Visitor vs Vendor: A tale of two VMworlds

My buddy Gabe Maentz asked me during VMworld this year what it’s like to attend as a Visitor and what its like to attend as a Vendor. I think its a good question because most certainly the show is completely different for each attendee.

IMG_4026I’ve been to VMworld 3 times now, the first time as a general attendee, an experience I wrote about some time ago. The last two times I went as part of the Vendor side, once with Emulex, and most recently with SimpliVity. Even within those two shows as a vendor there were significant differences, so perhaps there will be a post forthcoming that goes into deeper discussion on that front.

Visitor

As a Visitor there were 3 areas of focus for VMworld attendance to which I want to address: 

  1. Learning and Training
  2. Vendor and Product Analysis
  3. Networking

Learning and Training tend to be in my view the primary focal point for a Visitor attendee. The goal for me when attending as a Visitor was to gain knowledge about the newly released products and to attend hands on labs for products for which I did not have access, or the ability to spin up in a home or work lab. There’s also the ability to take beta exams, which can give you a leg up on the upcoming certifications. ProTip:I’d say when crafting your “reason to go letter to your boss” the Learning/Training aspect is one to hint at heavily to help show return on investment for the show. 

Vendor and Product Analysis: this weighs heavily as well, and if you have been to VMworld once, and realize that the sessions are recorded and can be skipped (unless you have a pressing question to ask) and downloaded to watch later, the prime focus may move to Vendor and Product Analysis. As a Visitor, my focal point was to spend a significant amount of time in the Solutions Exchange gathering information about products. I usually made a point of visiting all of the Storage technologies on the floor and getting a good understanding of their products and upcoming releases. I would assume the same is for those Visitors who have a key job requirement to focus on Networking, Server, DevOps, Analytic, etc. It’s not every day that you have all the key vendors in your space in one area at the same time, so its best to make use of those floor hours to gather as much information as possible. This also guarantees that you will be emailed daily for the next century. It’s perfectly ok to decline to be scanned if you are not interested in the product, this is called a self selecting lead in my view and its of no ones benefit to get your name on a list for a product you have no desire or use for. On the flip side, if you have a real interest in the product, make sure you are scanned by the Vendor, and ask for a followup.

Networking: now here is the one aspect that applies to both Visitor/Vendor, networking and meeting with your peers. There is a very social aspect of the VMworld conference, as well as other technology conferences. I’ve commented on the Family Reunion aspect of a show like VMworld where all of your Tech Family is under one roof and you can visit freely. There is also the aspect where I make it a point to find 5 people I really wanted to meet and seek them out, as well as 5 people I’ve never met before and engage. This is a great way to step outside your comfort zone and challenge yourself, its also a great way to make some great new friends and build your own personal network of technology professionals that you can draw upon. This is part of the ongoing learning process for technologists, and building relationships with Vendors and other Visitors is key to long term success.

Vendor

Now as a Vendor there is some cross pollination of those 3 items. Depending on your schedule and I’d say the maturity and size of the company you work for you may have time to address the 3 points above, but I tend to view the role of the Vendor with these 3 items:

  1. Lead Generation and Qualification
  2. Customer Engagement and Retention
  3. Competitor Analysis

Lead Generation & Qualification: booth duty is the primary lead generation activity at any tradeshow in my view. The entire purpose of a show like VMworld is to generate customer leads for the organization, and better yet, qualify those leads so that the sales team can engage potential customers. For the Visitor, this show can be about their personal leisure and entertainment, but for the Vendor the show is all business. That’s why you will find me on the Solutions Exchange floor from open to close and after, with breaks only to perform bodily functions and if possible eat. That may seem like a tough gig, the concrete floor is an unforgiving platform for message delivery, and there are probably 10000 tweets about sore feet, but if I am not on the floor to discuss my technology and engage with potential customers, then I’m not doing my job. There is significant planning and expense associated with a show like this, and Mitch & Murray won’t be happy if I can’t generate solid leads. They also won’t be happy if I give them a bunch of leads that are meaningless, so I must engage with Visitors and ask them questions, and then I have to listen. That last point is the most important, because yes I have specific points I want to address when I talk about my technology and provide a demonstration, but it serves us both well if I can focus and tailor that discussion to make it relevant and pertinent to you and your organization. Listen, understand, and engage, that goes for Visitor and Vendor alike.

Customer Engagement  and Retention (aka Wining & Dining): all those Vendor parties you attend as a Visitor are a key focal point for the Vendor side. It’s the time to reward and woo current and potential customers. Dinners, parties, chotchkis, etc. are all part of the effort. Of course this is the worst kept non-secret in existence, but yes the Vendor will attempt to buy his way into your good graces, and the Visitor should know this. I’m not giving up any massive trade secrets here, there is no Vendor’s Guild that will send a silent assassin my way for spilling the beans. Truth be told, in my experience, people buy from people they like, and getting a chance to sit down with your favorite customers is a good time to have some “me time” with them. It may sound orchestrated and a tad devious, but it’s not. For a lot of us in Vendor land, we do build solid relationships with our customers, and an event like this is a time to reward their loyalty and friendship. Before I joined the “darkside” I had crafted some truly great friendships with the sales teams and engineers at several Vendor companies I had done business with, and they remain to this day, even though I actually compete against some of them. It’s part of the Networking side for the Vendor, as much as it is for the Visitor.

Competitor Analysis: (spy vs spy) the final part for the Vendor side is to essentially figure out what the competition is doing, how well they are doing, and how it may impact you and your product/company. Since I work for a startup in a disruptive technology sector, its interesting to see players big and small come by to do a little recon. The larger organizations have the ability to send team members out specifically to get information, a smaller company may have to rely simply on their own team members. There is an aspect to this that can be shady to an extent. I’ve seen vendors swap badges with Visitors to probe for information, enlist their partners to do the same, flip their badges around (thats why you scan everyone in the booth) etc. I’d say its part of the game, but sometimes actions can cross the line (hands off the kit please). I do think that there is something to be said if your primary competitor sends their people to your booth to listen to your pitch and watch your demo, in my view that validates your product. And while we are in competition, it doesnt mean that we are enemies. Off the show floor there is a tentative truce in play where you can all sit down with the members of a competitive team and talk tech over a beer. I try to make a point of engaging with everyone at the show, even if they are a competitor. This is a small industry, you never know who may buy your company, or if you may end up working with someone you once competed against. Treat others as you wish to be treated is a good rule to follow.

Well this post has gone longer than I had anticipated, but I felt that it would be good to do a little brain dump post show. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from some of my posts about moving to the vendor side of things. I’ve had several good discussions with people who are in the same position I was in a few years ago when contemplating the move to the Darkside. I hope these posts are informative and helpful for you. As usual, if you have any questions, leave a comment, hit me up on Twitter, or shoot me an email.

Not sure if I’m going to Barcelona as of yet, that still remains to be seen. If I do, then there will be a post about the differences between US/EMEA which should be fun.

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