The first year I went to SXSW, 2009, I spoke with my then-boss at Qik, Bhaskar Roy. This was before the company got acquired by Skype/Microsoft for $180 million. Qik, which was first developed in 2007, was a live streaming video app for mobile devices. Sound familiar? Yeah, we were Meerkat almost nine years before Meerkat existed. I’m glad the people and the networks are now ready for such a thing, but let’s not pretend it’s new. The acquisition was validation enough, but the new generation of live mobile video apps is pretty fun to watch, too.
2012 was the last time I went, and it was great to return this year, if only to see Omar (who took the above photo of me in the middle of a crazy photo walk we fell into with Trey Ratcliff), which I accomplished within an hour of arriving in Austin.
I go to SXSW with a different agenda than most people: I never, ever plan on seeing any sessions I’m not personally involved with in some way. The only ones I go to are ones I’ve produced or that my colleagues are fronting. I don’t even crack open the schedule, because it would just make me anxious. There’s really no time to go to sessions, because most of the time I have the fun but demanding mission of planning small, private gatherings of brilliant people doing interesting work. Due to the nature of SXSW, these mostly unfold in real-time, so I’m confirming guests throughout the day, coordinating with admin support back east to book the right venues (at the last minute, which is always a hoot), and generally trying to make the most of the fact that lots of super smart, sharp people doing cool stuff end up coming to SXSW. There’s no debate on this: It’s real, and it happens every year.
I usually plan one non-work dinner during my time there, for friends from around the world who have heard me tell one another about them, but who have never met in person. People from my London years, from my Silicon Valley years, from the Gates Foundation grant I did in Africa and India – they all come to Austin and it’s a dream come true to connect them with one another.
People can complain all they want about the invasion of brands at SXSW, but most of those complaints seem to come from people who have no legitimate reason to be at SXSW in the first place. And by “legitimate reason,” I include the base level of being curious about new stuff. Those who live to crap all over things for the sake of it aren’t the kind of people I like to be around, so I’m glad they’re staying away from SXSW in droves. Their loss, our gain.
By the way, there are as many ways to do SXSW as there are people who flood Austin for the event. There’s absolutely no requirement to go to parties every night, or at all. (I skip those, too.) You can manage your time so you get enough solitude among the frenzy, and for me that’s essential: It’s not sustainable to be pressing the flesh and taking all that input around the clock for several days on end. Plus, I always come back from SXSW on a Tuesday after a hectic weekend in Austin – meaning I go straight into another work week. By the time the first Friday post-SXSW rolls around, I am done. From my informal polling, it seems to take at least two weekends at home in a row to recover fully, whether you’re a dedicated partygoer or a boring non-drinker with a 11PM bedtime like me.
tl;dr version: There’s still a ton of value in SXSW, if you invest your time and energy wisely. If you don’t, you probably never got much out of it to begin with. And if you simply don’t go because you have to allocate your resources to attending other events, I totally get that. But don’t blame “brands” for ruining your fun. If anything, the injection of capital into SXSW has revealed a thriving market for events that surface innovation and creativity, and as anyone can see, organizations the world over have responded to that need by creating more such events than ever. We all win. Thanks, SXSW!