Nerdpocalypse is Back and Better than Ever #SXSW

Scott Francis
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After the Icepocalypse (Austinites and icy weather do not mix) and the beginning of the Mopacolypse (construction on Austin’s 2nd most-clogged artery, Mopac), comes the Nerdpocalypse – when all the SXSW-interactive attendees descend on Austin’s hotels and downtown scene for five days.

As with every year it kicked off with a bang, the ATX Startup Crawl, which is a celebration of the Austin startup community large and small.  At the Omni, a large number of startups had tables set up for demo’ing their wares or landing pages and getting signups.  And a large number of people were looking for jobs or just to catch up with friends at these various startups.  There are large established “startups” like Uship, Mass Relevance, and Sparefoot. Not to mention Civitas and Square Root.  And there were literally shoebox operations or startups with 2-3 people.  A car rental startup (Silvercar), a coding education company (MakerSquare).  And all points inbetween.

You can argue what’s a startup and what’s not – but these are the forces that are moving in Austin high-tech right now.

I started day one at Houndstooth Coffee downtown, where I got some work done, and two conference calls (sorry everyone else on those calls, and in the coffee shop…! ) The line was out the door for coffee by 8:30am.  Early signs of nerdpocalypse.

Then a quick trip to hear about tacos in Austin. After that, in search of tacos to fulfill an inexplicable craving, I ran into a couple of old Lombardi colleagues, and we headed to the trailer food court… and promptly got distracted by the zero-line at Gourdoughs (trust me this never happens).

The results speak for themselves:

This was followed by my first chance to see @garyvee give a talk at SXSW.  I see why everyone loves his sessions so much – he’s fantastic.

One thing I noticed in the lead-up to the conference this year is that there was a lot less gnashing of teeth about the impending doom of the conference being this big.  Perhaps this is because on a percentage basis, the growth has (somewhat) leveled off and most of the attendees coming are now used to it.  Still, I expect to see a few “too big” blog posts during or after the conference.

Traffic is still bad, and Austin is still too small. Those hotel rooms I thought would come online this year, will come online next year.  Oops.  But if you see all the cranes building buildings, and food trucks feeding people, you know that Austin is investing in the future.

Entrepreneur has a great article about the history of the conference:

Back in ’87, the first South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival (SXSW) barely made an economic blip for its host city of Austin, Texas. There were only 700 registrants, after all.

But a lot has changed since then.

Last year, there were more than 41,000 registrants—and 155,000 participants who attended at least one activity—during SXSW, which has grown to include events for filmmakers as well as interactive sessions that are especially popular among entrepreneurs. The event’s financial impact on Austin has also grown significantly, and it brought in more than $129 million during the event last year through the sale of items such as concert tickets, film screenings and access passes for the interactive sessions—plus another $88.3 million from the year-round operations of SXSW, according to an economic analysis from Greyhill Advisors.

SXSW is big business these days for Austin, and the effect goes beyond the companies starting up and attending, but also to the companies that provide products and services to attendees and sponsors:

Some entrepreneurs in Austin have certainly seen a positive ripple effect as SXSW has expanded and helped grow their businesses. Cindy Lo, president of the event management firm Red Velvet Events, says her venture has developed to include 15 full-time employees since it started in 2002, “and it has definitely grown with the growth of SXSW in Austin.”

 SXSW features, if anything, even more startup and demo pitches than ever this year.  And yet, *still* the rooms just aren’t big enough.  I went to see the top 10 Austin Startups at Salon C – standing room only, with a line down the hall.  Even my first year attending SXSW, the demand for startup content was fairly insatiable.  Despite dramatically increasing the number of sessions, and somewhat increasing size of rooms, we’re still constantly at capacity for these things.

And of course there’s Josh Baer’s take on the top 10 Austin Startups to watch as well.

 Having missed the startup demo pitches, I ventured down for coffee with a Stanford classmate and we caught up on work and family life.  He’s from Portland, and someone I haven’t seen in 10 years!  Such are the serendipities of SXSW.

Next up was a session on Making in the future.  Joi Ito of MIT Media Laa, and Tim Brown of IDEOare in a small panel discussing how to appeal not just to the logical and conceptual,  but also to the creative and emotional, how to create confidence and passion.

Having lived in Austin long enough, and being the spouse of the indefatigable Cindy Lo, I’ve been fortunate to be included on the invite list for the Austin Meat-Up – a collection of local and visiting entrepreneurs that gathers at Fogo de Chao every year to network and eat some of the best meat on a toothpick you’ve ever had.  The weather was perfect (cool, but not raining), and I was fortunate to meet several new friends while there.  It’s always energizing to meet other people who are chasing their dreams and excited about what’s to come.  That positive energy was overflowing.  Even more flattering to meet a few people who follow the blog!  A couple of shout-outs to my friends at Union Metrics – friends who’ve moved to SF, and to their folks in the Austin office – this is a great Austin-startup and hacker story.  Like Mass Relevance, their company started out while coding in a coffee shop with friends.  The Meat-up is an amazing gathering of Austinites – 7 years running.  Laura Beck of Striped Shirt and friends had the foresight to start this thing before SXSW-interactive became the beast that it is, and I think it speaks volumes to the management of Fogo that they have been just as loyal to Laura and team – such loyalty in the face of pressure to just take the biggest endorsement possible is really rare and maybe that is just another reflection of the magic that makes Austin businesses work.

After this, we got dinner at Bar Congress – which seemed to be a refuge of local Austinites in the middle of SXSW craziness.  We ran into friends from Spredfast, Mass Relevance, and the CVB.  On the patio of Bar Congress.

Finally, I saw this fantastic article which deserves more commentary – the new skyline emerging in Austin:

Right now, in a 20 square block area encompassing downtown, there are at least 25 major buildings under construction or in the planning phases. This number doesn’t even consider the many more new restaurants, bars, museums, cafes and other destinations that are sprouting in the valleys between these projects. I think those of you who are back for the first time in a year will be shocked.
[…]

In parallel to all of this physical transformation, another equally exciting evolution is occurring for those of us in Austin’s software-focused startup community. And it’s happening at an increasingly breakneck rate. I’m talking about the flow of investment capital. Lots of it. Coming from an increasing number of geographically-dispersed sources. Into more and more Austin-grown companies.

I couldn’t have had a better first day of SXSW 2014.  A high bar for Day 2 to surpass…