Caught In The Webb

SXSW, Here We Come.

 SXSW, Here We Come.

Mr. Webb.

Rick Webb co-founded The Barbarian Group, a digital ad agency, and is now a writer and angel investor in the tech industry.

Oh man. It is upon us! I am so excited! O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! South by Southwest, here we come! I leave tomorrow. ARE YOU READY? I am so ready. I have lost count on which SXSW this is for me, but it’s well over my tenth. Yes, it’s changed a lot. Yes, it’s huge now – and I hope it just keeps getting bigger. To my Austin friends, I apologize for saying this. I know you’re sick of us. But we do really love your town. We love SXSW. And we are thankful for your hospitality.

It’s just the best most wonderful week of the year for the internet industry, isn’t it? I mean there are cooler conferences (DLD, Next Web). There are more exclusive ones – Summit Series (who just bought a mountain! WTF!), and the mainframe TED, which is sorta the Sparc Supercluster or Cray of tech conferences. Monolithic, kind of old school but still pretty awesome. SXSW Interactive, now entering its 13th year, is the big one. It’s the closest thing the tech industry has to an E3 or a CES or Cannes or Outdoor Retailer. It is, essentially, the Internet’s trade conference. Everyone goes.

Well, okay, each year there are a few curmudgeons bemoaning that it’s gotten too big, a few cooler-than-thou insiders who simultaneously don’t need a giant conference to meet everyone and also have also forgotten the serendipitous joy that accompanies meeting someone new, interesting and unexpected. Then, of course, there are the new tech founders, running 3-10 person companies that are heads down trying to get things done, yet already funded, and not ready to launch. They’ve got work to do. Many people skip at least one year in this manner. Godspeed and see you next year with your awesome new product. We’ll drink a Shiner in your honor.

But for the most part, everyone else attends. And I do mean everyone. That’s one of the great thing about SXSW – it’s not a segment-specific conference. People from the gaming industry, bloggers from the midwest, corporate IT folks, and employees of large, enterprise software companies all attend too. Pornographers and journalists and advertisers – late to the game but in the past few years have made up for it with a vengeance. It’s part of the charm of the conference. Unlike a lot of conferences or events that I find myself hitting throughout the year, it is not dominated by the VCs (though they’re there), or the titans of the latest social web software. Though of course they too are in force. For SXSW has become their Pelennor Fields. Their Arena. Their Yavin 4. Each year dozens of startups duke it out to be crowned “the startup that took SXSW by storm.” This is largely a myth, owing to Twitter’s successful launch at SXSW in 2007 and Foursquare’s the next year. Since then, each year pundits have eagerly looked for a new champion, but it hasn’t really happened. But here’s hoping that it’ll happen this year!

So far, the smart money seems to be on the new mobile app Highlight, despite the fact it doesn’t seem to actually do much. Something to do with meeting people. As I write these words, three different friends have signed up for it in the last hour, so hype seems pretty solid thus far. It has new competition in the form of Banjo and Glancee, and old competition in the form of Bump, Hashable, Addieu and Sonar, and none of them have gained traction, but, hey. Who knows? The SXSW hype can have a big impact. Last year we had GroupMe, Fast Society and Beluga. Two of those exited, one pivoted. So while there may have been financial success, none of them “won” in the way Twitter or Foursquare did, so perhaps things are evolving. Maybe the hype now just leads to a sale to a bigger, more-hyped company.

Some 15,000 people attended SXSWi last year, with thousands more just hanging out for the ride. One could reasonably assume that attendance will be up, again, this year, but luckily this year conference organizers have taken several steps to not make it feel too crowded – with panels being spread all around downtown (rather than primarily confined to the convention center), and more events to handle the crowds. So we’ll see! Adventure!

If it’s your first time, the whole thing can seem insanely daunting. Last year, I was bringing down a bunch of employees and I wrote a nice “how to prepare for SXSW” presentation that is still largely true this year. It’s a good starting point. But I will offer you a few key pointers right here and right now if you’re curious about how to best navigate this behemoth techstravaganza.

  • Bring multiple phones and batteries. AT&T was burned two years ago by poor service and so last year they went all out to make sure service was good for the techno elite. Because who worst to piss off than every tech blogger and reporter in America? Nonetheless, who knows how it’s going to go down this year. And also you find yourself out for hours. Personally I bring two phones on two different services, a power adaptor and a battery case. If possible, also wear a safari jacket and safari hat. Pretend you’re a misplaced war photographer. This also makes it (slightly) easier to crash party lines. Embrace your inner Hunter S Thompson.
  • Speaking of which, if you’re a journalist or blogger covering the event, please attempt to write about the conference without using the word nerd, talking about people hooking up, or talking about drinking. Nerd is just a joke at this point (have you SEEN the Winkelvoss twins?). And the the unnecessary focus on the recreational just makes it sound like you’ve never been to a trade show in your life. Who’s the nerd? The people at the conference, or the journalist that’s been so sequestered behind a computer for so long that they’re only just now discovering that trade shows involve booze and hooking up?
  • On that note, I cannot stress this point strongly enough: reject FOMO. YOU ARE NOT MISSING OUT. That party may seem cool. There may be 200 people checked in there. Kanye West might be there. It doesn’t matter. There are still interesting people to see and great things to do and you are just as likely to meet someone that can help you in your work at the empty bar next door. I swear to God this is true. The line of 50 people is almost never worth it. Go next door. I promise promise promise this is true.
  • If you’re looking for funding for your company, start by the bold step of going to places where you have to pay for your own beers. Because you know what? VCs do, at times, enjoy free beer (free beer seems to be the manna that SXSW runs on). But they often look at the crowd queueing up for that free bar, then look at the perfectly good bar next door selling Shiners and Lone Stars for a buck fitty and think to themselves “Screw it. I’m rich. Today I’m paying for my sub-$2 beer. Because I can afford it.” So follow them there.
  • Hit some panels. They are worth it. But when you do, first, don’t be that person who asks a long, pointless question. Better yet, just don’t ask anything at all. Just listen. When you go talk to people after the panel, be quick, courteous, give them your card, ask for theirs and move on. Yes, people still use cards – this is, after all the physical manifestation of the tech industry, and the card is the physical manifestation of Highlight and Bump. Or something. Don’t ask me. Maybe this is the year the business card dies. See above. But were I betting man, I would not take that bet.
  • If you must drink, I strongly suggest drunkenness during the day and sobriety at night. Both will be more fun, and probably more productive.
  • Hang out with people you don’t know. Go to something different and outside of your comfort zone. Get to South Congress. Stop at Home Slice. Get to the east side. Be polite to the locals. Don’t trash their town. Eat barbeque. Eat at food trucks. As my friend Buster says, “accept all offers.”
  • If you’re standing on the corner of 6th and Red River, pour one out for Emo’s. You are missed.
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