CES after 2AM. Diary of a founder's 'first time.'

marc_int2.jpgEditor’s Note: Marc Barros and Jason Green launched Twenty20Camera, maker of the vholdr hands-free digital video recorder, in 2004, just as they were graduating from colllege. They grew to a 7-man shop on little more than a $100,000-line of credit. So when they closed their first angel round, the guys did what any self-respecting gadget makers would do: they blew a wad of it on a booth at CES. Marc offered to chronicle his first-time in Vegas for Found|READ. Here is Chapter 1.

CES. It’s the only place where an army of insurgent type A personality sales reps converge on a small platoon of start up boy scouts crammed in a booth no bigger than a kid’s bedroom. And the battle at hand? To make the biggest waves possible.

Before we even arrived in Vegas, (a city which drains money from a start-up faster than an addicted gambler) we devised our booth plans. I think we started as far back as August, drawing on the board, debating, chalking a 10’x20′ space on the office floor, and setting a CES project file for the team to rally around. As we all do, we got busy. August turned into September, into October, into lines of aggressive Christmas shoppers in the blink of sn eye.

“Oh yeah, don’t we need to put a booth together?”

In typical start-up fashion we raced through booth design, logistics planning, and supply trips to retailers from Seattle to Vegas. We hit Best Buy for cables, Home Depot for power, Radio Shack just because, Walmart for rations, and sought out a Sears store Yahoo! said was there. (It wasn’t.)

Off to Vegas we went, six in comfy jet style, and one by car through what might go down as storm of the year - wind, snow, rain, and jack-knifed semis. Here’s the best part, instead of staying in an overpriced, dirty motel off the strip, we opted to rent a house for the week. (Hop on Craigs List and you’ll find plenty of weekly homes to rent.) Instead of dusting our budget of $2000 on a crappy hotel, we rolled seven people deep in a three bedroom hacienda for $900. Start-up 1, CES 0. We did find a way to cram 7 people in a 3 bedroom house, don’t ask how. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

Set-up Day(s)

Since three of us arrived on Saturday we decided to set-up the booth as early as possible.

After avoiding the trade show Gestapo and telling the booth handlers the wrong booth number in order to avoid the $100/hr handling and watching fees, we began the set-up process.

Don’t be fooled by the nice old ladies who are stationed as security guards…they bite.

The only problem with set-up is once you think you’re done and you have the “to buy list” down to a few items, the time rushes by you. Espeicially in Vegas, where the city blocks are a mile long and finding a Sears, which existed on Google Maps, but not in real life, takes your entire day up. Of course fires like business cards not showing up (good old UPS) as planned only adds to the mahem. I will say that having your own wheels, or rented ones, saves you a lot of dollars in Vegas, especially when the transportation industry here is powered by cash.

The best thing we did on Sunday was to head straight to the press rooms and start meeting as many people as possible.

What we didn’t quite realize is the press noise starts early, as early as Thursday before the show. Make sure your PR person (or for most start-ups just put your PR hat on and do it yourself) is there a few days before camping out in front of every event. They should be there waiting, hunting, and doing whatever it takes to get you press appointments for the week. If they are good enough, they will find a way into every press event. Otherwise lean on CES and their press teams to tell you who is shooting what type of TV segments or writing important pieces.

CES is very helpful and people like Jim Barry (The Digital Answer Man) can be your opportunity of a life time if he likes your product. Thankfully for us, I happened to walk into his office at the same time Veronica De La Cruz (CNN Morning show) was looking for new products.

We got the morning show slot, which we thought was fantastic until she told us to be there at 2:30 am with the product. 2:30, what? DON’T SAY NO. Just run with it.

PC Magazine also hooked us up with a great piece out of the gate and again, as luck would have it, Lance Ulanoff, editor in chief, was to be a frequent guest on CNN and NBC over the week. (Thanks Lance for showing the product off so many times). Vholdr made six CNN appearances, one NBC, and one ABC appearance all on the first day. Start-up 2, CES 0.

Day 1

After 2 hours of sleep, the 2:30 am delivery of VholdR to the CNN booth turned from a quick product demo to a live CNN International interview. What a blast. After that, and now with a laundry list of one TV appearance, I marched into the NBC broadcast quadrant like I had something coming to me. (the Today show was being shot). Close, but not quite. Start Up 2. CES 0. NBC 1.

Then, the CES doors opened to the public with a bang, and nobody manning our booth for two hours. Note to self – read the fine print saying CES starts at 10 am, except for Twenty20 Cameras, which starts at 8. Start-up 2, CES 1. NBC 1.

The crowd was steady, including a mix of retailers, media, and onlookers. We hit the floor with excited energy, never quite sure who we were talking with until we wrapped our pitches (5 of us times 84 individual pitches equals 420 a day). Note to self – know who you’re speaking with. Best Buy on a person’s badge doesn’t necessarily mean VP of anything related to decision making, though I’m sure our enthusiasm and sincerity made them feel important. Start Up 2. CES 2. NBC 1. Now, what we did find is that

if you spot someone’s badge, get their name, and bark it loudly enough, they frequently snap to attention, and will listen to pretty much whatever you have to say.

It didn’t hurt that two of the Twenty20 team members were personality magnets, and could pull cops off donuts. People will walk right on by if you let them, and purchasing models doesn’t work.

The evening ended with all 7 of us in a car (a Honda element, which only seats 4) looking for a nice Mexican restaurant all because one person in the group was committed to eating Mexican food. Jason 1. Start Up 2. CES 2. NBC 1.

Marc Barros is the founder of their Seattle-based company, Twenty20 Camera, maker of the vholdr, a hands-free mobile digital video device. Read his earlier, and very useful post: 4 Rules for When and How to Spend Startup-Cash, published here in September.

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