By on March 20, 2012
SXSW is finally over for us here at X PRIZE and now that i've had a moment to catch my breath, allow me recollect the events of 2012 South by Southwest Interactive with a calm mind, a trophy, and a handful of Red Vines.
The first thing I must make clear is that this was my very first SXSW. Although I have followed it for years, this was my first real interaction with the convention and I had no idea what to expect when it came to the logistics. It's one thing to follow a series of tweets or links from home, but it's a whole other monkey to deal with in person. Luckily, I had a crack team of SXSW veterans to lead me along my arduous journey and show me the ropes.
As a fan of SXSW online over the years, and now, as an actual participant, I can tell you that there is a very clear evolution of the convention itself due to it's rapid popularity and growth. Although “Film” and “Interactive” occur at the same time, I’ll just be talking about the Interactive portion of the event, since it’s what we primarily dealt with. What is SXSW Interactive? Well, it’s really a conglomeration of social media, marketing, tech, and general “cool stuff”. Essentially, if you want exposure to the Internet, are looking to establish any kind of klout, or are potentially trying to get connected in any way shape or form, this is where you go because it’s crammed with the marketing demographic and potential advertisement sources and investors. This is where start-ups go to pick up steam and become the new way of doing things. It’s also a place to try new marketing techniques, if you’re established (or not), and generally have a good time with people who do what you do.
The main attraction SXSW offers up, before any of its other plentiful perks, are the panels. Panels everywhere. It can get a little overwhelming despite the number of apps designed to coordinate the whole ordeal, though to be fair, SXSW does a decent job and highlights keynotes. Unfortunately the convention is getting a bit too big for its britches and the locations can be a journey to get to. Other than that, you're on your own when it comes to pursuing what you might find interesting. Panel names (the trend was to be kooky and catch someone's scrolling eye) and the names of the people presenting on the panels are the primary form of viewer magnetism -- and one name that stood out was that of our X PRIZE CEO, Peter Diamandis, who spoke about Abundance. Although not terribly removed from his talk at TED, this time he delved more deeply into the history, ongoing competitions and future of the X PRIZE Foundation, reserving a good chunk of time at the end for Q & A, and this is the real drive behind SXSW. It's an opportunity to draw out information or pose the questions that may not have otherwise floated to the surface. Additionally, Peter did a book signing and X PRIZE co-hosted a entrepreneurial networking event (with Dell) which was so well-attended that we were literally rubbing elbows with the likes of Richard Garriott and a number of other tech company high rollers. We even had a secret password to get into the party.
Here is a talk Peter did for What's Trending with Shira Lazar in the blogger's lounge, post panel.
Space has been a steadily growing commodity at South By in the last few years, so that was our primary focus. Logistically, the talks were scattered but we made do with the time and transportation available. We were able to attend the "How to Win Friends and Influence Space Exploration" panel (you can listen to the audio of the panel here), with Space-Up founder Chris Radcliff, LAUNCH.org community manager Dennis Bonilla, flight controller Holly Griffith, astronaut Ron Garan, and moderated by evadot.com founder Micheal Doornbos. The talk focused on methods of expanding the space community using social media and events, like the Space Tweep Society and Yuri's Night. We also had the pleasure of sitting in on the "Get Excited and Make Things with Science" panel with Spacehack.org founder Ariel Waldman, web designer Jeremy Keith, and particle physicist Matt Bellis. A more proactive approach to a panel, the primary focus was on an effort known as Science Hack Day and other specific examples that allow communities to be directly involved with science in fun and creative ways.
Aside from the panels and networking, there is also an exhibition floor that, oddly enough, didn't open up until the last day of Interactive. You'd think that they would want to take advantage of the tech crowd that is constantly plugged into their marketing social media devices, but hey, they must have a reason. Regardless, we were able to briefly tour the floor for a day and it was met with mixed results. On one hand you are bombarded with seemingly unrelated media venues throwing buckets of swag and pitches at you, but on the other hand, the panel scheme is eliminated, replaced instead with an open booth format. This was an opportunity to get a hands-on experience with products and face-to-face interactions with the people behind them. The best example of this was the next gen innovative robots exhibit in the center of all the hooplah, hosted by IEEE and featuring Mr. Robot himself (and X PRIZE Board member/FIRST Robotics founder), Dean Kamen.
It was also very inspiring to meet local FIRST Robotics teams "Shap Robotics" from West Lake High school and "Lady Cans" representing the Girl scouts of America at SXSW; both teams were demonstrating basketball-playing robots that shot free throws better than Shaq... which means they just had to make 1.
Also on the floor was a very unique toy manufacturer from Japan, Maywa Denki. When I say "very unique" what I mean is "the most unusual thing I have ever seen and yet also the most awesome". I won't say much about it... actually I won't say anything. See for yourself.
The neat thing about SXSW is that, although taken very seriously in terms development across multiple industries, it is also associated with new and fun ideas to create interest and promote brands. In order to take advantage of the rain, ponchos suddenly became the choice marketing strategy for companies. Others decided to give out free grilled cheese sandwiches with their logo toasted on the bread (genius). I thought it was a rather delicious idea. Another perfect example of this was the SXSW Ping Pong Tournament… Yeah, I know it sounds crazy, but it drew somewhere around 36 teams of 2 people, most representing a particular company, and a ton of spectators who flocked to support their teams, or just meandered in to see what all the commotion was about. In the end, this is what all the commotion was about...
Oh yeah. What's up? Leo Camacho and Justin Bookey for the gold silver!
What's this got to do with tech and media? Well aside from ping pong being the number two sport in the world and number one sport in the tech community, absolutely nothing. This is the exact appeal of the strategies employed at SXSW; how different can you be and still draw a crowd? The goal here is to break the monotony of the crowds and draw people in, and if you're involved with a company focusing around, in this case, ping pong, then you just found your niche market with exposure to other start ups, media, and otherwise completely unrelated companies who are actively/willingly participating in your field. Heck, we even got Red Vines in on the action as they responded to our famished tweet from the tourney and swooped in to our sugary delight!
During the tournament we ran into David Lowe who runs Origin of Cool, a site devoted to creating community awareness in all things cool, who plans on launching a ping pong paddle line with cool graphics in order to make the sport more appealling to those who might have overlooked it. Oh and he may have asked yours truly to illustrate the initial 5 designs. You can bet I'll be representing space and the Google Lunar X PRIZE in some fashion.
So what are my final thoughts on SXSW? Let me explain... no, there is too much to explain. Let me sum up.
Although I do believe SXSW is an incredible way to display your start up and market your product, the real strength comes from who you bump into. The panels have their value and you can take away some solid info away from the floor but in the end it's all about networking your avatar off. It's tough work, too. The place is over-crowded, the distances between panels are ridiculous and the over-saturation of marketing is bewildering... but if you can drudge through all of that and shake a hand it just might make all the difference in the world when it comes to getting your company up and running. Google Lunar X PRIZE is fortunate to be a the unique position in that we are a non-profit, and mostly there to evangelize private space exploration and find willing partners who share the dream. You will run into a lot of pushy car-salesman-types but it's worth it to find that person who believes in what you do and genuinely wants to help, which, dare I say, there are an Abundance of.
The future looks bright!