Parting Thoughts on SXSW-interactive and Shark-Jumping by

Is this Shark too big to Jump?

Every year, attendees of SXSW ask if it has “jumped the shark” – usually a reference to out-of-control attendance, but also often used in reference to its growing appeal to “mainstream” audiences, sponsors, and media. Legitimately, people wondered if a conference of 12000+ last year could still be meaningful to attendees.  It was a big jump in attendance (30-40%), and the organization of the conference struggled to keep up.  Hallways were jam-packed with people between sessions, and logistics seemed problematic (transportation and food were scarce, and so were spare plugs for recharging phones and laptops). Early reports that SXSW would be even bigger this year raised the usual concerns – is SXSW-interactive too big?  Too big to create value for attendees?  The final numbers came in somewhere between 19,000 and 20,000 – an almost shocking increase, and by far the biggest tech conference I’ve attended (approximately 3x the size of IBM Impact 2010).  It is amazing that Austin, a moderately sized city, can host such a large conference (we’re not talking about a traditional conference destination like Las Vegas or Orlando).  But SXSW compensates for this shortage of convention center space by branching out – to 10 venues in 2011.  This year it did a better job of grouping similar content in the same venue (campus), cutting down on the mad dashes across Austin from one session to another.  In a sense, SXSW is evolving into a set of smaller conferences – each of which is growing independently under the overall umbrella and branding of SXSW.  The organizers of SXSW of course have some experience with this… it is how they approached growing the Film and Interactive portions of the festival without missing a beat with the music festival.

It’s Over

John Gruber of Daring Fireball weighs in on SXSW as well:
As Budd says, you can’t go from a conference of 2,500 attendees to one of 25,000 attendees without turning the event into something entirely different. … Once it outgrew the Austin Convention Center, though, it grew into something I no longer enjoyed. I don’t see how anyone could claim that the conference now is anything but broken.
Only in comparison to an event profile from 2005.  It just isn’t the same event.  Or really, set of events.  This same complaint is leveled by Austinites all the time… about Austin!  People lament that the town it used to be is lost.  It has grown beyond its sleepy beginnings.  But the alternative is what?  Not having the robust economic growth that has made Austin one of the most interesting cities to live in? I’ll take the growth, thank you – I’ve seen the alternatives. In the context of SXSW – what is the alternative?  A conference to which the same people come every year for 25 years, every year just a bit older than last year?  The truth is, you can’t keep a conference like this the same – it has to evolve.  Admittedly, the organizers can limit attendance, or raise prices to artificially limit attendance (one could argue they tried that by raising prices for 2011…).  But would lack of growth be better than what SXSW has achieved?  I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think so. John Gruber also laments the lack of attendance at a talk scheduled too far from the epicenter;
A prime example: Despite the fact that there were almost 25,000 attendees, almost no one saw Matt Haughey’s excellent talk in person, because the conference schedulers put Haughey in an obscure location across the river, a mile away from the Austin Convention Center. There were about 30 or 40 people in the room for his talk.
This sort of thing is truly unfortunate.  There was a similar attendance issue at Craig Venter’s amazing talk on synthetic life-  one of the best talks I’ve seen on any subject.  It was scheduled at 9:30am on Monday morning.  I’m sure a lot of people were still sleeping off a long night out from Sunday night.  But I’d hardly call a conference broken for scheduling quality content at 9:30am.  I think there’s a lot of room for improvement in scheduling and grouping content together. But I have some faith that SXSW organizers are working it out.  I don’t know anyone who attended the Lean Startup sessions who walked away from SXSW feeling that the content wasn’t top notch.  I also attended a packed BattleDecks session that was, to put it mildly, less than value-added.  Voting with feet sometimes produces surprising results in both directions. In the echo chamber of folks who didn’t go to sessions, talking about how bad the session content was, skipping the conference or just skipping the sessions seems like a good idea.  But I think they missed the boat for the average conference-goer – as usual the content was there, and rich – but it takes more work to find what you want because there are, literally, as many as 120 sessions happening concurrently.  You read that right.  In my opinion, if you’re not in that “influencer elite” class of attendee, you’re probably going to enjoy the content if you give it a chance. That opinion is validated by a couple of experienced startup veterans that came to SXSW for the first time this year and really enjoyed it.  Anecdotal data, I’ll admit.

Reinventing SXSWi… again…

One of the things that sets SXSW-interactive apart is that it reinvents itself – from “multimedia” to a blogger convention, to a tech/startup convention, to a convention with a strong streak of mobile and geo-location content (and all the while a gaming track has been growing in size)… The organizers don’t come up with the ideas that shape and reshape the conference, for the most part – the attendees and speakers do – by submitting and then voting on topics.  The Lean Startup track that Eric Ries, et al, created was driven by people outside the SXSW organizational structure, but with the help of SXSW once that theme became apparent.  How many conferences have you been to where the messaging is controlled by 2-3 people who work at a single company and have a particular agenda (or product, or service) to push? SXSW avoids that trap- whether on purpose or by accident. After attending this year’s conference, if anything has “jumped the shark”, it is saying that SXSW has jumped the shark:
Depending on what you read or who you talk to, this was definitely the year that SXSW jumped the shark. In fact, I think we even declared it over before it even began. What was once a conference that was hip, now attracts the guy in the buttoned-up shirt — therefore, it’s over.
Except, it isn’t.  And if there is anyplace where the button-up shirt can meet with the guy in tshirt and Birkenstocks, Austin is it.  MG Siegler goes on to say:
Everything just felt fragmented — including the apps that did try to launch there. There was simply too much going on for what was initially conceived as a smaller show. This year was like watching a mouse trying to give birth to an elephant.
The other side of the coin is that SXSW is just too big for a few insiders to control the message, or to even groupthink what the message should be.  The fragmentation may be precisely what SXSW needed to handle the influx of people, who can’t fit into a single building let alone a single room in Austin. As for fragmentation, I like how Hugh Forrest put it:
Forrest said that for next year, the festival crew will look at quality control for panels, although the abundance of content is not something that will likely go away. “Yes, there’s too much stuff, but it’s part of what we’re trying to do here. That’s a feature, not a flaw.”
In other words: your problem isn’t going to be lack of choice at SXSW.  The problem will be choosing where to invest your time.  The adjustment I made from 2010 to 2011 was to more carefully plan out my first two days before the conference started – having 2-3 sessions marked for each time-slot that I thought were interesting and in a location I was willing to walk to.   I also planned what session or time frame I was going to ditch, so that I could eat lunch.  There just isn’t time to decide where you want to go after the previous session – you need to have it narrowed down to a shorter “interest list” and then make a bee-line for that session in case it is crowded.  Good sessions are often standing room only.

You Can’t Launch Product at SXSWi- Not Anymore. Or Can You?

It appears that I’m not the only one that feels SXSW is becoming a must-attend event.  But Michael Lazerow comes to one bad conclusion: that the days of breaking products at SXSW are over:
As for the product wars we all know and love, let me just say that this year marks the end of launching products (at least successfully) at SXSW. With launches being the only thing more prevalent than parties at SXSW, two things will happen with your product if you debut at SXSW:
  • No one cares. There is too much noise. 99.9999% of the companies fit into this category.
  • Everyone cares and you crash. SXSW is so big now that if people do notice and decide to check out your product en masse, you will crash as you can’t handle the traffic.
So either you crash and burn because no one notices, or you crash and burn because you actually crash and burn. It’s crucial to begin growing an active user base a few months before SXSW so you can improve the product and scale the infrastructure.
He goes on to say that SXSW is the kindling, not the firestarter.  Not sure about the analogy but I think he has a point – it can accelerate adoption for a product that already has a loyal following.   But launching a product to all 20,000 attendees at SXSW-i no longer makes sense (except when it does).  But it doesn’t mean you can’t have a successful launch  – you just have to aim at a more targeted or niche segment of the attendees – the conference’s attendees are too fragmented in demographics, and too large in number, to target in one conference with one message – but it doesn’t mean you can’t launch.  But it is only with the benefit of hindsight that we can tell if SXSW gave your launch the boost it needed to attain orbit.

The Myth, and The Legend

In fact, Charlie O’Donnell of First Round Capital does a great job of explaining the myth of the SXSW launch, and why we shouldn’t be quite so focused on the successful launch of new technology as an indicator of success.  Essentially, Twitter was the perfect app to launch at an event like SXSW, and now that we have it, it isn’t clear yet what the next “right app, right time, right conference” confluence will be.  As he put it:
What SXSW has always been about is people.  It is the single best place in the creative innovation world to build relationships and get to know people.  I have friends from all over the world that I’ve met over the last five years that I can’t wait to see in Austin every year.  It’s where I met Rob May from Backupify for the first time in person–and I got to back him through First Round four years later.
Going back to fragmentation and cognitive dissonance, I love this article from Inc. magazine on what you missed at SXSW:
  • Five days is enough to start a company.  The startup bus movement is in effect, and while it hasn’t churned out a blockbuster hit, it has given its participants a short primer on “starting up”.
  • Gamification will blanket the earth… but…
  • Gamification doesn’t matter.  Yes. You read that right.  Different points of view, strongly expressed, in different panels or discussions.
  • Influencers will inherit the earth.  Get used to it.
  • Ignore the influencers, and focus on a subset of mainstream users.
Hm. Conflicting advice!

Random Observations

My experiences at SXSW interactive have been so positive that I’ll be back in 2012.  The opportunity to step outside the day-to-day and get exposed to this kind of cross-pollination just doesn’t happen every day – and for me, being in Austin, this is a no-brainer.  I’ll share a couple of other random observations… I noticed a few apps in particular were getting a lot of traction this year:
  • Foodspotting.  I started using it at last year’s SXSW, and saw an awful lot of foodspotting on twitter this year.
  • A friend of mine introduced me to Hashable late last year, but I didn’t really start using it until SXSW this year.  When you’re meeting with other active twitter users it is a nice way to “say thanks” when you get a meet-up.
  • Groupme – I don’t use it but people were talking about using it.  However, I didn’t see any viral effect – none of my friends at SXSW sent me an invite or were asking me to sign up so that we could “group chat”.  This one hasn’t filtered down to the “general audience” at SXSW.
  • Other opinions here.
There are other reasons to keep coming to SXSW.  The Austin360 Food Trailer guide is just one reason (25 Austin food trailers, critic’s picks ) – if Austin isn’t Ground Zero for the food trailer movement, I don’t know where it is. Free food trailer food was abundant at SXSW, thanks to Hashable, Foodspotting, and other startups at SXSW. Another is the likely-to-be-annual Das IronGeek Competition (congrats Joshua Baer on winning it this year!) – if you haven’t tried one of their mechanical keyboards, you should. They’re amazingly responsive and fast.  It is hard to describe without actually trying one. The competition consisted of: Who doesn’t want to win the Dwight Schroot trophy?  And where else can you compete for the Das IronGeek prize, attend a talk on synthetic life, attend a talk on the singularity, learn about lean startups, meet the CEO of your favorite iPhone app, and win tickets to a Big Boi concert?  Not to mention good BBQ and Tacos all week. The parties and social gatherings are another reason to attend – but I had more fun taking friends to local restaurants that weren’t hosting those events- treating them to unique local food.

Ok Ok, So Who Won SXSW 2011?

And in case you missed it, the product that “won” SXSW was the 2D barcode:
I’m talking 2D barcodes (i.e., QR Codes, Microsoft Tag…) that link the physical world to mobile. My client John Puterbaugh, CEO of Nellymoser and a pioneer in the development of technology that seamlessly delivers rich content to mobile devices, summed it up when he said on his PSFK panel: “2D barcodes codes are to mobile what the URL was to the Internet.” If you don’t believe me (or John), here’s a collection of the images I captured at almost every turn during my time in Austin.
I have to admit that the pictures don’t lie.  QR codes were everywhere.  Including on all of our badges.  And yet, I used them more in 2010 than I did in 2011, and I didn’t see anyone else taking advantage of them either.  Not sure if I’d call it winning, but they sure were ubiquitous. See you next year, folks.