When I took the reins of CEA in the recession of 1990–91, I had a job to do, and that was keeping CES alive. But in the back of my mind a larger goal loomed: making CES the grandest and most popular consumer electronics show in the world. I knew we needed a strategy that reflected my ambitions. What I didn’t know was that this strategy would encapsulate the very ninja innovator qualities I have described in CEA’s new book which I authored, Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World’s Most Successful Businesses
. Following is a condensed excerpt from the book.
1. Ninjas Follow a Code of Conduct: Honesty
In the old days, we used to estimate our attendance by counting the number of show badges we printed ahead of time, and then we would assume that 20 percent of the people did not show up. Over the years, we had devised a formula: 80 percent of our pre-registration plus the people who registered at the venue was a good estimate of actual attendance. We would take that number, and rather than round off, we would make it an odd number so it would appear precise. We called this “actual estimated attendance.” It wasn’t dishonest, but as we knew, it greatly exaggerated CES attendance.
This never seemed right to me. I didn’t want to conduct a trade show that wasn’t popular. But I felt it was more important to establish credibility over popularity. So to get a more accurate number we asked everyone who had preregistered to pick up a badge holder on site. This way we counted every person who came to our registration area. We also took the unusual move of establishing our credibility by hiring an outside independent auditor to verify that the people we said were there actually attended. The following year, we saw a shockingly huge fall-off in our reported attendance numbers. Instead of the 80 percent figure we were using, we discovered that only about half of those who preregistered for badges were attending our show. This was quite a scary period. We knew the attendance hadn’t fallen at all—just that our counting had become much better.
Of course, as soon as we released the much lower results, we took a negative hit in the press. Although we tried to explain that we changed how we counted people, the press reports were uniformly devastating. But by choosing honesty, we had the credibility to call for all trade shows to do the same. I urged the entire trade show industry to shift to independent and honest reporting of attendance numbers. I got some traction and many shows now audit.
2. Ninjas Pay it Forward: Treat Others as You Want to be Treated
Fortunately for CES, COMDEX ignored and mistreated its customers. At a panel session on which I participated with a former COMDEX president, years after his show collapsed, he admitted that they did not care about their customers. Rather, he said, COMDEX focused more heavily on financial issues, which included squeezing as much profit from the show as possible. No customers want to be treated poorly, and we strive to be decent and caring with our customers.
But over the years, we took being nice to a higher level. Of course, we were always polite, surveyed our customers extensively, and even strived to maintain personal relationships and connections. But we were never satisfied; we kept trying to step up our game. To that end, we undertake a tremendous amount of research. We ask our customers what they liked and didn’t like and how we could do things better.
Second, we use a sales database, Salesforce.com, which allows us to track the history of all our sales contacts with each customer. We also encourage a little bit of competition among our sales employees.
Third, we do not employ the outdated practice of “telling.” Real selling involves asking questions to find out what matters most— ninjas are always gathering information—and then presenting your product as a series of personalized
features and benefits relevant to your customers. Indeed, I am proud to say that CES continues to be ranked highly as an organization that focuses on our customers’ needs, rather than assuming we know what’s best for them.
Fourth, our sales Vice President Dan Cole created a special customer-centric program that proactively focuses on real-time needs and desires to provide solutions for our clients. We call it SURE, and it stands for Sense of Urgency, Responsiveness, and Empathy. We believe it’s important to anticipate problems and demonstrate our sincere desire to solve them quickly. We want our customers (and potential customers) to know that we see their issues as if we were in their shoes.
3. Ninjas Turn an Adversary’s Strength against Them
Although COMDEX was principally a computer show, it aggressively courted consumer electronics companies. Our response was to broadly define consumer electronics to include computers, IT and anything to do with the Internet. Our strategy was to go after COMDEX’s strength, just as it was going after ours.
But to beat COMDEX at its own game, we knew we had to do this carefully and deliberatively. Specifically, we defined CES by the speakers who would deliver the keynote address. Led by our show Senior Vice President Karen Chupka, we had a major breakthrough when, in 1998, we persuaded Bill Gates to be a keynoter, joining Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems. I will never forget seeing Gates walking alone into a rehearsal, his head buried in a magazine as he entered the hotel ballroom. Each year Gates’s presentation and our investment in the stage set would grow, and we would attract more attendees and press.
Most significantly, we used Gates’ keynote to promote CES as a major industry event. This allowed us to attract other significant speakers, especially from the IT world. We captured the IT space, and as new IT products like smartphones, laptops, tablets and computers were introduced through consumer channels, we were attractive to companies seeking to make their mark with the press, power retailers and the financial community. The COMDEX formula, directed at the geek and CIO crowd, faded in importance, and we stole their market share.
4. Ninjas Can Reinvent Themselves Nimbly
With one simple word, we changed ourselves. After the end of our summer show in Chicago, we simply called our winter show in Las Vegas the Consumer Electronics Show, or CES. But then one of our marketing professionals suggested we add one word to our name: international.
I recall hearing the idea and approving it but not thinking it was that big a deal. It turned out to be among the most significant changes we made. We fundamentally transformed the nature and perception of our event. With that one word addition and a little marketing, we started attracting additional international visitors to our show—which now number more than thirty thousand each year. This made the show more important to our exhibitors because they could greatly expand their sales by attracting overseas buyers.
In short, I was presented with the dual challenge of keeping CES relevant as well as fending off our biggest competitor, COMDEX. I turned that challenge onto my team— let’s not just stay relevant—let’s beat COMDEX. I’m proud to say that they delivered.
Because of that I learned how to build a successful organization. We made mistakes— nearly fatal mistakes. But we grew from those errors. More important, we learned from the missteps of our competitor. It was this process that taught me how to succeed.
If I’m able to pass judgment on the successes and failures of other enterprises and individuals today, it’s because I’ve not only learned from my members what success requires, I’ve experienced it firsthand. At the time, I did not know that these skills were particularly reflective of the ancient ninja warrior. Now I understand that what made the ninja such a successful entity makes us all successful.