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A Startup’s Survival Guide to CES

How your business can get the most value from the biggest tech event of the year

It’s that time of year again. No, not Christmas or New Year’s or any other holidays. Those relaxing days are behind us. Rather, now is the time to buckle up and get ready for CES, the largest, most frenetic, and demanding tech event of the year.

CES is an absolute giant of a trade show. It brings together large tech giants, countless manufacturers, and a galaxy of hardware and software startups to see what’s new for the coming year. For many startups, taking the trip to Las Vegas represents a major investment and potential opportunity to gain traction for their business or potentially forge new partnerships.

I consider myself a CES veteran, having attended the conference nearly 10 years in a row before joining Microsoft. Due to its sheer size, it can be a challenging event to navigate and an even greater challenge to optimize the opportunities for your business. So, to help startups maximize their time at CES I put together the following survival guide. Below, you’ll find insights into everything from where to stay, to how to optimize meeting opportunities and everything in between.

To booth or not to booth

This is the very first question you should ask yourself. If you’re attending CES this year, you’ve already placed your bet, but in general booths should only be taken by the largest or most established companies. If you’re still a young startup, it’s unlikely that you will be able to justify the investment in an expensive booth.

The real value startups can get out of CES is the opportunity to meet with executives at the large tech companies or with manufactures from the Asian supply chain.

A base of operations

If CES is all about meetings, how do you make this happen? The secret to CES is that the most important meetings don’t happen at the show itself. The smart move is to book a suite at one of the hotels on the strip and use that as a base. The best location is the Venetian or any of the hotels nearby.

Bring everything you need in order to show off your business. If this means bringing every kind of adapter you can think of to run your presentation on the TV in your room, then do it. If it means buying a TV there, then do that as well. That suite is your office while you’re at CES, so make sure you’re ready to do business.

The right team

You need at least two people for a successful event, ideally three. One person should be based out of your suite to take meetings and present your company. The other one or two people should scan the show floor looking for executives to speak to.

Now, it’s important not to drink the Kool-Aid. What does that mean? CES features amazing tech demos with everything from VR, to self-driving cars, and flexible mobile displays. It’s amazing technology. But those amazing demos draw big crowds and lines and will eat away at valuable time. It’s important to focus on the task at hand. Find relevant people, get their business card, and reach out later that evening to arrange a meeting.

Don’t be tempted to meet at a party or over drinks. You will just be drowned out by the noise and distractions of Las Vegas.

Getting there and back again

If possible, arrive at the event a day before and leave a day early. The traffic at the airport and in the city on the first and last days of CES is a nightmare. Giving yourself an extra day can help make it easier to get settled.

What about getting around the city or getting from your hotel to the show (and back)? My recommendation is simple: bring comfortable shoes and just walk. The city grinds to a halt during CES with some of the worst traffic I have ever seen. On top of that, there are terribly long lines to board the shuttles that will just frustrate you and waste your time. So, strap on some comfortable shoes, bring your Fitbit, and think of it as an opportunity to get some exercise.

One last thing

Bring hand cream. No, seriously. The dry Las Vegas air combined with all of the carpeting in the casinos is a perfect recipe for static electricity. The first time I went to CES I got an electric shock every time I touched a door handle or elevator button, and even when I reached out for a handshake. The hand cream helps prevent static build-up on your hands and should cut down on the shocks.

Of course, this guide is based on my experience at the event. If you have learned different lessons, or have received differing advice from friends or colleagues, don’t be afraid to pursue your own course. With an event this size, there is no single “right” way to approach it. The most important thing is to find the right formula for your business.