SxSW – Lost That Loving Feeling for Early Stage Entrepreneurs?

Posted by Jessica Alter /March 19, 2013 / Uncategorized

SxSW has long been thought of as a place where up-and-coming creatives could perform their craft for appreciators and gain exposure. But, like almost every other big company (cue: Xerox, Yahoo!) SxSW has grown so big that they’ve lost the core of who they were and the people they originally aimed to serve.  It’s left me asking if it’s really worthwhile for early stage entrepreneurs?

The Incident

We went to SxSW this year with the goal of both celebrating entrepreneurship and allowing entrepreneurs who couldn’t afford to go – with ticket, flight and hotel it’s probably $2K just to get there. Let’s say 2 people go from your company. That’s 8 company outings or 20 paid traffic experiments.

We contacted Ransom Notes – the UT Austin A Capella group. Within 2 weeks we planned an A Capella performance with a medley of songs that celebrate entrepreneurship.  They put in overtime – practicing everyday for nearly 2 weeks (side note: they are awesome, check them out).  And we were excited to be able to do something different, entertaining and non-exclusive.  But when these 18-21 year olds starting singing in the Hilton Lobby at 12:15 on March 9th, before people could even gather round, security guards and hotel management descended upon them and within seconds called the Austin Police Department.  

Why? Were they offending people? Were there complaints? Nope.Was it a slow crime day in Austin? Nope – actually, over 30 crimes were reported within an hr of planned performance. It was quite simply because SxSW runs the hotel for that week and it was sanctioned by them. Or rather, we didn’t pay SxSW so if we kept singing we’d be ARRESTED (yes, the cops actually showed up even though the UT Austin students stopped singing within 20 seconds).

SxSW Is A Corporation.

You don’t need not look far to understand what SxSW has become.  “South by Southwest is run by a company, called SXSW Inc., that plans and executes conferences, trade shows, festivals and other events,”  so it says in the second paragraph of  their wikipedia page.  And I understand it. I’m not complaining, I’m stating a fact.  30,000+ people descending upon a city.  Collectively, SXSW is the highest revenue-producing event for the Austin economy, with an estimated economic impact of $167 million in 2011.  I’m not naive, I get that.

The question is, what does it mean for early stage entrepreneurs? Is it worth going and what should you expect? It’s several thousand dollars to go to SxSW for one person.  

If You Go – Hack It.

  • Do not pay for a ticket. I really wish I could end it there but I’ll give a bit more detail. You have two good options: 1) get on a panel = badge is free 2) go, but don’t buy a badge. I didn’t buy a badge this year (nor did countless other people I know) and it literally didn’t stop from going anywhere I wanted to go or doing anything I wanted to do. 
  • Get in the flow – by that I mean, most of the interesting stuff happens in the lobby of some hotel where people are just hanging out or over dinner with a group of people you barely know. You can’t schedule everything and if you’re uncomfortable with this stuff and following up afterwards, send someone who isn’t.
  • Set up meetings – have a list of people you want to meet but more importantly, try to set up some meetings beforehand.  SxSW is a great “reason” to reach out to people or follow up with someone you’ve been trying to connect with and suggest meeting up at SxSW.

Please Don’t:

  • Pay for anything official – SxSW SXSW Interactive 2013 was sponsored by Miller Lite, Monster Energy, Esurance, IFC, Yahoo!, American Express, PepsiCo, Pepsi and The Austin Chronicle.  And those are just the official sponsors. Your budget as a startup is a rounding error to these guys. Don’t try to compete with that. Save your money – take your team out.  Experiment with paid traffic. Pay a deserving team member more.  
  • Succumb to FOMO – fear of missing out is strong.  Really ask yourself if you have people to meet with and if this is a good use of your company’s money and time.  The later stage startups that do pay, don’t seem to get much out of it. I had a ball at several of the parties but I’m not using anyone’s product more as a result.
  • Launch anything there – I mean, seriously.  Do you really think this is the best place to launch? It’s noisier than an Ibiza rave.

Exceptions – notable exceptions to the above:

  • Touching > looking – companies that have a physical product they need people to touch and fall in love with. See: Leap Motion.
  • Solving mass chaos issues – companies like Uber, Sidecar, Hangtime, Highlight all help make things easier when there are large amounts of people descending into one place. Just make sure you’re ready for prime time when you hit SxSW.

Like any big corporation, SxSW has come to embody the very people and industry they once aimed to disrupt. They’ve made spontaneity illegal (literally) and lost that sense of passion and experimentation. That doesn’t make it bad, but it doesn’t make it right for early stage startups either.


Huge shout outs to: the entire Ransom Notes crew, Lexi Bixler and Caroline Khoury who are fearless leaders and Dave McClure and Sheila Goodman for all their support.