Former NFL player Jeremy Bloom anxiously scanned the crowd at a taco party under the luminous faux-sky of the Venetian hotel's canal walk in Las Vegas. The wide receiver turned entrepreneur wasn't hoping to spot friends or catch a waiter's attention -- he was on the lookout for venture capitalists.
Bloom, also a former Olympic skier, flew in from Denver, blew through four meetings, then landed at the party hosted by venture capital firm Foundry Group -- par for the course on the sidelines of the Computer Electronics Show earlier this week, where venture capitalists and cash-hungry startups held marathon meetings to seal potentially game-changing deals.
The 29-year-old was looking for financial backing for his advertising startup, Integrate.com, which already has raised $4.25 million.
CES is a collection of some of the most important decision makers in the venture world. It would otherwise be virtually impossible to coordinate all those schedules, to get time with them, to meet with them and do deals, Bloom said.
The world's technology showcase has long been a vibrant meeting place for industry executives, consultants, fund managers, analysts and bloggers. But in the past five years, entrepreneurs, and the venture capitalists they depend on have joined the club.
Howard Morgan, a partner at First Round Capital, said CES gives him a chance to connect his portfolio companies with retailers. One of his portfolio companies Ambient Devices, which makes weather forecasting gadgets, reached a deal for Brookstone stores to sell its products after an agreement struck during a previous show.
Another deal that Morgan was able to broker at a CES show was with Best Buy.
CES has become a mandatory event on the calendar for VCs lured by the promise of connecting fledgling startups with the tech world's biggest companies. Although Apple, the industry's largest company, did not have a exhibit at CES, a source familiar with the company's plans said more than 250 Apple employees registered for the week-long convention.
The industry trade group behind CES does not break out how many of the 4,000 investors who attend the show are VCs. Besides the Foundry Group party, about 170 members of the National Venture Capital Association showed up at a swanky party at the nightclub TAO, while another lavish dinner was put on by Silicon Valley-based Scale Ventures, the people who backed Box.net, an Internet-based content storage company.
DEALMAKING IN THE DESERT
Luis Arbulu is one new convert. The venture capitalist, who left Google six months ago, just finished his first CES. He now says it's easier to hold a round of meetings on the Vegas Strip, than to keep driving to the Silicon Valley city of Mountain View from his new VC firm, the Hattery, in San Francisco. Google is based in Mountain View.
During last week's conference, he said he met with Microsoft to discuss payment methods for Windows mobile apps. He came armed with questions on what support for gaming will be on Windows, and what payment methods will be available in different countries -- all to help his gaming companies get an early edge.
Just as crucial, Arbulu said he found time to meet with his former Google colleagues to gather intel.
At a lot of the meetings I have been asking them, what are you working on? And we use that information to help us inform our investment decisions, he said.
For the veterans however, CES is where deals get done. Spencer Tall, managing director of Allegis Capital, said he had a components supplier for display devices attend CES two years ago with the sole goal of securing a deal with at least one consumer electronics manufacturer.
He talked his way into six meetings with rival manufacturers who all made the same product -- and three of them signed deals with his portfolio company that week.
Until CES, the deals were stalled, Tall said. But with everyone here, you can cut through a lot of layers of bureaucracy.
A decade ago, relatively few venture capitalists made the trip out to the desert, because consumer technology was not that hot. But five years ago, when consumer Web companies exploded, their numbers swelled.
Not all the VCs who ply the Strip are as single-minded. For most, CES continues to be a chance to make contacts and drum up new business for their startups. They also host unrelated meetings at their companies' booths in the hope of drawing a giant like Samsung to a portfolio startup.
It's all about getting people together. At last year's CES, one venture capital firm that did not want to be named organized a networking dinner in a private room in a restaurant, seating one of their portfolio companies next to a major, publicly traded technology corporation.
Hours of lilting French music and a few bottles of wine helped raise the buzz around the startup, and the corporation bought the startup a few months later, a person who attended the dinner said.
CES is a good venue for closed conversation, Arbulu said as he pushed his way through the crowd at the convention center. There are a lot of side conversations of people who are not on the floor.
It's easy to schedule people here believe it or not, it's like, hey we are in Vegas, and it's not like there is work going on.
(Editing by Peter Lauria, Edwin Chan and Carol Bishopric)