How should startups approach CES?

I (and the rest of team Shelby) recently attended CES, the largest consumer electronics show in the world.  It was my first time going to such a huge event, so consequently, it was also my first time navigating the waters of a trade show that is largely geared toward large companies rather than small startups. In an effort to make things more accessible to the startups interested in attending CES in the future, I thought I’d share some of the questions I had as we planned for CES.

  • Do we need to have a booth at CES?  Depends on what your goals are—the booth was useful for us because we are a consumer web startup and need to be visible. Not only did we attract investors and potential business partners, but we attracted users and were able to test different aspects of our pitch on them. In this sense, the booth was invaluable. If you’re not a consumer-facing startup and are on a tight budget, a booth may not be worth it (unless you can get it for free like we did). You’re still better off with some kind of meeting place to gather at (could be a hotel room) and schedule BD meetings for, and you’ll have to get more creative about how you generate awareness around your startup.
  • How much money do we need? Cost can vary greatly between companies, so it’s hard to provide a straight answer on this one. If you’re a small startup under 10 employees and on a tight budget, it’s possible to scrap together stuff pretty cheaply.  The biggest expenses will be airfare, hotel, and official CES expenses (booth & press events if you choose to get pay for these).
  • What sort of stuff should we pay for, and what should we try to get for free? How does a startup get the most ROI for the least cost at an event where many of the vendors have deep pockets?  Staying close to the action was really important to us. If you’re planning on taking meetings, the right hotel room can also double as space for that; consider ponying up for the right room.  Almost everything at CES (from carpet in the booth to press releases through the CEA) costs money. Figure out what your priorities are ahead of time and optimize your spend accordingly.  That said, little things like upgrading to nicer carpet in the booth can make a big difference when you’re on your feet 16+ hours a day.
  • Other tips? In the weeks prior to CES, schedule the meetings you can for the afternoons to take place in your suite or booth. This timing allows you to hunt down other people during your mornings on the show floor.  Also, only send the number of employees that is right for you—we found 4 at the booth was pretty ideal. We had at least 2 people pitching at a time, but the extra two often helped pull in additional onlookers and generate more buzz around our booth (or were available to go scout other booths).  Our neighbors started coming over to check us out because of the volume of traffic that we attracted as a team
Overall recommendation: be creative! There are a lot of low budget (but interesting) ways to engage people at CES and other trade shows.  This is what being a startup is all about, so be comfortable in your own skin and people will love it!

The questions above aren’t exhaustive, but they’re pretty representative of the stuff we thought about this year and hopefully will be helpful to startups in the future that attend CES. A lot of people may think CES is a waste of time, and while it might be if you approach it incorrectly, there’s a lot to be learned and achieved if you approach things with an open, but focused, mind.  More thoughts on how to crush CES?  Leave a comment and I’ll add to the list!