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Confessions Of A Conference Crasher

Jerry Jao of Retention Science reveals how he pulled off the ultimate bootstrapping heist: sneaking into a major business conference to pitch his startup.

One day last summer, Jerry Jao stood uncomfortably outside a major e-commerce conference held annually in the Midwest. Behind those doors lay opportunity. Jao was the cofounder of a fledgling big data startup called Retention Science, and he wanted to pitch his business to the throngs of conference attendees inside. Never mind that Jao hadn’t been able to afford a ticket, which ran thousands of dollars. Jao had hatched a gutsy plan: He was going to sneak in.

"I was pretty nervous," he recalls.

But Jao knew that success wasn’t something that came easily: You had to seize it. Growing up poor in Taiwan, he’d stay behind after school to round up the recycling bottles, which he could cash in for a few pennies apiece. Later, he’d moved to California, and embarked upon a career as an entrepreneur. His first startup had been an outright failure, and his second still wasn't yielding revenue sufficient to help him and his cofounder move out of the cofounder’s parents' basement. By early 2012, the team had higher hopes for their third startup, Retention Science, which used data to help e-commerce companies retain customers. But Retention Science needed customers of its own.

A Cover Identity

Months before the conference in the Midwest, Jao began plotting how he would crash it. Jao took to Google and LinkedIn in search of a suitable cover identity. He wanted to find an Asian male who was attending the conference as a general attendee, rather than a vendor, and preferably someone who wasn’t working for a major company. He found the website of a man who fit the bill—let’s call him "Jimmy Lee"—and learned everything he could about Lee, Lee’s business, and Lee’s colleagues. Like some Ben Affleck-succored Tehran hostage, Jao knew his cover identity inside and out.

The date of the conference arrived, and Jao flew out, staying at a $40-a-night motel. The next morning, he arrived at the conference doors. "I was pretty nervous," he recalls. He stashed his backpack behind a potted tree, and approached the check-in desk.

Jao said that his name was Jimmy Lee. "I was already in there," he explained to the woman at the desk. "I had to come out, and I forgot my badge. Could you print me out another one?" He’d left his ID card in the conference hall, too, he explained, apologetic.

"Do you have a business card?" the woman asked.

"Sorry, I gave out my last business card when I was in there," he explained.

The woman eyed Jao a moment.

"Don’t worry about it, it’s fine," she said, and turned to her computer system to print "Jimmy Lee" a fresh badge. Jao kept her occupied with small talk, lest she second-guess her decision.

Equipped with a badge, Jao went to collect his backpack, which contained his laptop for demos, and made his way upstairs to the conference entrance, entering with a wave of his badge. People—all those thousands of people who were actually meant to be there—swirled around him.

Jao was in.

"Hi, I’m Jimmy... Hi, I’m Jerry... Hi, I’m Jimmy..."

At this point, Jao’s mission became doubly complicated. He wanted two things from his visit: to gather intelligence about rival startups, the guys big enough to have dropped 10 grand on a vendor booth. What were their pitching techniques? Did they have a competitive edge over Jao’s product? With these guys, it suited Jao to flash his green badge labeled Jimmy Lee, since it identified him as a general attendee—someone whose business they would want to earn. "I wanted them to give me their best pitch," Jao explains.

Jao’s second goal was to talk to other attendees—the executives of e-commerce companies whom all the vendors were eyeing like fresh meat—and to catch them in a quiet moment to pitch Retention Science. When pitching general attendees like these, it of course suited Jao to present himself with his real name.

So Jao would approach a vendor at a booth and say, "Hi, I’m Jimmy Lee." He’d hear out a rival’s pitch, ask questions, thank them for their time, and step away. Then he’d take his badge, turn it inward, and tuck it into the space left by an open button on his shirt. "Hi, I’m Jerry Jao," he’d say as he approached an executive wandering between booths. Were they enjoying the conference? Would they like to hear a little bit about Retention Science?

"Hi, I’m Jimmy... Hi, I’m Jerry... Hi, I’m Jimmy..." The revolving door of identities continued throughout the conference. It wasn’t that he felt like a spy, he says: "A spy’s a lot cooler." He was merely determined to do whatever it took to make his business a success.

Conferences are dizzying whirlwinds even for people who aren’t playing double agent. And Jao was getting tired. "I had to constantly remind myself that I have to be on my A-game," he recalls. "I can’t just goof around, and forget what I’m there for."

Eventually, though, the inevitable happened. He lapsed, signing off a conversation as Jerry. "I thought your name was Jimmy?" said his interlocutor. "That’s my coworker’s badge," Jao shot back quickly, before making his exit. After a few times of introducing himself as Jerry with his Jimmy badge hanging out, Jao decided to ditch the badge altogether.

He raised a few eyebrows, sure, but no burly bouncer came to throw him out.

In the end, far from getting unceremoniously ejected or publicly shamed, Jao achieved all his goals and more. He’d studied the top salespeople at rival companies, had heard out their most polished pitches. He’d handed out hundreds of business cards, and collected hundreds more. "I learned so much," he recalls. "It opened my eyes to see the caliber of companies out there." He flew home feeling the trip had been a great success.

Coming Clean

At this point in the story, if you were in Jerry Jao’s shoes, probably the one thing you would not do is reach out to Jimmy Lee, the man you impersonated to gain access to a conference. But Jimmy Lee, Jao knew, was an e-commerce owner. That made him a potential Retention Science client. Jao emailed him, just to make the connection. Eventually he signed Lee as a client, and the two even became friends.

One day, over the phone, Jao confessed.

"He thought it was hilarious," says Jao. "‘You’ve got balls,’" Lee told him.

Another conference was coming up that fall. Jao went again as Jimmy Lee—this time, with Lee’s blessing. That trip was an even more resounding success; Jao wound up getting himself invited to an after-party at the Four Seasons, where he hobnobbed with reps from Adidas and other major brands.

Jao wants you to know that he isn’t particularly proud of any of this. Well, maybe a little proud, but only because it illustrates the lengths he’d go to in order to succeed. He’s quick to admit that crashing a conference is wrong, particularly if you can afford it. "I do feel bad about it," he says.

Now, finally, he’s in a position to make amends. Jao’s hustling helped Retention Science towards a $1.3 million seed round late last summer. This year, Jao plans to return to the same conferences he crashed last year, only this time, he will proudly fork over the ticket price of 10 or 20 grand.

And his badge will read: "Jerry Jao."

[Photo Mash: Joel Arbaje]