#SXSW2014 Day 4: Culture, BitCoins, Encryption, and Networking

Scott Francis
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Day 4 started out with Houndstooth coffee and a dose of culture – specifically, a panel with three culture agents in Austin – Eric Falcao of Mass Relevance, Liz Elam of Link Coworking, and Matt Chasen of uShip.  Immediate problem: standing room only at 9:30am.

Still, I stuck it out in order to learn more about how these company leaders see their own culture, recognizing that all corporate leaders suffer blind spots in seeing their own culture.

One of the more interesting questions posed by the moderator was what sort of “objects of culture” are present in your companies?  For Elam and Link Co-working, this was the wireless phone system.  For uShip’s Chasen, it was the ping pong table, around which many a company tournament was held (full disclosure: the ping pong table has been a central element of BP3 office space for years now as well!).  For Mass Relevance, it was the communal dining tables in the kitchen (I would agree, these are a signature item in their space).

Another good question: how formal is culture at your companies?  Now that they’re past the startup stage, have they embraced a structured approach to culture or not?  At uShip, this started organic and was only formalized after many months or years of growth.  At Mass Relevance, they came up with mashups of words like Freesponsibility (freedom + responsibility, hopefully I got that right), to describe the tensions between their values – freedom and responsibility (there are something like 5 of these mashups). Regular monthly organized gatherings were also part of the culture at both uShip and Mass Relevance.  At Link, Elam related how they have new customers work for a day in their space before becoming a member, and if they don’t fit in and engage, then they don’t offer them a membership.

That last anecdote is critical.  We all have to proactively manage to our culture at startups.  It isn’t just something that happens, it is also something you have to protect at hiring time.  It isn’t enough to hope culture happens, you have to act explicitly to foster it and protect it.

Next up was the strangest session (by far) of the conference: the video conversation with Ed Snowden, now famous (infamous) in many circles since his disclosure of many confidential NSA documents.  It was a surreal event. Two interviewers on chairs, and Snowden on a giant video screen, brought back memories of Steve Jobs’ and Bill Gates’ video conference discussion at a MacWorld years ago. The video quality, allegedly making 7 proxy server hops, was so bad that it could have been several still pictures with Snowden, instead of video.

From a technical point of view, it was a really interesting conversation. But with current events in Ukraine and Russia, it was like the elephant in the room to not talk about the political situation as well.  Due to communication complications, most of the conversation was between the other two participants, rather than Snowden.

The next session was on the future of BitCoin, and it was one of the most boring sessions of the conference, for me.  My “That’s a really good question” tally was north of 50 by the end of the session.  The speaker, Fred Ehrsam, of CoinBase, was asked to paint a picture of what BitCoin could do – but the examples seemed a bit weak to me.

  • As a “safe” currency in “second and third world” countries.  This sounds good til you realize that the US Dollar is already a safe currency in most countries, and it isn’t nearly as volatile as BitCoin so it is much better suited for that purpose.
  • As a way to transfer ownership of something by exchanging a small increment of BitCoin.  Well.  There are lots of ways to transfer ownership, this doesn’t seem that compelling to me.
  • Avoiding high credit card fees, etc. for micro-payments.  Again, that might make sense if you didn’t have to convert BitCoin into currency. But you do… Because it isn’t a good store of value when it is so volatile. It just isn’t the only way to solve the problem – there’s nothing inherent about the technology banks use that requires charging 2.5% transaction fees – so it isn’t clear that they can’t react to this new challenge if it goes mainstream.

So there wasn’t much here to inspire the future of BitCoin for me, but I wouldn’t treat one session as the whole story there.

Next up was “Art and Science” – by one of the creators of Myth Busters, Adam Savage. It continued on the theme of Art and Science being in concert, rather than in competition.  Some great takeaways from this talk – for one, his believe that art and science are inextricably linked.  Notable paraphrased statements:

  • “There is no invalid response to art. There’s good art and bad art, but every response to art is valid”  What an interesting way to explain art.
  • Science is for everybody. Every time you adjust a joke to get a better laugh, you’re using scientific methods to find a better joke or a better storytelling method.

The scientific method is not the opposite of artistic expression and creativity! Loved his example: a caveman killing a bigger animal with a pointy stick – science!  How did he tell his friends?  By painting it on the cave wall – Art!

Three things for the scientific method:

  1. Question – what question should we answer?  (this takes some art)
  2. Hypothesis
  3. Experiment to test the hypothesis.  Rinse and repeat if the Hypothesis is unconfirmed.

He left us with a thought – that if culture is conversation, then art and science are how we have that conversation.  It was a great, inspiring talk, and not at all what I expected from one of the Myth Busters!

Next up, I tried to see “How to Build Culture in a Distributed Organization” – but the room was full with a line down the hall.  Apparently culture is a popular topic!  I was hoping to see some new ideas on this topic that is near and dear to our heart at BP3.  If anyone was there and took good notes please share!

As a result, I walked down to Houndstooth with a friend, got some great coffee, and then enjoyed a nice rest on the lounge furniture set out in front of the Courtyard Marriott. Of course we promptly ran into others from our clan of Austin entrepreneurs, which led to more socializing at Four Seasons.  From there, dinner with a fellow classmate from college, and then off to one more social gathering – a networking event hosted by Vast and Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate.  Some of my Lombardi alumni colleagues were off to a Spredfast concert at Stubbs, featuring DJ GirlTalk.  But my SXSW 2014 journey was at an end.  I was ready for sleep and to get back to a mountain of work to catch up on!

Hopefully from my notes on the conference, you can see the value in just being spontaneous in the face of planned activities, and seeing sessions that are outside your core domain of expertise.