After hearing about the high calibre of the content at SXSW, I decided to head to Texas and check it our for myself. I am a big fan of “curation” and use events like this to catch up on the latest trends and insights without spending large amounts of time researching myself.
I read a heap of posts about how to mange such a large undertaking and the biggest thing they all missed is to define why you are there (to learn, to network or to party?). What you want to get out of SXSW will influence how you approach it and what you do.
The first thing you need to understand at SXSW is that you will miss out on a lot of awesome stuff at any given time. There is just too much happening in such a short space of time to be able to experience it all (well, even very much of it at all). So you need to do your research and plan.
I was lucky that I was not trying to sell or start anything up and could focus on what I wanted… to learn as much as possible and find some great inspiration.
Interactive sessions start at 9:00am and go through to 6:00pm. The peak time is 11:00am. This is dense learning for five days and excludes much partying. Hangovers and late nights don’t work well with early starts and dense learning.
First thing is to setup the official SXSW app and website. I shortlisted everything I was vaguely interested in. This was up to 10 things per session time. For the specific sessions that you must see, add them to your calendar with a reminder.
Additionally, if you have time, follow the SXSW blog/twitter/Facebook and find others who have great taste’s blog/twitter/Facebook/etc.
Then before a slot, I reviewed my short list. Things that influenced which one I went to:
- Repetition (have I been to similar talks?)
- Location (some things are far away and more difficult to get to)
- Popularity (do I have to go early to line up and will they likely have a video of this I can watch later?)
- Word on the street and friends recommendations
- If I got there and it was full or cancelled (this happened a few times)
Notes: I am not good at remembering stuff so I took a wireless keyboard and took notes on my phone in evernote. This worked well. Additionally, I snapped photos of slides and another interesting stuff. A tablet would have worked even better but I don’t have one. I think paper sucks for this sort of thing so if you are still using paper, figure out how to go digital.
To start up or promote
While the sessions are on, there a heap of parties, mentoring sessions and other networking opportunities. I was advised that most of the learning happens over beer with the amazing people that you meet at these events. For example, Google hired three houses (converted to bars) and ran day parties, so I am sure there were great networking opportunities. The image at the top is of Google’s house with a giant glowing map pin to mark the spot.
This means that you will likely miss most of the actual main forum sessions, however make sure you get to some main forum sessions. The cool thing is that most of the speakers hang around afterwards to chat to the audience. So I recommend you have a list of people you want to meet and head to their sessions. Additionally, if the session is on your subject, others for you to meet will also be hanging out to talk to the speakers.
I will assume you understand social media so won’t go into that side of it. SXSW is a geek fest so social media is amplified (over slow internet).
Every brand is doing its best to stand out so I recommend that you make some effort here. Maybe have something small to give away or a stylish costume.
There are a million business cards floating around, so yours will need to stand out. I recommend printing a custom set for SXSW that includes your photo so people can remember you and a QR code so geeks can skip the card.
Most interactive parties have an open bar or at least quality free drinks. Some also have some great acts and some have surprise guests (there are a lot of famous musicians coming to town). Remember that all the brands are trying to outdo each other for your attention and spend a lot of cash doing so.
In saying that, if you are there to get drunk and party, go to the music festival instead. I REALLY recommend going to both. This allowed me to make the most of the interactive section and then party during the music section.
Other Important Stuff
Keep your eyes open and go with the flow
This thing is big and is in a constant state of flux…
- Sessions get cancelled/changed
- New stuff gets added
- You find out about better sessions
Although you have planned well (see above), be open minded to throw it out the window when needed.
American prepaid internet sucks really bad. You will be going back in time to the good ol’ days of dail-up. We drove from Miami to Austin, then flew to NY and San Fransisco and the mobile data connections sucked sooooo bad. When it did work, it was slow. I am talking about slow twitter and foursquare. Forget skype.
In Austin, there is a truckload of free wireless, however there are many geeks connecting and again it slows right down. I guess the problem is that if they increased capacity, then the geeks will start uploading video and life streaming.
You will be in a constant search for internet, like a surfer endlessly searching for that perfect wave. Internet connections are so bad that one crass company rigged up some homeless people with wifi. I have new found respect for the Australian mobile data system.
You will get a lot of free stuff (mags, tshirts etc) so plan you baggage accordingly. If you are flying across the USA, it is normal for the airlines to charge $25 per bag you check-in (on top of your air fare).
Book your accommodation early so you are reasonably close to where it all happens. The shuttles and taxis are chaos and restrict what you can do. We rented a house between a few of us. It was about a 45 minute walk or 15 bike ride. I really enjoyed this setup as we could still go out or come home even if the taxis were over capacity.
You will be maxing your body out so make sure you listen to your mother and eat properly (as best as you can). Make sure you also pack multivitamins as SXSW goes so fast you may not be able to eat as well as you should.
Free: There is lots of free food from brands that are using food as promotion. The quality was surprisingly good. Keep an eye out and be prepared to line up.
Expensive: The food at the convention center is expensive and has long lines. Pack your lunch or go get some free feed.
Trucks: Austin has a great culture of food trucks which are scattered throughout the city. These rock. May I recommend a Korean tofu burger.
Wholefoods: While in Austin, you must visit Wholefoods, a supermarket of healthy and ethical food. They also serve meals, so stay for a meal while shopping (they also have fast internet)
Bars: Nut bars, granola bars, muesli bars. You get the point. Buy a heap of these from Wholefoods and carry some with you.These are great for when you are rushing between sessions or the free food is not enough.
BBQ: OK, you are in Texas right, so unless you are vegetarian, this is another must do. If you are not eating the meat with your fingers, or it is accompanied by anything other than white bread, you are not at a proper BBQ. We jumped in a car and drove to Lockhart and ate at Smitty’s Market. It was a great to get out of Austin for a morning and experience a great Texan tradition.
Whatever you do, do not research about the the American meat industry as this may impact your enjoyment of your BBQ (although I recommend that you do ALWAYS ask questions about your food!!!)
Blog posts in progress:
- SXSW 2012 Interactive Highlights
- SXSW 2012 Music Reflections and Highlights