The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas is a monster. It draws record crowds every year, eclipsing 170,000 total attendees last January. But from my perspective -- I build tools to help companies launch pre-order and crowdfunding campaigns for new tech products -- CES seems more dinosaur-like every day as tech companies like Glowforge and Lily choose to launch new products through crowdfunding and pre-order campaigns instead of waiting on CES. In the next few years, promising product launches from all, but the biggest tech brands at high-tech's most famous event -- CES -- will be all but eliminated. Before you brand me a hater, know that I love CES. I remember how excited I used to get reading about what's coming at the next CES and then going into withdrawals when it ended.
And that's kind of the point.
CES is a Monster Dinosaur
Nobody should have to wait a full year for a singular event in order to learn about upcoming innovations. It's a terrible approach. The show is incredibly crowded. It's loud. It's crammed full of people. And there is so much to see that many of us go into sensory overload before we finish cruising the booths, events and vendor parties. Moreover, if you're a marketer spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to launch products there - and your name isn't Apple, Google, Microsoft, Samsung or Sony - you're betting on some of the worst odds in Vegas. Your launch is almost certain to be trumped by the competitive noise.
True, there are valid reasons for launching at CES. Marketers can tell business leaders, investors, partners and customers that their upcoming product is important enough to be part of this huge event. They can use this show to rally the troops to deliver product designs, pricing models, speeches and everything else needed to launch on time. And who wouldn't enjoy boarding an airplane to Sin City for an exciting trade show where, in their spare time, they can enjoy some of the best entertainment in the world?
Benefits of a Self-Hosted Launch
Lately though, entrepreneurs and digital agencies I've spoken to have been debating whether the bang is really worth the buck. They've been asking questions like: "How many investors, partners or customers really lined up behind my product as a result of investment in the show? How many press articles emerged to shine a spotlight on my innovative product? And how much good, actionable input did I get from customers to advise how (or even whether) to release that new version?"
Now, here is where crowdfunding starts to get interesting for many companies. First, when I say "crowdfunding," I am not referring to campaigns on platforms like Kickstarter or Indiegogo where a creator sets a funding goal, asks the public for money, and has a time-based goal for successfully (or 60 percent of the time unsuccessfully) reaching that goal. I am talking about an approach where businesses can easily launch their own customized, white-label crowdfunding or presale pages - with no counters, deadlines or arbitrary limits on how much can be collected.
1 - Launch When You Want To
Launching pre-orders online in this way offers numerous advantages over launching at trade shows. For one, people can launch products when it actually makes sense, such as launching when the product is most needed. Imagine, for example, you have the world's Coolest Cooler. Why would you want to announce that in the dead of winter at some trade show in the desert? Maybe that launch is better off occurring in late spring when people are thinking of booking their summer surf-and-sand getaways.
2- Gauge Demand
Entrepreneurs also find that crowdfunding gives them the opportunity to more accurately gauge levels of interest in their products. By using today's new breed of powerful pre-order tools, they can almost immediately gauge demand and estimate how many units to produce (or not produce) for release day.
Coin and Tile pioneered this trend with a slick, one-step payment form and useful features such as a referral system, order management tool and integration with retargeting tools. Coin, which offers credit-card-sized devices that hold other credit cards, famously reached its $50,000 pre-order target in just 40 minutes, propelled by a great model and strong media attention. Under the old model, Coin might have gone to a show like CES, met with a bunch of manufacturers and distributors and waited months to ever get direct customer input on their product.
3- Level The Playing Field
Another advantage of crowdfunding is that it can level the competitive playing field for smaller entrepreneurs. At big shows, such as CES, industry giants rule the day. Startups rarely get stage time, often struggle to generate booth traffic and don't tend to draw as much media attention as the big boys. But an innovative idea that attracts strong pre-orders can quickly establish brand awareness, make some serious noise and stir excitement.
For example, Navdy, a San Francisco-based maker of a soon-to-be-released Head-Up Display (HUD) for your car, collected more than $1 million in pre-orders in just three days. That success led to a boatload of press coverage, which ultimately helped the startup amass 17,000 pre-orders worth about $6 million. Another company, Soylent, a food replacement startup backed by the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, raised more than $3 million over a few years with crowdfunding. Lammily, which makes dolls that are proportionate to real human dimensions, rung up 19,000 pre-orders worth about $500,000.
The incredible success of launches like these sends us a clear message:, launching a new tech product via crowdfunding and pre-orders is here to stay. And like many Internet-enabled shifts before it, this craze is likely to completely remake how and where businesses announce their innovations to the world - eliminating the need to seek life support from a noisy, overcrowded trade show in Las Vegas.
The coolest launches in tech and hardware are not happening at CES, they're happening every single week. That said, I'll see you at CES this year. Look for the guy wearing the shirt that says "CES is Dead?"