Deal with it: SXSW has changed

Getting used to the once-indie SXSW as a big, corporate-sponsored industry event is a bitter pill for some entrepreneurs and digital thinkers to swallow.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
6 min read
Believe it or not, this was a relatively calm scene compared with what the Austin Convention Center looked like during most of SXSWi. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

AUSTIN, Texas--The first time Steve Jang came to the South by Southwest Interactive Festival (historically known as SXSWi), it was 2006. He had come to the then-tiny geek-culture fest to help launch a music social-networking service called Imeem. Though SXSWi was known as a wacky gathering of party-friendly dot-commers and digital futurists, making a splash as a start-up was a pretty routine procedure.

"Back then, it was a very concerted thing," Jang told CNET. "You got a booth, you put together a team, and everyone wore the t-shirts, and you hired a PR firm, and you really wanted to do a big product debut. It was a big tent-pole effort."

Flash forward five years: Imeem got bigger but never big enough, and fizzled after a sale to MySpace. But some of the other companies that were tiny start-ups in 2006 (if they existed at all) have gotten huge. The iPhone debuted. So did the iPad. Social media went from geek curiosity to marketing-world obsession. And Steve Jang, in town to launch a mobile music app called Soundtracking, is one of many who's observed that SXSWi--now with possibly as many as 20,000 attendees--is a totally different event.

"This really is sort of the new CES for Internet and mobile, and that's on many levels," said Jang, comparing the sponsor- and party-filled SXSWi to the notoriously glitzy annual Las Vegas-based electronics trade show. "CES is kind of irrelevant unless you're selling hardware. I think for mobile developers, social app developers, this has become the new CES and it's sort of a mix of testing, launch, marketing, business development, boondoggle, socializing, sort of all the same things."

Brands on the run at SXSW

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Complaints about the massive size and scope of SXSWi, which has been growing pretty much exponentially since it was the semi-official launch pad for Twitter in 2007, are all over the place. Hotel rooms seemed to be booked up months in advance. The selection of conference panels was so packed and convoluted that, for example, many attendees didn't know that comedian Rainn Wilson was speaking on a panel until photos of Wilson onstage in a cartoonish superhero costume popped up all over Twitter after the fact. A New York Observer writer published an angry editorial about the event, declaring, "Let's destroy this sham of a technological confabulation once and for all." A commenter snarked in response: "Looks like someone couldn't find a hotel."

Let's get real: Barring extreme circumstances or a violent rupturing of the current does-it-or-doesn't-it-exist venture capital bubble, this festival is not going away. In fact, it'll probably be back in 2012 with more big-ticket sponsors following the lead of PepsiCo and General Motors, more social-media start-ups attempting to use SXSWi as a launch pad, and yes, more open-bar parties. Maybe some of those who have been griping about never wanting to return to SXSWi will make good on their promises. But, without a doubt, their spaces will be filled up by new attendees with new reasons for showing up at the Austin Convention Center or environs.

So what can be done? Griping won't do anything productive. If marketers want to pump money into an annual weeklong nerd party in Austin, they'll do it whether bloggers are whining about it or not. Start-ups hoping to launch at the festival will have to realize that they'll be surrounded not only by the presences of huge brands both tech- and non-tech but also by other start-ups looking to do exactly the same thing that they are. They'll have to change their tactics accordingly.

"The way that we look at big marketing dollars is we understand that we don't have the budgets to go up against a Foursquare or a Pepsi," said Ryan Kuder, vice president of marketing at local recommendations start-up Bizzy, which rolled into Austin with "five people and a bag of t-shirts" in terms of promotion. "One option was 'go big.' Another option was 'go small.' We went with 'go small' because placing really large bets at this point in a start-up's life cycle--if you lose the pain is a lot greater."

In the new, bigger, noiser SXSWi, a small start-up's trade show booth will probably go ignored. Attempting to get on the packed party circuit will probably just look like a waste of venture dollars. Spending too much time at loud parties where it's impossible to hold a conversation will probably just result in an overworked larynx and a hangover. But doing some advance planning to seek out like-minded people and companies, start-ups say, can make life easier at a festival where it's still worth showing up just to test out a new product and see how people react.

"For us, it's been like a giant Petri dish," Kuder told CNET. "Through the hallway conversations, through not a lot of panels but through just the conversations and talking to folks and seeing what's happening, I think that we're coming home with a much more developed sense of the direction that we hope to be going in when we get out of here."

As organizer Hugh Forrest said before he introduced the first SXSWi keynote speech this year, "If you don't like a panel, move on." In other words, there's a lot to do at SXSWi; if you don't like what you're doing, find something else that can be more productive. Many 2011 attendees even found that for what they wanted to get done, they didn't need an official SXSWi pass, and they set up shop elsewhere in town.

That's not to say that SXSWi's organizers couldn't do a few things to help alleviate the stress that comes with attending a massive conference that sprawls across Austin's entire downtown. Among the festival's attendees are literally thousands of developers, designers, hackers, and other creative problem-solvers--why not get them involved? Some aspects of SXSWi, like badge pick-up (those lines!) and the labyrinthine online schedule, haven't been able to scale with the size of the conference. A proposal to the people behind SXSWi: Crowdsource. Hold a contest in which you challenge people and start-ups to design and build a new way of making SXSWi logistically top-notch. Offer some prize money (or even just free attendance and a comped suite at the Hilton). Whoever wins, the solution will almost undoubtedly offer some improvements over the current system. You have a festival full of brilliant people who will be thrilled to pitch in--take advantage of this.

In spite of the growing numbers of SXSWi haters, and in spite of the fact that completely dominating the festival's zeitgeist the way Twitter did four years ago seems difficult, there's still no substitute for an industry gathering in the Web and mobile development sectors. The tech world still needs and wants this. SXSWi 2011 was less a conference than a much-needed test bed for new promotions like the partnership between Foursquare and American Express, edgy marketing initiatives, and fresh habits of mobile behavior like the much-hyped showdown between a handful of similar "group messaging" applications, which permitted attendees to communicate and travel in packs as Twitter has grown too overwhelmingly popular to use as a fine-tuned way to navigate the festival. (The "group messaging wars," by the way, did not have a clear winner.)

And attendees should keep in mind that with a bigger and more diverse festival, there are a wider array of possibilities for making a name for oneself. For one, in addition to launching a new start-up, Steve Jang can boast that he won a barbecue sauce recipe contest at a tech start-up's rooftop pool party. That probably wouldn't have been an option back in 2006.