I’m running on very little sleep right now. Actually, my sleep schedule probably isn’t going to get much better, since I’m currently en-route to India (I’ll post this once I’ve landed and can get on the web), which has a time difference from New York of 10.5 hours. But that’s a story for my next blog post. I want to tell you about what it was like to experience The “South by Southwest Interactive” (SXSWi) festival for the first time.
What is SXSW?
For those not familiar with SXSW, it’s been held in Austin, Texas every year for about the last two decades. Though it started as a film and music festival, the “interactive” part of the SXSW is a bit more recent. SXSWi, the part that I attended, is basically a giant nerd party. Well, at least it was for me – I expect that different people experience it in different ways. Many major tech companies make an appearance, but this is very different from the consumer electronics show that takes place in Las Vegas every January. SXSWi is an opportunity for up-and-coming companies to pitch their wares to over 30,000 attendees. With a critical eye from the tech world, you can pretty much be guaranteed that any tech startup is going to want to make a big splash at SXSWi. In addition to getting the “this is the next facebook!” pitch from almost everybody you meet, SXSWi is also filled with an innumerable number of sessions and talks focusing on everything from online advertising, to space travel, to engineering education, to the porn industry. And that’s not even covering the parties; every large tech company worth their salt is basically obligated to throw an awesome party.
How I Got There
Before I get into some nitty-gritty details, let me tell you how I even ended up at SXSWi. I have to thank the amazing InteractATX team for putting together the sponsorship to bring me down to Austin. For its inaugural class, InteractATX brought down nearly 100 of the brightest young entrepreneurs from around the country. The InteractATX sponsors provided the funding necessary to bring people like me down to the festival. And WOW; they picked some incredible people. As I met various members of my InteractATX class, each one impressed me more than the last. The class was diverse, with members including high school, college, and post-college young entrepreneurs. Every single person I met reminded me that there is still hope for our generation to positively impact the world.
Now, let’s talk about lessons I learned this past weekend. Having only attended one SXSW, I’m definitely still a newbie. But, here’s some advice I can give to anybody planning to attend in 2014 and beyond:
- ABC (Always Be Charging). At a tech conference like this, you can pretty much guarantee that you will be on your smartphone, tablet, and laptop continuously. Take every opportunity possible to charge your devices, or they will not last through the night (which generally ended around 4AM for me).
- ABP (Always Be Pitching). At SXSW, you have a unique opportunity to meet an amazing set of personalities, many of whom are experts in their respective fields. If you have a startup, or just a general idea that you’re working on, talk to everybody about it. Use this as an opportunity to get critical feedback about what you’re working on from objective viewpoints.
- Don’t Pay for Anything. Everything is sponsored by somebody at SXSW. Many companies, such as Twitter, tune.in, and others, had all day events that regularly dished out free food and drinks. You shouldn’t need to pay for transportation either. There are free conference shuttles, and if you need a longer ride, try out either Uber or SideCar, both were free for SXSW this year, and probably will be again. This goes for non-consumables too. You could easily create a whole new wardrobe using only free t-shirts that you obtained from booths at the SXSW expo.
- Make New Friends. Abandon your friends. Seriously. It’s okay to party with them and attend talks with them, but when possible, go solo and meet new people. When you’re alone, you don’t have the safety net of your existing network to fall back into, and you have no choice but to stir up conversation with some new people. Everybody’s got an interesting story to tell – take some time to listen (and exchange your contact info).
- RSVP to Everything. Then Attend Everything Else. It is literally impossible to keep track of all the events happening at SXSW. The official app will help you stay on top of the festival, but there are just as many unofficial parties (many are invite only or secret), that you may want to attend. Just to be safe, RSVP to anything that has an RSVP button – there is no penalty if you don’t go. Then, just go with the flow, and see where the day/night takes you. If you try to set a rigid schedule, you’ll spend all your time stressing out about how to follow it, without actually getting anything done.
- Attend the Keynotes. The smaller sessions are occasionally interesting, but the best official events are the keynotes. There are not nearly enough seats, so plan on getting to them really early, or watching from an overflow room. If your overflow room is upstairs, take the elevator instead of the escalator – the line is much shorter.
- Party Hard and Don’t Sleep. There are loads of amazing parties at SXSW. Keep your eyes on the twitter feeds of your favorite companies to find out where their parties are. On most nights, I attended four or more parties. All of them had open bars, awesome music, and cool giveaways. But, don’t forget to ABP! Just because it’s a party, that doesn’t mean you can’t still network and pitch your ideas. I gave away about half of my business cards at parties, as opposed to at formalized networking or demo events.
What I Did
I tried to cram in as much as possible during my time at SXSW. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to do everything, but here’s a brief list of the things I did, and what I thought about them.
- I attended the MakerBot keynote. Though I recently stopped working at MakerBot so I could devote my time to other endeavors, I did work there for over a year and half. When I started, the company was about 20 people. Now, Bre (the CEO of MakerBot), can easily command an audience of tens of thousands of people. It’s pretty spectacular to see how the company has grown – I’m glad I was a part of it. At the keynote, Bre announced the “MakerBot Digitizer,” which was the last project that I worked on before I left MakerBot. I designed all the electronics and wrote all the firmware for the prototype unit that Bre unveiled. I’ll write another blog post talking a bit more about the Digitizer, and what it could mean for the democratization of manufacturing.
- I attended Elon Musk’s Keynote. For those not familiar with Elon Musk, he is the co-founder of Paypal, the CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, and the chairman of Solar City. I’m convinced that Elon Musk operates on a plane of intelligence completely separate from the one we experience. To say that he is a genius would be an understatement – I firmly believe that his companies will change the world and society as we know it. That being said, his crazy intelligence is decoupled from his interpersonal skills. In his interview-style talk, Musk had some trouble verbalizing what he was thinking, probably because his brain moves way faster than we can even conceptualize.
- I attended several panels. They were on topics ranging from open source business practices, to engineering education for young people, to the design of NASA’s user interfaces for astronauts. All of them were very interesting, though most were at the same time as other talks that I would have liked to go to. I’m looking forward to seeing what I missed when the videos go up on youtube.
- I went to a crazy number of parties, including ones hosted by Twitter, Sparefoot, Cornell, Wiley, Techstars, Andreessen Horowitz, and others. The parties were obviously a ton of fun, though I honestly would have preferred if there were more talks later into the evening. Most official SXSW events were over my 5PM, with parties running from 4PM until 3 in the morning. That’s a lot of partying, and it gets exhausting quickly.
- I played with the awesome new Leap Motion controller. I was so impressed by it that I pre-ordered one on the spot.
- I put my Blum Idea Labs stickers all over the place. Why? Because I can.
- I visited a number of drinking establishments on “Dirty Sixth Street”. The street’s nickname is very fitting. I’m 22, and I already felt too old to handle some of the craziness that went on in these bars. Austin is a college town, so there was a bizarre combination of college students, tech geeks, and entrepreneurs in each bar. I managed to fall into all three categories. I did NOT drink in excess. Though I had fun, I think it’s important to keep your wits about you and to act responsibly, even when the people around you are not. To all my underage readers, don’t drink until you are of-age. Also, obviously do not drink and drive. SideCar and Uber are both great, free options for getting home safely.
Let me preface my observations by saying that I had a spectacular time at SXSW, I met some amazing people, and I learned a lot. Here are some objective comments on things I experienced at SXSW:
- Every person and their dog are now developing mobile apps. Many of them are really cool, while many of them are pretty dumb. A lot of the parties and the SXSW expo felt more like a mobile app festival. As an entrepreneur myself, I’m concerned that the idea of entrepreneurship has become synonymous with “apps.” I just hope that people will remember you don’t need to be making an iPhone app to start a company.
- Hardware had a good showing as well, which relieved me a bit. However, there are still way more software startups than there are hardware startups. This makes sense, since starting a hardware company is a lot more expensive.
- The parties are basically just a way for startup companies to prove that they are cooler than each other. Granted, this competition results in fun parties that people like me get to attend. But, I can’t help but feel like there are better ways to promote your company than giving away free booze to a few thousand drunk nerds.
- It’s not very well organized. To the credit of the people organizing SXSW, it is an enormous event and they are trying to balance a million things. But, the various events are spread out all over downtown, and I found that it can be hard to figure out where to go next. The mobile app does help, but it’s far from perfect. To make things more confusing, there are ton of unofficial events that are basically impossible to keep track of. There is no centralized list of SXSW parties (though a few websites have tried to list the best ones), which makes it hard to RSVP, and to attend the things that you really want to go to. Despite this, I was never bored – there is always something that you can find to do.
- SXSW is incredibly fun. I met more awesome people in the last 4 days than I have in the last four months. The sheer density of like-minded, intelligent people is inspiring, and the talks are all very educational.
I would go again, though I’m not sure if I would be willing to pay for it myself. The real benefit that I got out of SXSW was meeting my fellow InteractATX class. The parties were fun, and the talks were great, but the important part was the people I met. Many of those connections are invaluable, and I’m extremely thankful that I had the opportunity to make them. I’m looking forward to staying in touch with all the great people I met, and I hope that I’ll be able to attend SXSW again in the future.