#SXSW 2013 Day 1 by

Day 1 of SXSW 2013 is in the books.  It was a pretty good day.  For me, it started back in the office – with a view of downtown but too far to walk.  Conference calls started at 8:30am – catching up with colleagues in Europe.  Then on to an iPhone app playback at 9:30am.  Then our weekly staffing call at 10am – reviewing all of our current deals and staffing decisions.  Quick lunch with Lance Gibbs, my co-founder at BP3.  Followed by another conference call  – this time with a new customer that we’re really excited to be working with.

When you leave the office with a great customer call in your rear-view mirror, it’s easy to feel upbeat about attending a conference.

Some coverage of SXSW on CNN.com made for good reading this morning:

First, one article on the secular pastor of Austin startups, Bijoy Goswami. And second, an articled titled “SXSW may have peaked, and that’s okay” – which wonders:

This year, some SXSW veterans feel the maturing festival, which began in the late 1990s, may have reached a saturation point, especially when it comes to startups trying to draw attention to new products. SXSW Interactive famously helped Twitter get off the ground in 2007 and gave apps such as Foursquare and Highlight a boost in recent years.
But as SXSW has gotten crowded, it’s become much harder to stand out. [...]
This year, Sinski said, “There’s really no big app expected to launch, nothing huge people are excited for on the tech side.”

I guess memories are short. When twitter launched at SXSW in 2007 – no one expected them to.  There really weren’t that many startups coming to SXSW yet.  Twitter knew they were going to launch here, but not a lot of journalists or attendees did.  Ditto for Foursquare.

So if the era of launching apps is over at SXSW, it isn’t clear it ever really was here.  Two apps launched that perfectly matched up to what I would consider “the kind of app that should launch ere” – and they’re really examples of one-off success, not patterns for others to follow successfully.

The focus now is on building users and finding customers.  I noticed Second Market has a big presence here – because their target customers are here- startups – in great numbers.  What a target rich environment to be selling into!  Ticket prices were raised this year, which helped hold down demand somewhat.

Back to my experience:

Of course, I had to park halfway across Austin and walk to the convention center, so I missed a few minutes of the first session.  I kicked things off with a session on “how to be an angel investor”.  It was a really well-run panel, between Jason Cohen, Timmins, and McCormick.  Cohen has a voice for radio – hardly recognized his voice compared to talking in person!  A few highlights:

  • The entrepreneur and team are 75% of the weighting of whether or not to invest – and if there are any concerns with the entrepreneur, then there’s no investment (everyone seemed to agree with this)
  • Why entrepreneur over concept/idea/market?  Because the market will change, the idea will morph, the understanding of the opportunity will change.  A good team will still be a good team – but a good idea may get shattered by reality (plan meets reality and breaks).
  • A big question is: What is the path that the founder has laid out for getting to one paying customer.  
  • Jason Cohen points out: the instant you join (invest in) the team, the company has to be come more valuable.  Whether that is because of introductions or credibility or market dynamics understanding, buyer behavior etc.
  • From followup questions, sounds like keys to getting into angel investing: have a lot of money (often from a successful exit), and invest in longterm relationships and networks that eventually pay off in terms of investment opportunities or experts to lean on.

Key takeaway: an investment thesis for angel investors makes sense – because it defines the kind of company you can make more valuable.

Next session I attended was about startups beyond Silicon Valley – Silicon Prairie if you will.  It opened with a really slick video/trailer for the documentary movie.  And the session overall was incredibly well delivered.

However, it was as much a discussion of how to influence policy (PIPA and SOPA and CISPA) as it was a discussion of startups in the heartland. So in that sense, the talk was off-topic.  As much political discussion as anything.  It was missing stories about how these midwestern companies got started, how they find support for their startup efforts, how they might be different than Silicon Valley colleagues or contemporaries.  That was a big disappointment to me, despite the great speaking skills and entertaining video of the talk.

Takeaway – what I should have done is gone to a session more outside my comfort zone – like the physics talk that covered how the higgs boson work and other recent work in high energy physics helps unify Physics. This was a subject as far outside of my normal experience as the Craig Ventor talk about artificial life from 2 years ago.

Finally, I attended a session run by @Shaherose with a panel of Women designer/founders.  Great discussion/session, but as with all panel sessions, you struggle a bit with getting deeper in the conversation rather than having everyone on the panel give the 30second to one minute response.  What was really cool was seeing 5 women who are confident designers, builders, founders.  And I think they were originally from 4 different countries -so pretty well represented – but I also think they all got their startups going in the US.  A great case of how immigration can improve the economy.  Unfortunately my notes from the section (captured in Evernote) got wiped out by a bad sync.  My first data loss in Evernote to date. So much for note taking!

Seeing women entrepreneurs on stage was great – and reflects what I see in Austin all the time – I see a lot of women owning and running businesses and so I’m always left wondering if there is a disconnect between my group of friends and acquaintances in Austin, or is it just that the tech founders in Silicon Valley need to get out and about more to see evidence of all the women entrepreneurs out there!

If that had been the end of my day it was a good one. But next I walked to the W hotel – running into an old friend (we used to work together, and she used to be my landlord when I was just a fresh-out-of-college kid).  We caught up with friends from Trilogy days at the W hotel – one of whom has a new startup going, and one is on his second rocketship (after just exiting a previous rocketship startup).  And the rest of us are running small businesses.  Once upon a time we all worked at the same company.

After that we went to the Spredfast party – to catch up with friends from Lombardi, in particular.  Speakeasy has been a bit of an institution in Austin over the last 20 years.  Fun to revisit the space.  But it was crowded. This is SXSW at its best or worst, depending on your perspective!

After catching up with some of my friends from Lombardi and Trilogy at the Speakeasy, I ventured over to the best meetup of SXSW – Laura Beck‘s mixup of Austin entrepreneurs with out-of-town visitors.  If you’re from elsewhere, this is a great meeting to attend if you want to meet Austinites and Austin entrepreneurs.  I ran into the Union Metrics crew – one of my favorite startups from Austin (and now also in the Bay Area).  And I ran into my second connection from Food on the Table.  And met a couple new folks while catching up with Laura and the amazing Cindy Lo. One of the best parts-  samples of Fogo de Chao kept coming around on plates, and so, effectively I had dinner.

On the walk back to the car, I ran into friends having dinner at one of Austin’s many patio restaurants – and so I joined them to catch up for a while. Great night.  And I got home in time to get 7 hours of sleep.  Ready for Day 2… which will start with coffee and the Lean Startup experience