Serendipity: That was the buzz word at this year’s South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas. It was probably the same word as last year — but I wasn’t there so I couldn’t tell you. I’d love to tell you there was one major product announcement or even trend that defined SXSW, but I’d be lying. The experience was akin to being a metal orb in a pinball machine, bounding from one relay to another, having random conversations, seeing oddball sights and making unexpected discoveries. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Those who know me will tell you I’m not a go-with-it kind of guy. Conferences usually mean a packed schedule of meetings, lots of note taking, a ton of writing and absolute exhaustion. Fun doesn’t really fit in (in all the years I’ve attended CES and Comdex before it, I have never seen a Vegas show).
However, I had been traveling a lot in the weeks leading up to SXSW, (Barcelona, San Francisco), which meant I had less time to prepare. By the time I arrived on Thursday evening, I was in a state of panic: How do I cover this show?
That night, I walked over to the nearly deserted conference hall and picked up my badge. It would be almost 12 hours before I realized how big a deal this was. After wandering the mostly empty halls for a while, I headed back to my room to try and prepare for the day. In my hand I now had a pocket SXSWi schedule that detailed the dozens and dozens of panels I could attend. Some looked interesting, but almost none newsworthy. How do I cover a show without news?
This is Big
The next morning, I learned something important about SXSWi: News or no news, this was one hot conference. Remember how I waltzed in and walked off with my badge? Now there were hundreds of people in that same registration hall queued up for their badges and a line of thousands more that snaked clear around the perimeter of the conference hall. Some told me they waited three hours.
Obviously there was something here. As I had done before, I started walking the halls, taking pictures and tweeting what I saw. Panels didn’t start for a couple more hours, so I had time to acclimate myself. Outside, the driving rain, which had started when we arrived on Thursday, was only intensifying. It served to keep whoever came into the giant convention center inside. This, too, turned out be beneficial and helped me discover the most important part of SXSWi: The people.
Wherever I went, whether I was standing, sitting or walking at SXSW, I found people to talk to. Sometimes they were people I knew. Like a friendly PR rep who has helped me on many a story and actually connected me with Pinterest’s first investor while I was at the show. Other times, it was folks I’d only known through Twitter. I could recognize their avatars, but had never actually met them. There was the occasional Mashable fan and even some people who follow me. In every case, we had amazing discussions where I learned about cool stuff going on or around the show, new products and technologies and how to navigate SXSW. One guy gave me an important piece of advice, which would come in handy later. He said, yes, there are tons of panels, “but if you find yourself in one you don’t like, simply get up and walk out. There is no shame in that.”
Later when I went to a James Franco panel that ended up not featuring the multi-hyphenate actor, I quietly excused myself without even a hint of guilt.
As the morning progressed, I found myself wandering up and down the halls looking for anything that might turn into an interesting story or photo-op. I even hopped across the street — and out into the cold and rain — to check out Jud Apatow’s coffee stand for his new HBO series “Girls,” but mostly because I wanted more free coffee.
Even when I did find some newsworthy stuff, it was almost by accident. I wandered into a panel on documentaries mostly so I could sit down. Soon the panelists were talking about the most controversial doc on the planet: KONY 2012. Back in the halls, the ISIS NFC-based mobile payment system launch, which was news, was unhandled in a most un-news-like manner: They used a magician to show how ISIS worked. No press conference. In fact, I don’t think SXSW had a single press conference. I thought that was weird, but I just went with it.
I attended a couple of panels, but also got shut out of some others. SXSW is not really concerned with reporters. Panels are for everyone and if you’re not there early enough, you’re out of luck. When this happened to me, I just did my best to go with the flow and find other interesting opportunities.
Time and time again, the best parts of SXSW were happening in the halls. I met and chatted with Google’s Vic Gundotra and Bradley Horowitz as they ate breakfast. They seemed genuinely happy to see me, even if I was standing between them and their breakfast tacos. After this chance meeting, I began to focus more closely on the SXSW crowd, actively seeking friendly and familiar faces. I made a conscious decision to approach everyone and anyone I wanted to meet. No one ever ran away screaming.
Clearly others were doing the same. At one point it took me an hour and a half to walk 300 feet. No one was blocking my way, I just kept meeting people (like Robert Scoble, Ed Baig, Guy Kawasaki, Andy Cohen, Tony Hsieh, Steve Case, Tobey MacGuire, Craig Newmark). All the notables were kind, funny and gracious. I also met many people most (or relatively few) people have never heard of, though I bet someday you will.
There was the very young entrepreneur, James Brown, who stopped me in the hall to give me a fast pitch on Goalee, a site that mashes up your social graph and interest graph to create an eHarmony-like matchmaking service for business and networking.
I have a near-perfect memory for faces and spotted Irene McGee, the former reality TV star (Real World Seattle) who now blogs about health-related technology at FYIiving.
I sat with Americans Elect CTO Joshua Levine who spoke passionately to me about fixing a broken political system. The online organization’s grassroots candidate (who will be selected from among 300 drafted candidates via virtual primaries in May and a virtual convention in July) likely has no chance of winning. But don’t tell Levine that.
Then there was startup founder Hajj Flemings who grabbed me in the hall to show off Gokit.me. He said it was like a mash-up between Pinterest and About.me (though neither site is in any way involved with it). The site (an app is coming later) adds layers of identities to help you manage your social personas and content boards. Flemings was not the first to promise me that his product could tap into the best parts of Pinterest.
Later I ran into young food lover David Segall who came up with a way to track chefs and pop-up food experiences on PopGrub.com.
When the weather cleared up, I met more people on the streets, at food trucks and in outdoor event spaces.
All these chance meetings were not just the best part of the conference, they were ultimately what SXSW is all about. When I left the show, I had a fistful of business cards and new insight into how small companies and startups develop and work to grab attention. Many were not above a stunt or intense pitch, but they were also willing to let you come to them.
My plan for a highly organized SXSW never materialized, but I had one of the best conferences of my career. I can’t wait to do it all again.
My SXSW Magical Mystery Tour
A look at the ISIS Mobile Wallet Booth
The mobile wallet software was a sponsor at SXSW.
For more Dev & Design coverage:
- Follow Mashable Dev & Design on Twitter
- Become a Fan on Facebook
- Subscribe to the Dev & Design channel
- Download our free apps for Android, Mac, iPhone and iPad