Confessions of a Consumer Electronics Show spy

ocular invasion | Flickr via Creative Commons

The first rule of corporate reconnaissance is to blend in. Or … maybe not. I don’t know. Because the second rule is don’t spill your secrets.

The International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is supposed to be the venue for making secrets a must-have technical reality. Sure, there’s some flashy gadgetry at the 2012 Las Vegas confab alongside an ungodly number of smartphone cases. By most accounts though it’s been a pretty lackluster event—with far more mildly iterative products than true innovations this time around.

But secrets can still be had at CES.

A stealth, early stage Colorado startup pawed potential competitors’ products with an eye to cracking the code on developing buzz-worthy consumer electronics. The trio agreed to let me tag along while they interrogated exhibitors, debated design trends and questioned their own marketing strategy.

Here’s how they did it.

Infiltrate

Scope out individual roles for your reconnaissance mission. What elite squad doesn’t rely on team specialties—A-Team, MacGuyver or Battlestar Galactica, thankyouverymuch? Manage each booth encounter by outlining your strategic information goals (technical, design, marketing, funding, etc.) and assign responsibilities for obtaining it.

Gather intelligence

Exhibitors can be shockingly vague about the product they’re hawking. Often it’s a poor sales pitch. But, as we witnessed at CES, some are astoundingly uninformed about their own product or its features. [Take note: The marketing people did the best in conveying problem and solution. Technical folk, not so much.] Don’t expect to pick up conclusive information from chatting up the booth flunky. Research the product from reviews and technical specs elsewhere. Use your face time to demo the product and ask questions that will help differentiate it from yours.

Debrief immediately

Gather after visiting a booth and share the information your team gleans. Waiting to reveal crucial bits of information is all too often lost in the fog of the conference after-parties. This isn’t an exercise in slagging on the competition. Cocky agents provide lousy intel. Noting well-executed design, materials, features or marketing materials is as helpful as critiquing perceived missteps and market opportunities.

Recruit assets

Keep a close eye on your competitors’ retail channels. Like it or not, the distributors will apply the same sales strategies as they did to the first-mover in the market. Humans, we like simplicity and predictability. What happens if QVC turns out to be your best outlet when Amazon passes you up? Do you celebrate or hang your head in shame?

Fraternize with the civilians

After scrutinizing an especially unattractive product [ridiculed as a throwback to 1980s bling], the undercover team’s tech lead recalled an earlier conversation with a former colleague, an accomplished project manager, about the utilitarian gadget when spotted at the DEMO Conference.

Project Manager: No woman is ever going to put this on her purse. Haven’t you ever shown this to your girlfriends?

Ugly gadget devs: We’re working 24-hours-a-day. We don’t have girlfriends.

Project Manager: You need to get out of the house and get yourself a girlfriend. If for nothing else so she can look at this and say I will never put this on my purse.

Don’t sabotage your product without thoroughly testing it on a variety of potential users who care about form as much as function.

Choose your allies wisely

Partnering with an established company can offer big benefits for prototype funding and accessing reliable supply and distribution channels. But don’t be too quick to rush into a relationship because you’re desperate for cash or brand affirmation. Think carefully about the ally’s public and private reputations in the markets they exist in. Does it truly fit your customer base or is there just too much explaining (or wishful thinking) needed for it to make sense?

Find a Miss Moneypenny to your James Bond

Swagger all you want—c’mon, you’re a startup!—but you need a smart, trusted and brutally honest confidant. Someone who will challenge the customer acquisition lies you tell yourself in the dark of night when money is tight and time is running short. Product categories, user behaviors and sales channels are largely pre-determined in the consumer goods market. Listen to your Moneypenny.

[note color="#FFCC00"]Tekhne will continue to follow the progress of our stealthy team. Stay tuned for future updates.[/note]