SXSWi Recap from My Perspective

Post by
Scott Francis

Initial Thoughts...

I previously posted about my first two days at SXSW-interactive. I had a good experience at the conference, overall, but it does present some challenges (not least of which is the lack of eating options at lunch).? And there was a flurry of criticism post-conference which might be a bit predictable: that the conference had gotten too big for its britches and perhaps too focused on celebrity and parties, and not enough on technology.

I don't think size necessarily is a problem of its own - SXSWi is like several mini-conferences all under one umbrella.? There were enough sessions on blogging to be a pure blogging conference, for example.? Another set of sessions on using social media in your marketing and demand generation.? Another set of sessions on Javascript.? Another set of sessions unveiling relatively new startups.? I think the criticism that SXSWi wasn't technical enough misses the mark - as I recall it is "interactive" not "technical"... and the definition of what falls under that "interactive" umbrella has shifted over the years from blogging to social media to location-based apps to mobile apps in general.? Part of what makes SXSWi interesting is that it can adapt over time to the changing technology landscape - and then put sessions together that are as much about how to use the technologies as they are about how to build software leveraging those technologies, or how the software works under the hood. If you're coming to SXSWi expecting Google i/o, you'll be disappointed.? But if you're expecting CES you would also be disappointed.? SXSWi is somewhere inbetween, although that comparison doesn't really do it justice.

If you want to figure out how to leverage blogs, twitter, facebook, and mobile apps to improve your business, SXSW was a good conference for you.? If you wanted to get exposure to a set of people that will affect perception of your product or firm among an elite set of users, SXSW was a good conference for you.? But of course, SXSW isn't without its challenges.? As someone else pointed out, choosing between 28 sessions at one time slot is a daunting task at best.? But fewer sessions may not be the answer - because fewer sessions would mean a larger average size and therefore less discussion-oriented sessions (which were my favorites).

Of course, the interesting thing about SXSW-interactive is that each year, attendees VOTE on the topics ahead of time.? And the topics are put forth by people who want to present or moderate at the conference.? This is part of the flexibility of the conference, and the reason its appeal has widened over the years.? Surely no conference committee could come up with 20+ simultaneous sessions 4-5 times a day for 5 days in a row.? But the democratic polling process absolutely can fill the conference.

If you didn't like the conference this time, propose a panel, and VOTE!? You can at least create a channel through the event of panels that you find highly valuable.

Improving on a Good Thing?

Having said that, what can the conference do to improve?

  1. Provide better food options during lunch time.? Lots of food options.? Austin is practically the capital of airstream-trailer-food, as well as live music, so why not bring a fleet of these vehicles to both the front- and back-side of the convention center (Trinity and Red River) to handle the mad rush of business between the end of the 11am sessions and the beginning of the 12:30pm sessions. Also, wouldn't be a bad idea to convince Fogo de Chao and some other local restaurants to open for lunch for a change.
  2. Better descriptions of the panels.? As we get closer to the event and you have to choose, it would really help to have a better understanding of the panels being offered, but some of them had woefully inadequate descriptions.
  3. Group panels not just by location (which helps!) but also by topic-grouping, so that it is easier to find the kinds of things you want to know more about.
  4. Provide a couple time slots that have fewer sessions to drive some traffic to the exhibit floor, or give more people time for lunch (whichever).
  5. Pick the keynote speakers (or interviewers) carefully.? Its a tough job, and a tough crowd.? Give the folks who do this a chance to succeed!
  6. If there are shuttles, etc., make that information more obvious.

Well, those are my thoughts.? I attended SXSW-interactive not so much because I thought it would directly impact our business at BP3; I wanted to see how it had evolved over the years, make some new connections outside of our usual trails in the BPM ecosystem, and to get exposed to some ideas outside of the BPM echo chamber.? And I also wanted to learn how to attend SXSWi in a more efficient way in the future (in other words, how to optimize my work-conference-personal life balance during the conference).

Highlights for me:

I really enjoyed hearing from speakers across a number of topics:

  • How some bloggers make money from doing this, and what drives them
  • How people feel about yelp, and how it affects the way restaurants run their business.? Note to businesses who don't think yelp applies to them: there is a site called "Get Satisfaction" that has an even more aggressive version of a very similar business model.
  • How good speakers can weave entertaining presentations from *ANY* set of slides put in front of them (battle decks presentation showdown)
  • Interesting startups like AnyClip (although, this one will diminish the value of my encyclopedic quoting knowledge of certain movies), I-nigma (2D barcode scanning, so fast its hard to believe it works), ShopSavvy (price comparison using barcode scanning), and Siri, which is a voice-activated application that integrates well with a bunch of other services on your phone - it literally feels like magic.? Definitely one to keep an eye on.
  • Despite all the advice to the contrary, whenever a panel of judges asks a startup presenter to tell them about their competition, they answer "well, no one does exactly what we do, but here are a few that some people might consider competitors"... I guess if you're mostly giving these answers instead of saying them, you don't realize how much this undermines your credibility.? For example, for Siri, I would have responded that "Google Voice Search and voice-activated dialing and voice-activated reminders are all competing for our users' attention and overlap with our application.? We need to create a more compelling experience to draw them away and part of how we do that is by allowing the user to do MORE with voice activation, and part of how we do that is by providing better voice analysis, which is actually quite hard."
  • Some people in Austin are doing great things with their businesses.? Entrepreneurship is alive and well in our town.

Other highlights included having lunch at Moonshine (a great Austin restaurant) with my wife (owner of Red Velvet Events) and two other entrepreneurs.? Colleagues raising a quick $500 for a wheel chair for someone who had fallen ill (thanks Thom!). ? Successful exhibits by local Austin startups Spiceworks (some good friends work here) and Das Keyboard (I met the co-founders at the exhibit and they're great!).? The CEO of SlideRocket started a conversation as we were waiting to get our caffeine fix at the Hilton coffee shop (and convinced me to check it out as we compared notes on what sessions to catch).? I met a few old friends who were back in Austin for the conference (a couple of co-founder/CTOs, and a director of Business Development), as well as friends from Austin that I hadn't seen in several moons.? And maybe that is some of the magic of SXSW-interactive - to mix it up and see what comes of it.

UPDATE: great recap from Doug Freeman, who has covered the SXSW music festival for years, and nicely discounts much of the criticism of SXSW by some others - as he says, sometimes the good ole days are just the good ole days, but the now is actually pretty interesting in and of itself, even if it isn't "the good ole days..."

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