We've been back for a week now from SXSW and I'm just getting unburied enough to organize many of the notes I took while in Austin. It's interesting that in tough economic times such as these, when companies are scaling back and cutting costs that SXSW set new attendance records.
I believe that this is partly because while the ROI for attending a show such as South-By can't be precisely quantified, the value of getting together with industry peers is immeasurable. Austin becomes the tech center of the universe for one week every year; being there is being part of the energy, culture, and creativity of an industry that is doing nothing short of changing online culture in small and large ways.
Every year, I get notes or tweets from people who didn't go and swear they will go next year; I hope they take the opportunity to experience it. As a veteran of many shows and conferences, I'm happy to lend advice on everything from what to see, to what hotel to book. We start planning all over again this summer; stay tuned.
Here are some notes from this year, but they can be applied to many other conferences and situations:
There's no substitute for meeting people you know online in person -- none! The content doesn't always tell you about the author and vice versa. For example: We had the pleasure of running into Merlin Mann and John Gruber and hanging out with them for a few hours one night. They had a great panel and these are writers who by their own admission can be "douchey," as they put it. They were the nicest, most gracious gentlemen and a pleasure to just get to know and hang out with. Read their sites; follow them on Twitter!
On the flip-side, I read many reports of "web-celebs" having diva-like attitudes if they weren't recognized or treated like some kind of famous person. They are not worth your valuable time. It's important to not only weigh the value of content you're getting, but consider the source.
Build Relationships, Not Networks
While there's certainly a value to trying to promote your product or service, I believe that your time at these events are much better spent meeting people and forming relationships that will last beyond the show, not pitching and pressing business cards into as many hands as possible.
Don't get me wrong, many of the same networking goals can be accomplished, but there's just so many people pitching and hustling -- so much noise and vying for attention, that I will take away more from a conversation we had over a beer and a game of pool than the fabulous game-changing site you're launching and pitching me in the elevator.
In hindsight, I'm glad we didn't have anything to launch. I think it would have created a false pressure to promote rather than relate.
Share the Love
Like many others, I believe that it's the responsibility of all of us to help each other out. Many of the panels at these shows are about imparting that kind of knowledge; that's obviously got tremendous value. I'm talking about taking that one-on-one time to talk with someone about their project, their challenges, their successes, failures, and fears. I can't tell you how many sessions or meetings I missed this year because of taking the time to talk with someone and provide whatever perspective I could. I'm happy to have taken the time and will continue to do so.
One that really touched me personally was a lady with a faltering start-up who just had tears in her eyes over the frustration of all the energy and effort she's put into her project. We stood there for 20 minutes after a panel and talked about the setbacks and failures we've had, the struggles that we all go through. There are tons of blog posts about people making it as well as crashing and burning, but I think you need to be able to look someone in the eye sometimes to help communicate that you've been there too, that it's okay to doubt, and that sometimes you need to fail before you can succeed. Did it help her? I don't know, but we tried.
Another notable experience was our quest to track-down the Hey Cupcake! truck driving around Austin. We eventually did and wound up in a conversation with one of the owners about how they might leverage this viral following they had online using tools like Twitter and features like a "Find the Cupcake Truck" feature on the site. There was nothing in it for us other than perhaps good karma and the ease of finding yummy cupcakes more easily next year.
Twitter and Brightkite Are Your Friends
I imagine that the demographic reading this post needs no introduction to Twitter or Brightkite. At a show like this, services like these are tremendously valuable in maintaining connections and getting together with people. I was in line for badges and out of the corner of my eye, recognized a friend I'd made the previous year. Not wanting to get out of line, I twittered out to him quick and he circled back for us to catch up.
As I've written before, put more than just your email on your business card to make it easier for people to reach you. Sometimes the opportunity to connect at the show is better than waiting to go home and write "nice to have met you" emails after-the-fact.
Part-time Projects? We Haz 'Em!
The biggest reassuring thing we got from everyone else this year was how many of us are working on side or part-time projects. There's so many posts out there that say if you're not willing to quit your day job or take the plunge full-time, you're not dedicated enough to your vision. It's not true! It was so awesome that many of the people we met were also working on a passion project too. Thank you to everyone we met who shared their stories with us!
Social Media Whatever
We tend to laugh off anyone calling themselves "social media experts," but those people could be making a killing working with SXSW musicians on how to better leverage the online space to build better presence and brand. We saw so many good bands who are just doing a crap job promoting themselves online. Big opportunities in that space to help a musician out!
Believe Everything and Nothing
If there's only one piece of advice I can impart, it's this: Work on what makes you happy. You can drive yourself nuts attending panels with conflicting advice, reading blogs advising you of the formulas to success, listening to people you think have it figured out that are just as terrified of failure as you are. Make up your own mind on what guidance to hold onto and what to drop on the floor.
One thing you absolutely will find at a show like SXSW will be the opportunity to make new relationships, meet helpful people, and get exposure to all of the information and people you need to re-energize the passion for your cause and empowered with more ways to make it successful.
See you next year!