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]

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38 Comments

  • VA1026

    Before all of you who think this bit of cheating is COOL!  do business with Retention Science, or another company with HUSTLE - whatever it TAKES........what ELSE will they do to succeed?  Overbill you?  Well, they deserve the cash, right?  Fail to deliver - oh man, you didn't really mean you had a deadline?  Share your secrets - Yo, Bro, did you hear about this mad new technology your competitor is gonna launch? If Jimmy/Jerry and his fans don't see the harm in this indiscretion - can you trust their ethics in business with your firm?  The only way this differs from the ROBBER BARONS of Wall Street I'm sure many abhor is the amount of theft in question.  Oh yeah - some of the so called Robber Barons didn't break a law - just some silly business ethics rules........whatever it takes, right??

  • Kevin

    why are so many of you congratulating this kid? "his sprit is great...way to go....great hustle...you have to do what you have to do...."
    really?!?!?
    do any of you own a business? do any of you see the bill that your owner pays when he sends you to a conference or tradeshow?
    my guess is no. or you would not be so fast to congratulate this little thief.
    next time you need paper for your office...just go down to Office Depot and steal it....common, your hustle and spirit will be appreciated by all.
    How morbidly stupid and morally bankrupt are you?

  • j_mcdonell82

    ironically, i'm sitting here at a conference in san francisco as i wish to pitch to potential investors and learning what others are up to. mad respect to the entrepreneurial spirit. i agree w/ all the others about sneaking in, and quite frankly, i'm doing the same thing, but i guess for me, it's inspiring to know others are doing it as well. this kind of hustling, hopefully not resulting in some poor lady losing her job like one of the comment shown here, is indeed what all entrepreneurs have to do (in different degree, different context, etc. and taking business ethics aside for now) ... i'm also trying to get my company started, and i'm not agreeing that what this guy did was right, but i enjoyed learning what he had to do to get to where he is.

    this is one of the more real story i've read in a long time, with real details on what the guy did vs. just a bunch of fluffs and you have no idea exactly what he did to get in to the conf ... kind of funny too. i think i can sneak in easier w/o all that work!

  • Chi Zhao

    love this piece. guy has got spirit! can't wait to hear more about his company as they grow!! 

  • hpc

    But Jao knew that success wasn’t something that came easily" - i  totally agree with this... we should work hard for our success

  • Nobody

    A great reflection of reality. This is what the world today pushes as visionaries and we are so proud that we are even betting 1.3 Million in hopes that there will be more of this. Such an inspiration for the future generation of forward thinkers out there. Break the law, cheat and steal and you will be success in no time. As for the rest of us .. it will be just a hot boiling pot.

  • The Realist

    Dig into most success stories and you find they began with someone who colored outside of the lines because they had a vision that couldn't be achieved by conventional means.  Jerry is following that same path - like many innovators before him.  It may not be ideal but sometimes it's the only way.

  • Terrible

    This isn't hustling, this is stealing and cheating. I wouldn't do business with Retention Science.

  • Lisa Galloway

    It's easy to applaud Jerry for his hustle... but as an event planner I just think he's a garden variety thief. Everything at that conference, from the electricity to the programs to the minimum wage the hardworking desk attendants make -- it all costs. More than attendees would think. Some costs are offset by sponsors, but no one really makes money on these things except for the venue and show decoration services. Jerry stole something of value - the actual cost of his attendance and even more -- the value of the opportunity that everyone else paid for. Not cool, not admirable. While it wasn't his intent to do something very bad - he did. So... maybe it would be nice for Mr. 1.2million dollar first round seed money to make a nice donation to one of the many nonprofits associated with the technical industry... maybe a scholarship for a student, or endow a membership to a professional association for someone who can't afford it. Just going next time and paying just like everyone else doesn't really cut it as far as atonement goes.

    You know -- what appalls me most is that he put the administrative and hosting staff at the conference at risk for their jobs by manipulating them into allowing him entry. Anyone who attends tradeshows and conferences knows that these staffs are often populated with retirees and people who are struggling - these aren't high payings gigs. Again, so not cool. 

  • kyle k

    just read this, while a lot of haters on here, i think it's an inspiring story for other entrepreneurs (me being one), to do whatever it takes to test / get feedback on your business idea... i don't think the point of the story is about the guy w/ a different identity and lied abt who he was, but more importantly, it's about him doing his homework, figuring out ways to connect to others given very limited resources. mad props, what a great story to share ... thx. this is why i love fast company. and mad props to this guy here

  • Louis D.

    "It's not about a guy with a different identity who lied about who he was...but more importantly..." Really? You should have stopped after "who lied..."

  • Louis D.

    If I taught business ethics in an MBA program without a doubt-this is not a teaching story I'd use to illustrate doing the right thing. I can respect the boot-strapping, I've done it myself, don't get me wrong. You HAVE to hustle. But you don't need to lie. Personally speaking-and I can back this up 100%, I attended three of the biggest financial conferences in the world last year, as an invited guest. In other words, I called the event organizers, explained I was a tech entrepreneur, that I coudln't afford the ticket and that I'd be thankful to attend and to network. They comp'd me. The price tag for all three was around 15k. Honesty pays off folks, and no one will ever wonder about my ethics or my character down the road. Good luck kid. I should also say that in all three cases, I maintain relationships with my contacts and they with me. I can't see this being a good example for the twenty-somethings out there looking to get funded or create long-lasting relationships. Opportunism is great for short-term gain. Having personal Ethos is the key to respect and reputation.

  • Startup guy in NYC

    nice cover with interesting details. saw somebody tweeted about this,
    i'm not sure if what he did was "ethical" or not - but i think the
    reality of life is that not everybody is given the resources and a chance to do what you're passionate about,
    and it's important to be able to do the right thing - and we always should!

    but i also happen to know that in this world, in order to achieve what you believe in, you have to figure out a way
    to think outside of the box a bit. i don't know if i agree with exactly
    what he did, but i am very supportive of the spirit and effort he took
    in order to 'get somewhere' ... i've personally heard way crazier stories and way more unethical things to achieve their objectives, and i applaud this guy for sharing his journey and i guess 'coming clean'

  • tracibrowne

    Maybe you can hire his firm, but pose as a fortune 500 company because you don't want him to know you don't have the money to pay his bill. Get all the benefits from whatever he's selling, no need to pay for the services...you go you awesome rebel entrepreneur.  Good for you! As a matter of fact, why don't we just start scamming everyone and not paying for anything any more. Who cares who goes out of business as a result. We're not crooks, we're rebels!

  • VN business

    Can't wait to see what his exit strategy is when the business falters and he needs to answer to investors and customers.

  • Giacomo Balli

    what's the big deal? at most conferences if you show up and you're not registered they'll print a new one for one (being used to all the system malfunctions).