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Ten Things I Learned at SXSW Interactive 2011

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I have attended South by Southwest Interactive every year since 2000, have been a speaker since 2003 and on the advisory board since 2004. This year’s festival was held March 11-20 as always in Austin, Texas. 

Each year as soon as I get home, I put together an essay on my impressions of the event in the form of a list of ten things I learned (previous years: 20082007, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002). I haven’t done this in a while but have a commitment this year to not let the festival vanish like a dream as soon as it ends. These essays are a way of remembering what happened at South by Southwest and trying to make it relevant afterwards.

With that I bring you…

Ten Things I Learned at SXSW

1. SXSW is not “over.” Maybe for you it is. But please stop saying so, because I’ve heard it all before. I’m an 11-year veteran of the conference. I’ve heard moans that its moment had past since about 2003. What that really means is “South by Southwest is no longer what I want to be. So I’m going to resent its success and salt the earth so nothing may grow there again. Since it’s over for me, I declare it must be over for everybody.”

That’s just as egotistical and silly as it sounds. SXSW is different. Bigger, louder, more monied and crowded, yes, and in many ways replete with assholes marketing something you don’t need and will probably never hear of again.

You also need not engage with any of it if you don’t want to. You don’t have to go to the huge official parties or even acknowledge the poor sunburned college kids  hawking you “free water. Free breakfast tacos” if only you’ll listen to a few words about their startup. Just as there are plenty of Penn State students who never attend football games, South by Southwest is now big enough (about half the size of Penn State actually) that your experience can simply be what you make of it. Don’t like big crowds? Go to lunch with a few friends instead of the keynotes. Would rather talk about ideas than products? Make smart decisions when selecting panels. Sick of hearing about the must have app? Download none of them. Think the conference is no longer as geeky as it should be? Check your facts. Journalists, artists, academics and filmmakers who have never written a line of code have been come to SXSW Interactive since the day it was born. If your definition of “geek” is “people who know PERL”, then SXSW Music might as well mean “only for people who can tune a Gibson SG.”

If you can’t wrap your head around the change then 1) You’ve moved on which is fine. Life is all about change or 2) You lack imagination. Either way, saying “it’s over” is terribly unfair to the staff who put a year’s worth of work into the conference existing at all (and do a damn fine job of it), the volunteers who sacrifice a week of their life just so you don’t get lost looking for Ballroom D, the speakers who prep for months to provide you the attendee with good content and most of all, the first timers and newcomers who weren’t lucky enough to have been there in the imagined “before” where everything was so wonderful.

As my friend and fellow conference vet James McNally once said “Every year is someone’s first year. Do you want to be the jerk who keeps talking about how great everyone was until you, the newcomer, showed up?”

I would rather live in the solution than the problem. And I learned from SXSW way back when it was something smaller, but different, not better.

2. I still wouldn’t want to be a newcomer now. I had the good fortune of first attending SXSW when a conference badge cost a few hundred bucks and there were as many attendees then as there are speakers now. I could afford, in all fashions, to know nobody and make stumbling, incremental progress towards having purpose and conference friends I still spend time with today. When I felt like I belonged (around year #4) I made damn sure that any newcomer I met was welcome to spend time with my group of friends and learn a few ropes. I was afraid if it took them as long as it took me to feel at home that they’d never come back and never get any of the priceless gifts the conference has given me.

Now, South by Southwest is a) way too costly for this kind of gradual learning and b) So large that many newcomers take one look at the schedule and declare failure or exhaust themselves trying to attend everything. They end up frustrated and beaten down by this thing everyone has told them is a miracle. And who wants to pay a king’s ransom for that kind of letdown?

Conference staff has made valiant attempts to make freshman year at SXSW a little easier. The annual “How To Rawk SXSW” panel is a great first day orientation session. I’ve heard veteran/newcomer meetups were part of the official program this year though I also heard its damn hard to get veterans to sacrifice an hour in their schedule for them.

This is a very big knot to untie. Newcomers don’t always identify themselves as such and are attending South by Southwest for such different reasons that a one-size-fits-all solution is folly. I will say this though: I know of at least a dozen old-timers who, for the price of one platinum badge, would be more than happy to both participate in and/or administer some kind of “SXSW Big Brother/Big Sister Program” where a vet is paired with a greenhorn (or several. Like student advisors in college) and acts as a personal resource leading up to and during SXSW itself.

It’s very labor intensive solution but exactly the sort of thing that makes the conference so special.

Whose gonna take that one on? I promise you Hugh, Shawn and the folks who run SXSW are listening.

3. SXSW is a lousy place to launch a product. There are a class of first timers who know precisely why there are in Austin and what they must accomplish. They are the proprietors/early employees of startups who are hoping catch the attention of the 20,000 attendees (whose presence at least indicates an interest newfangled technology) and repeat the success of Twitter and FourSquare who both first caught fire at the conference.

We hear of those success stories because they are rare exceptions. South by Southwest is a fantasm of noise, information and over stimulus all washed down by alcohol, breakfast tacos and too little sleep. After 5 days of it, You’re lucky if you remember your own name. A few more responsible souls than I come home, dutifully sort through their swag then try new products they’ve heard about at SXSW then tell their friends about the ones they like. The rest of us get home and regard those products as noise we’re ready to turn off.

If you’re one of the lucky startups with a boatload of money, go ahead and sponsor a giant party. I won’t be there but someone–lots of someones–will. If you’re small and wily (like Freshbooks, like Squrl) do something clever like cooking bacon on a mobile grill (Freshbooks again. Those wonderful Canadians) or just hang out and have good conversations. But don’t…

4. Market something at SXSW by shooting for the middle. Somewhere between small and wily and giant and omnipresent lies the path of douchbaggery. Or as my best friend Dave (a 9-year conference veteran) said “the douchbag is the early adopter of the mainstream. Someone who knows there’s money to be made off a trend but didn’t get to the party fast enough to be part of it.”

If you’re wondering if you’re a douchbag, you probably are. But don’t worry. Easy to avoid for SXSW 2012. Just follow these simple rules.

a) Stop hardselling. Whatever silly rules you have about “not letting them out of the room”, leave at home. The attendees at SXSW are too smart for that.

b) Stop bragging. Nobody cares how many times your product was mentioned on CNN. Presidential candidates and heads of state have stalked these halls. Your app for bulk purchase of car insurance does not impress us. The attendees at SXSW are too smart for that.

c) No booth babes, backward baseball caps, street barkers. or yelling “free stuff” into a crowd. This is SXSW not frat orientation day at Fresno State. The attendees at SXSW are too smart for that.

Are we getting the message? There’s a reason why people love SXSW and tolerate say, CES. Because its about something more than selling. Violate that and we’ll not only ignore your product, we’ll make fun of it and you behind your back.

Side note: This entire list was developed over the course of 1 hour myself and my friend Carla Borsoi spent at a Westside Austin mansion that smelled like spilt Red Bull listening to some douchbag talk about which hip-hop musicians use his product. That’ll teach us to hop in a nameless hummer limo instead of going to lunch.

5. You will miss something. Worrying about what you might miss if you decide to do x (hoping in a strange limo) instead of y (being an adult, sane person) is a waste of time. You will miss something. Lots of somethings. In the week or so leading up to SXSW, I dutifully go through the schedule and fill in checkboxes knowing full well there simply aren’t enough hours in the day for me to do 90% of the things that sound interesting. It’s an activity that maps nicely to awaiting the arrival of a guy named Godot.

I do it anyway. A schedule is a baseline, to know what South by Southwest has to offer should you not know what to do next. It is not a commandment. Thanks to age we live in, nearly every presentation, film screening, even band is either documented for posterity or available thanks to the webernet afterwards. The enthralling conversation you’re in with someone you just met is unrepeatable. And moments like that are why conferences, despite their wild expense and bulk, endure. The spontaneous collision of people and ideas cannot be replicated in virtual space. So if you’ve made the commitment to come to SXSW, take full advantage. Wherever you are if you’re creating, learning, growing or just enjoying yourself, that’s where you’re supposed to be. Don’t second guess it.

6. What does your body need? Just because you’re not at home does not mean the laws of nature don’t apply. And you will get nothing out of SXSW by not listening to them and therefore spending the entire conference tired, sick, and half-tweaked out on 3 AM beer and queso sludge.

I’m 37 and an early riser. But I get to see my SXSW once a year and I’d rather not turn in at dusk every night while we’re all in one place. That means I do one large coffee in the morning, a nap around 5 PM, another large coffee when I wake up, multi-vitamins every morning and a little time at the hotel gym if I can manage. And I don’t screw around with it. Because its the only way I can actually do SXSW and enjoy it rather than try and beat it at its own game and complain I’m not as young as I used to be.

7. Breakfast. I’m good in the morning, even when I’m tired.  I was baffled by how many people I wanted to meet were too. So while I had zero luck scheduling meetings during the day (my friend C.C. Chapman is a master at this. I’d like to know how) I met with someone for breakfast nearly every morning and started the day off feeling on fire before 9 AM. The 30 minutes between when the alarm goes off and you sit down with your migas are murder. But the rest of the day, at least for me, is always better if I make something of the first half of it.

8. Limits. Since 2006, I’ve tried to fit in at least a few days of the SXSW Music festival which happens right after Interactive. Since 2009, my wife has been part of that crazy project with me.

I don’t know how many more years we’ll be doing this. We’re just too worn out by the end of Interactive to want to take part in much of anything. And much as I we would like to just keep to ourselves and go to movies and concerts, the giant, loud, not-as-nice crowds for music make it rather unpleasant. We’ve got several good music festivals at home or maybe we’ll try CMJ one autumn. But we’d both rather leave Austin on a tired-but-up note than a beaten down regretful one.

9. Priorities.

I’m no longer at a place in life where I need SXSW for my big insights. My insights build up continuously over the year. Since my job pays for some portion of my attendance at the conference, I need to hold meetings and attend sessions relevant to our future as a company.

But most important is time with friends, relationships I’ve built over 11 years of people I love I only get to see once a year. So while I can’t just declare Austin a 10-day vacation, real, in-person, intimate time with friends wins out over loud parties with celebrities. As seductive as the chance to dance with Pee-Wee-Herman or her DJ Diplo spin live is, those guys aren’t going anywhere. And friendship is too precious and valuable a thing to swap out for that.

10. I’ll be back. In spite of all the inconvenience that comes from SXSW Gigantism, I will be back next year. I still love the people, the knowledge, the vibe, even in my creeky veteraness. I’m proud of the staff for what a remarkable job they still manage to do despite its growth. I’m incredibly grateful that there is still room on the docket for events like The Old Timers Ball, Fray Cafe and 20×2 stalwarts of the SXSW of old. I love that my wife was a speaker this year, her 3rd, and I get to see the conference through her younger less-jaded eyes.

Most of all, I how many wonderful people coalesce around this conference, people with passion, big ideas, and an optimism as boundless as the sky. That those same people see kindness, sharing and brotherhood as just as important, says a lot about them. And just as much about the event, the call across continents that brings them to Austin each spring.

See you next March!