LAS VEGAS -- For tech entrepreneurs, exhibiting their new app or gadget at the 2014 International CES can be the opportunity of a lifetime. This is where all the top companies, innovators, press, investors and others gather every year to see the latest and greatest in technology. Get noticed here and it can mean instant national and global exposure.
That's the idea, anyway.
Last year, the founders of Boulder, Colo.-based Ubooly learned a few real-world lessons when they traveled to CES in hopes of gaining big-time exposure. Ubooly, in case you haven't seen one yet, is a smartphone-powered stuffed animal that children can use to play and learn.
While they opted not to pony up tens of thousands of dollars for an exhibitor booth, they purchased airfare, hotel rooms and tickets to the show, planning to walk the convention center floor with their stuffed toy in hand, wearing cute matching hats. Like everyone else, they hoped to get some attention and search for potential partners.
Just like everyone else. The reality: while you're at CES with hopes and dreams of being the next big thing, so are hundreds of other companies and entrepreneurs. The Ubooly team realized quickly that their strategy was flawed.
"After just five minutes of walking past million-dollar booths, we realized that we had no chance of getting through the noise," says Ubooly co-founder Carly Gloge. "It's amazing what some companies will spend, even at our stage, with unrealistic hopes of having a break-through."
It's a difficult battle for attention, especially when you're competing with LL Cool J on stage promoting an app, next to Samsung's new gargantuan TVs, as Ubooly did last year. While the Ubooly team is back at CES again this year, they have a dramatically new game plan.
"We're sharing a booth with GeoPalz to promote a partnership with their product," Gloge says. "However, our primary focus has been to set up meetings with press, potential partners and investors." The idea is that sharing the booth will increase visibility while saving costs. And the press outreach will provide "an efficient week of meetings and demos -- probably the biggest value of the event," she says.
For any entrepreneur who plans on exhibiting at CES, or any other big event like it, Gloge shares some of her first-hand advice:
Be smart about your budget. Let's face it, most startups don't have the budgets their big-market competitors do. And, when budgeting for a show like CES, many first-time exhibitors don't realize that the booth rental -- which can cost anywhere between $20,000 and $100,000 -- is a fraction of the overall cost. This year, Ubooly was able to eliminate the majority of the rental fee by being featured in a partner's booth.
Then there are the setup fees. "We've eliminated all of those costs this year by creating a display that our employees can haul in themselves," Gloge says.
Don't let the show dictate your product roadmap or messaging. This is a big one. Chasing the CES rat race "can literally mutate your start-up's DNA," Gloge says. "Rather than focusing on a product-market fit, startups should seek product-show fit, or product-media fit."
Sure, you want to get attention at a show like CES, but focusing on individual features that might excite the press is a short-term vision, Gloge says. "I've been there. It feels amazing, but it's unsustainable."
The way you win over an industry should be the same way you win attention at a big event: fill a service gap and provide long-term value for customers.
Look into and participate in events that are running before and after the show. While events like CES are massive, not everything happens on the show floor during show hours. There are numerous related events happening throughout the week that give attendees another chance to network and meet the right people.
"One of the best events I attended last year was hosted by the Vegas Tech fund at the Container Park downtown," Gloge says. "It was a way to genuinely connect with fellow startups in a relaxed setting."
Trade goodies for app downloads or tweets about your company. The CPI on app downloads can be more than $3 these days, Gloge says, so trading a coffee or candy for a download can be cost-effective. "Even better, you might get some honest, real-time feedback," she says. "Vine knocked this strategy out of the park at the Web Summit this year by offering cappuccinos and lattes for Vine video posts."
Reserve a quiet space for meetings and pre-schedule as much as you can. CES, like any major event, is an opportunity to follow-up with a lead or start a new conversation, but Gloge suggests scheduling specific times for your meetings in advance. Having that quiet, more private space to pitch a customer or an investor helps cut through all the noise and puts the attention and focus on you and your startup.
"We'll be busy building long-term relationships instead of engaging in the prototypical wild Vegas ride," Gloge says.