lake City in Winter - you went so you could learn something, and to test out the new bits before you committed a purchase order to it.

        COMDEX and NetWorld died a long time ago. CES is IMHO an anomaly - a holdover from that era.

        Some hybrid trade shows cropped up (see also VMWorld), but the trade-show aspect is secondary to the goal of testing/teaching/advertising by the primary sponsor (VMWorld also had a neat trick of allowing selected customers to speak directly with various developer teams, so that you could suggest features, bitch about stuff that didn't work so hot, and show off tricks and tips you learned independently of them. In return, they got feedback on potential products they were building in pre-Alpha stage.)

        • 100% agreed. Excellent points.

          I think the anomaly that allows CES to continue is that it is for the journalists, not for us.

        • The reason why? Easy - if I want to know about your product, I'll go Google it,

          And how are you going to Google for "the latest, greatest, newest product that I don't know about yet"? Google is great to get more information about stuff you heard about already. These fairs are meant to find stuff you don't know about yet.

          • That's the thing - when it comes to the motivation for looking, you usually have a problem and are looking for a solution to it (hence Google), or have come up with (or in reality get stuck with) a project, and you're looking for means to help complete it, so you go looking, and...

            The 'gee whiz that's new!' stuff usually comes to you courtesy of whatever new sites you frequent, and again, if something blows your dress up, you can search online for more info.

        • by Bo'Bob'O ( 95398 )

          If you are looking at a physical product I find it's MUCH easier to gauge both the product and the company by seeing the object, even if just a prototype, in person. Can it still be junk or vaporware if they have a booth and demo? Of course, even from major companies sometimes. But it's still vastly more information talking to a person, getting a card, and looking at the physical item then some random spec-sheet from a company you've never heard of.

          Also sometimes searching through a stack of papers for that

          • For physical objects, I agree that hands-on is best.

            On the other hand, if you're doing this professionally, it's trivial to have the potential vendor drop off a demo unit that you can test on-site (or if it's a big item, arrange a trip to go see it in action on someone else's site.)

            Case in point? A few years back, I wanted something that worked well with VDI on a production floor, but didn't require the expense and upkeep of even a thin-client. We wanted something cheap that you could use and toss into the

    • No, if you want to stand out at CES, just use some buzzterms like "3-D printed," "green," "wearable," etc. for your products (whether they apply or not). By the time anyone notices that your tech doesn't actually use any of that stuff, you'll already be the darling of the show.

    • you can make such judgment calls for companies you don't even know the name of, all you know is "startup". I'd like to have that crystal ball of yours. Personally, because I don't have such insights, I'm left to trusting that people closer to the action, actually working for those businesses know what they are doing - at least better than me who doesn't even know which business we are talking about.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    And why should anyone care about "Nerval's Lobster"'s opinion? What makes him an authority on the subject?

    • Why would we care about what you say about what he says? What makes you an authority on the subject of what makes people authorities on subjects?
  • by mveloso ( 325617 ) on Monday January 06, 2014 @05:19PM (#45881827)

    Back in the day Macworld used to have a small company area ("ghetto") so the public and press could easily find them. Was it in the south convention center?

    They should do the same thing for any of the big tech trade shows.

    Sometimes startups have to go, because one of their investors forced them to. When they money man insists, you go. The above idea should make it a bit more practical...though a targeted show is probably a much better use of your startup's money.

    • by drfishy ( 634081 )
      It's called Eureka Village.
    • They do, kind of (Score:5, Interesting)

      by SuperKendall ( 25149 ) on Monday January 06, 2014 @05:38PM (#45882027)

      CES has a "New and innovative Technology" section (not the actual name I think), in the Venetian (the main show is in the convention center). It's where a lot of smaller and more interesting companies hang out.

      CES has done what they can to separate smaller companies with new stuff from the establishes behemoths of the show that have blocks of display space. The real question is, what value can a company gain even if they are noticeable there? For the money you spend going to CES you could reach so many more people in other ways I think, virtual and physical...

      • For the money you spend going to CES you could reach so many more people in other ways I think

        Reaching more people is easy.

        Reaching the right people in the right places is hard.

        • Percentage wise though, a wider net hits a higher absolute number of the "right people". And certainly a more diverse set of people than the people that attend CES. In fact I almost wonder if you couldn't blame the absolute wasteland of gadget quality or usefulness to CES itself creating a horribly effective echo chamber in which the same ideas just bounce back and forth in a very insular community. I've been attending CES for years and it's literally the last place on earth I would go to launch a produc

          • by vux984 ( 928602 )

            I would instead drive to the middle of Iowa and pay for a beer fest for an entire small town, then get feedback from them about your product after they had knocked back a few. You want feedback?

            I think that tends to backfire too... show up and throw people a party and give them a product and you'll get lots of glowing reviews based on them being happy for a party and free stuff. As long as the product doesn't actually injure them you'll get limited useful feedback.

            Getting good feedback is just plain hard.

        • By "You can't handle REAL feedback" I meant the :"royal you", as in every company ever, not just you personally.

  • or one of the other dozen gurus to tweet or post you gizmo to google plus or wherever. or call their "journalist" buddies to have them write an article on their website or blog

    • What cost Failure (Score:3, Insightful)

      by SuperKendall ( 25149 )

      Judging from what Scoble has done for (or to) Glass, why would you pay for that exactly?

      Scoble should start a racket where you have to pay him monthly not to publish pictures of him and your product in an illicit shower encounter.

  • by JoeyRox ( 2711699 ) on Monday January 06, 2014 @05:28PM (#45881917)
    But it sure is a great place to get laid. And since men go into business to make money so that they can get laid I think disintermediating the process and jumping right to the 'get laid' part is a better business decision.
    • You seem to almost and actually have a point here.... But but but how will this developer I know convince his startup founder ( incidentally also his boss ) to send him to CES so he can get laid ? Simply by quoting JoeyRox' quip on /. ?
    • by antdude ( 79039 )

      Does that work for nerds and geeks like at Defcon? :P

  • It's the same "Makerspace" or "Maker Faire" mentality. Put enough geeks in a room and magical things happen because technology.

  • In general terms (Score:4, Interesting)

    by istartedi ( 132515 ) on Monday January 06, 2014 @05:41PM (#45882055) Journal

    We live in a world of constant information flow. Betting anything on one big discrete burst of information is an anachronism. Trade shows are just one example. The other one that always leaps to mind is quarterly releases of financial information such as employment or sales for corporations. Sales data are being aggregated every second. You know that there is something to be gained from jumping the gun on quarterly releases, and you know somebody is doing that.

    Anyway, trade shows are an anachronism. There's no reason to--what? Vegas? Holy crap. Forget everything I just said. Vegas, Baby!

    • by fermion ( 181285 )
      This reminds of of the definition of a meeting minute I once heard. A meeting minute is not what happened in meeting, as what happens in a meeting is dynamic process, but rather what the people in the meeting intended to have happened or decided after the full consideration of the events of the meeting.

      So the constant data steam is dynamic and is not representative of the reality that we, in the fullness of time, find useful. We want a sanitized version of reality, like the Dow Industrial average even t

      • So it's like peacock feathers. At first glance they're a useless frill; but it's part of the standard mate selection process for peahens.

  • a small startup to hire Darl McBride to stand in front of their booth yelling, "I want my $699 you cheap motherfuckers!" It'd definitely get press notice, and I hear he needs to pad his resume with at least one successful gig lately...

  • by timeOday ( 582209 ) on Monday January 06, 2014 @05:49PM (#45882133)
    CES is just the physical manifestation of the market in general, which is tough to crack wherever you go. If you think CES is noisy, try hanging out a shingle on the WWW, or hawking your stuff on ebay. The economy is a big casino with not that many big winners.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      I think that is the point of the article -- CES represents the overall technology market, and most startups don't make things for the entire technology market but for a niche. So instead of putting money into trying to crack the general market, it's much better to try to crack the niche market. Eg. if your startup makes best-ever noise cancellation headphones, it's better to show them at a DJ trade show or whatever you pick as a niche than at CES.

      I presented my product at CES 2012 as I was invited to show i

  • Sweet, now I can fix all the mistakes I did in high school! Diane! Wait! I really *do* like you I'm just shy!!!
  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Monday January 06, 2014 @06:20PM (#45882413)

    At least from a marketing point of view they are poison. Unless you happen to be the best, cheapest and most innovative around. And nobody is all three.

    These shows have two key drawbacks for you as a presenter. One, they are at a certain moment in time. And as Murphy's Law has it, either your Next Big Thing (tm) is not done yet or it was done 8 months ago and nobody gives a shit anymore. And second, you're not alone there, everyone you are competing with is there and your customer can compare trivially easily how you fare against your competitor.

    Now why the heck would I want that?

    You are paying an insane amount of money to put yourself into the shark pit. Instead, if you're a big company, you can easily launch your own private "we have done it" party and invite a ton of journalists where they may report about you, and only you, where you can bombard them with the awesome new features of your gadget without them being able to see that your competitor has all that and more. And if you're small, well, the last thing you need in the first place is to be put next to a monster gorilla who outshines you in every aspect. It's like trying to get noticed with your hot dog booth next to the worlds biggest food court.

  • On paper, the get-a-booth strategy makes sense—aside from SXSW, CES hosts possibly the greatest concentration of tech journalists in a relatively small space.

    That's exactly why a startup should be at CES.

    So not only does your Nike FuelBand knockoff need to compete against a hundred other 'smart bracelets' on display

    And thats exactly why if your business model relies on being a copycat product, you should probably rethink your startup. If CES is truly your wakeup call in this regard, well, at least you found out before shipping a product...

    But in a certain way, you can't blame the startups: at some point, someone told them that CES is the best way to get their company noticed, even if it means blowing the equivalent of three employees' yearly salaries.

    The important thing (for any conference) is to realize why you specifically are there, and what you specifically want to get out of it. If you're going just because it's your industry and you think you should be there, then your priorities are messed up and you're wasting your money.

  • Contrary to popular belief CES is not 100% about consumer electronics. The company I work for is currently at CES and have been for the past 2 years(as long as we existed). And guess what: we have no consumer products at all. Everything is B2B. And based on our experience it's been a good place(although not the best) to find big corporate clients. Unless you're a small company/start up trying to get in to a red ocean, you'll be fine.
  • Being investing in many start-ups for 2 decades or so, and been couple of times played that wide-eye start-up entrepreneur role, I really pity the current crop of entrepreneurs.

    There have been too many con-artists in the investment scene.

    Yes, many of us are there to invest our real money for those with solid ideas - but there are those who went in, pretending to be interested in investing, but some how, for whatever reason they pulled out at the last moment, carry with them great ideas that they often trans

  • CES, CEBIT, NAB, IBC, TED, DAVOS, SXSW, Emerge, E3, any ski resort movie festival....

    All overrated nowadays, more press motivated, more advertising vaporware, more ideas with no meat, more opinions, more show and dance to potential investors. There's no learning, discovery or real discussion of where tech [or most other popular topics in economics, business, media and 'coolness'] is taking us. They are all cliques of social groups and expensive. In some ways I think running a kickstarter is a better option.

  • say that like that's a bad thing? This is Vegas!
    Just make sure you have some potential customers with you and it's your card behind the bar (or in the stripper's hand, etc)

Loose bits sink chips.