Venturing South by Southwest

When friends and industry colleagues heard I was going to the tech and media conference SXSW in Austin, Texas the response was either 1) what a waste of money, or 2) omg you’re gonna have the time of your life. Suffice to say both responses made me slightly uneasy (what if 1 was true and/or 2 wasnt?!). Venturing to SXSW, particularly from Europe, is not cheap. Not only does it involve a transatlantic flight and a week-long stay in an overpriced AirBnb, the conference ticket in itself costs around £1000. Yeah - not cheap. On the flip side, the city of Austin earns some £350 million(!) in the single week that SXSW is on, locals make a killing from renting out their houses and for the ones that stay around, there’s free food and drink on offer all week.

With more than 90 000 attendants, it’s safe to say SXSW can be slightly overwhelming. You’ve spent all this money going there, so you want to make sure you deliver once you get back to the office (which can be daunting in itself). I was at South by for ten days, and though it felt like a pre-run I learned a thing or two about getting the most out of the festival. Here are my biggest takeaways:

Make a plan, don’t stick to it
This was actually a piece of advice from an industry colleague who’d been to South by several times before, and I think it’s pretty good advice for life in general. The point here is that you'll want to be pretty well researched before you go - chances are there are loads of phenomenal speakers you've never even heard of before, and going through a single day's schedule took me well over half an hour. However, that said, there’s so much going on around South by that the speaking sessions sometimes feel like the least appealing option of everything that's on. Showcases, side events, and parties are on at full speed in and around the convention center, which explains why a lot of people fly in from Silicon Valley and New York without getting a badge - they just want to meet new people, and the speaking sessions aren't always the best place for that. In other words... Make a plan, but don't be scared to change it.
 

Be excited or go home (aka don’t be a dick)
I found, as I often do, that if you allow yourself to get excited, SXSW is quite possibly one of the most fun (and funniest) places on earth. Speaking sessions aside, there is a lot of interactive stuff going on, and you get to try out new technology before it hits the market - it’s a bit like a brand new and topical science museum for adults, with the experts and engineers behind the tech explaining how to make best use of it. It’s amazing how some know-it-alls just refuse to get excited by, well, anything. If that’s you, it’s likely South by would annoy you. However, if you’re like me, and you like trying out new things and speaking to people who are experts in their fields, regardless of whether that's VR/AR/AI/any other fitting acronym, you’ll have an amazing time - and you’ll learn loads.
 

Great convos start at the end of your comfort zone
I went to South by on my own, and the fact that 90 000 other people were also going felt almost suffocating. Feeling lonely in a crowd is quite literally my worst nightmare, which is why you’ll often find me hiding out in the loos at events. I'm not sure whether it's South by or whether it's the US - it might be a combination of both - but meeting and talking to new people turned out to be a lot easier than I would've thought. What's more, I didn't experience the speed mingling that I often do in Europe, where people decide within a minute whether you're worth speaking to or not. I had phenomenal conversations with people I may or may not see again, and I feel pretty inspired to adopt a similar mingling style back at home. In other words, if you're wondering who the weirdo who speaks to strangers in the coffee queue might be, it's pretty likely it's me.

So was it worth it? Absolutely. Though strictly speaking I didn’t meet the KPIs I set out before going, I’ve made enough connections during the week to be able to meet those KPIs soon enough. Beyond that, I've also met people that were quite far out in my network that I probably wouldn't have met as quickly had it not been for South by - these meetings in particular will prove important for a lot of the work we'll be doing this year. And I think that might just be the biggest takeaway - you don't go to SXSW for the speaking sessions, or the parties, or the side events. You go to South by to meet and talk to new people - and in the best of worlds, you'll begin conversations that will continue once you get back home.

The value of knowing your worth

Perhaps the best bit of redundancy, or at least the most thrilling bit, is going through the compensation negotiation phase. I was made redundant twice last year (welcome to the life of a startup-loving PR), so I went through more pay negotiations in a single year than I think most people a generation ago did an entire lifetime.

At first it's pretty scary. After all, my generation grew up being told that "there are no jobs", "you better just take first best offer" and "Donald Trump will become president" (actually no one ever said that, but that turned out to be the truest of all three statements). If your starting point is that there are no jobs and you're used to living off student finance, asking for anything more than £25k is likely to feel cheeky beyond measure. After all, you don't need that money, do you? You've been just fine with student finance before so you'll be fine without, and also it'd be so uncomfortable asking.

Wrong. It's almost unbelievable how wrong that is, and what's even more unbelievable is that some of my closest friends, high achievers who've won awards(!) and shit, still seem to think this when they enter the negotiation room for a new position. So naturally, I decided to put down my key learnings from my numerous salary negotiations. 

1. You're not important
First of all, remove yourself from this entire equation. Whatever your personal take on a "reasonable salary", it's simply not important. I'm amazed at how non-scientific some people tend to get in these conversations - they take it all too personally, and not in a "I'm good at X and Y, so I should ask for Z"-sort of way, but rather "I've been living off way less money and I wouldn't even know what to spend the cash on?"- sort of way. Wrong, remove, delete. Your personal finances are not important (naturally, that goes the other way, too - you can't ask for a raise just because your rent went up by 10%).

2. Google first, as later
At my first ever internship I was told to "Google first, ask later". I now live by this, and although it obviously requires some critical thinking, Google is the absolute go-to place to figure out salary levels. Sweden is fortunate in that all salary data is public, so you can easily find hard facts on what you should ask for (though then add some more, for reasons I'll outline below). It's a bit trickier in the UK, but most industries will do surveys outlining current salary levels. Once you've googled, ask your peers. It might be uncomfortable (depends on relationship, industry, culture, country etc), but ask your mates and mentors how they went about negotiating their salary. Finding out how much my colleagues were making at one of my first jobs gave me a well-rounded understanding of what my sector and industry looked like, and what I could ask for when I moved on to my next gig.

Don't ask, don't get.

3. Don't ask, don't get
When you first leave uni it's pretty hard knowing what sort of money companies deal with. It was to me at least. I honestly couldn't believe it when I realised what my agency charged as my hourly rate (though obviously, that doesn't just cover my time - it also includes office rent, paid leave, benefits etc). The negotiating phase is the one time in at least a year(!) that you'll discuss your salary with your manager. Don't hold back - the company can afford it, otherwise they wouldn't be hiring. A grand here or there makes little difference to the company, but it'll make a significant difference to you and your pension scheme. Don't ask, don't get.

4. It's the economy, stupid
Putting your salary proposal at just average does no one any favours. First of all, you're likely to be pushed down regardless of what you ask for - the most I've been pushed down is £6k/year, and that was a job and offer I ended up happily accepting. But more importantly, if you accept a lower salary than statistics and facts indicate you should, you're pushing down the salary level at the company and for your peers. This becomes ever more important if you're a woman. There is no doubt in the entire universe that asking for the right salary is a feminist statement. We all bear the responsibility to close the pay gap - some more than others, but it starts with you. And don't forget that if you start low, it becomes difficult to increase your salary without changing jobs.

5. Hold yer ground
I'm just gonna go ahead here and assume you won't ask for an impossible package of Swarovski plated gadgets and a gazillion pound salary. In which case, if the employer or client comes back to your salary proposal and downsizes it by 20%, which happened to me once, do not fight the urge to laugh in their faces - I certainly didn't. Don't sell yourself short - it's not worth it. And don't be scared to reject an offer that feels ludicrous. The first offer I ever rejected came back to me with a £7k increase that I hadn't even asked for (I ended up taking the job, but not before I'd doubled my equity package). Also, if they can't afford to pay you a decent salary, you probably don't want to be there anyway.

All this said, you live and you learn. I once massively undercharged a client when I did a four-day freelance gig - and you only ever realise that you've undercharged when they happily accept your offer. Likewise, I've also had clients flat out reject my offer because they didn't think they could afford it, and I definitely prefer the latter to the former. Your time is valuable, and so are you. Selling yourself short isn't doing anyone any favours.

I was made redundant twice in six months. Here's what I learnt.

I take it I'm not the only one who at this point in the year starts to look both back and forth. 2016 was a pretty intense year, but then again that seems to be something I say every year. 2016 was intense for different reasons though, two of them being that I was made redundant, not once but twice. Yep. First time it happened there was no end to the betrayal I felt (lol, so cute) and the second time it happened I almost burst out laughing because it was so comical. Who gets made redundant twice in six months?! Someone who works in PR, that's who.

Nevertheless, I learnt a lot along the way. Here's the biggest lessons:

1. There's no better way to be unemployed
Think about it. For whatever reason, your boss is forced to pay you to leave. Depending on the terms of your contract, you're paid to look for another job for X months. And when people and potential employers ask you why you want to leave your current job you don't have to come up with some lame excuse, you can actually just tell the truth - they couldn't afford to keep you. And the person that had to make you redundant will, in my experience, do everything in their power to help you find another great job. For instance, the second founder to make me redundant spent two hours with me to help me brainstorm ideas for an interview I had coming up. I can't imagine any other situation where that would happen.

  Second redundancy in six months. Boss takes us out to the pub.

Second redundancy in six months. Boss takes us out to the pub.

2. Your network is bigger than you think - and it's about to grow even bigger
Everyone you know will have heard of someone being made redundant, and people love to help. I reached out to all kinds of people that were really quite far out in my network - simply put, I've never gone to more coffees in my life. I had about 3 meetings a day, with potential employers but also with people in my network who offered to share their experiences and their network with me. It was a brilliant way to network and meet new people and old - about a zillion times better than going to one of those "networking events" (barf).

3. Beggars can be choosers
Because you get a redundancy package and because you have no work to go to, you have all the time in the world to meet potential employers. Most importantly, you get given the opportunity to figure out what it is you really want. I was pretty lost in my first job and wasn't sure whether I wanted to specialise in PR or social, but once I was made redundant it became crystal clear that I wanted to do startup PR, preferably agency-side as I wanted exposure to a lot of different companies, and preferably with a boutique agency as I just can't face corporatism (soz). That said, I still met with corporate agencies and startups, and ended up with five offers from agencies and startups alike within four weeks after being made redundant.

4. As a creative, you'll never be more creative
So you have all this time and you meet with all these people. And most of them will ask for some sort of work sample before even considering hiring you. As a creative, I've never had a higher output of quantifiable creativity than in times of redundancy. And because of how recruitment processes work, you have to do it all at once. In one week, in-between interviews, I singlehandedly developed several different PR and social media strategies for everything from driving engagement to launching in new markets, while devising numerous press releases for products and clients I knew little about. If you're early on in your career, as I was, chances are you've never had to do this on your own before. Realising that you're capable of it is a massive confidence booster.

5. And finally, the only way is up
I took a big step up after both my redundancies, although in different ways. I felt excited and confident about both new beginnings and although it ultimately sucks being made redundant, it's pretty likely you wouldn't have wanted to stay at your former job anyway. When you're made to leave because of resourcing issues, it's likely budgets are tight so you can't do much, or you're overworked because they can't afford to take on more staff. You might want to hold on for dear life simply because of loyalty or commitment, but at the end of the day, you'll want to be at a place where you can thrive while being challenged and allowed to have a decent work/life balance. That's an equation that never works in the weeks or months ahed of facing a redundancy.

And finally, if I ever doubt my abilities, at least my brother was right when he offered this piece of poignant advice: "you're really good at getting paid for losing jobs".

#SMWNYC

The actual reason why I went to NYC wasn't as much lobster rolls or Julia as it was work. I went to Social Media Week to get heaps of inspiration and a little bit of insight as to how other companies reason around their social strategies - both companies whose main presence is on social (like Buzzfeed), and ones which haven't typically had a social presence but is getting around to it, with great results (like Burger King).

A lot of people use the word "hate" in relation to conferences. I'm not one of them. It might be because I haven't been to enough conferences to be bored, or that I'm easily entertained, or just that I love what I do (or perhaps a combination of all three). I'm pretty specific in the stuff I target at these sort of events, and I try to go to all the stuff I'm interested in, as opposed to all the things that are available. And it makes sense. I'm not very interested in how to self-publish a book (as of yet, anyway), but I'm very interested indeed in what Facebook's Head of Marketing has got to say about the future of marketing.

I'm also particularly interested in what the likes of NY Times are doing on Snapchat, which is pretty representative of how social media is changing media consumption for younger generations at large. What keeps coming out time and time again is how the notion that young people aren't interested in news is a gross misunderstanding. Instead, the youngest generation isn't happy with just being talked to or talked at, they want to participate in the conversation. They engage in conversation with news channels on different social media, have incredibly high standards, and will dismiss channels and outlets they don't feel they can connect to. It puts a higher pressure on storytellers (whether they're marketeers or journalists) to create content that is as appealing as it is important. Like the CEO of Refinery29 said - "one of our most important responsibilities is to keep the right balance between content about the Kardashians and Syrian refugees". Quite.

The way young people (by young I mean people aged 10-18) use social media - in a way that's pretty different from even my generation - is fascinating. Since Instagram introduced account switching, teenagers have started to keep two accounts - one they call Finsta and one they call Rinsta. Finsta means Fake Instagram and is an open account where they'll upload the typical pretty, edited Instagram-esque photo we're used to seeing on Instagram. Rinsta (Real Instagram) on the other hand, is a closed account only one's inner circle is invited to, and here you'll get to see the unedited reality - a bit like Snapchat. Apparently these are the latest Instagram trends, and I think it's pretty fascinating that it's even been possible to distinguish these trends since it's been less than three weeks since Instagram released the account switching feature. Things move quickly in the kids world. In any way, it reiterates the obsession with Snapchat and the importance for brands to show real content to the younger generations - content they consider real, worthy, and possible to connect to.

Basically, the key takeaway is - want the kids to learn about Syrian refugees? Send a Snapchatting influencer to the Jungle.

The end of the beginning

Berg och dalbanan. Den är inte nådig. Ibland känns det som att jag står på jordens topp. Det pirrar i hela kroppen, små ivriga bubblor som tar fart ända från tårna upp till hjässan. Som ett dyrt champagne. Eller ett billigt, hur det nu var.

Ja, ibland känns det som att jag står på jordens topp. Möjligheterna brer ut sig i ett färgsprakande landskap vid mina tår. Public affairs och public relations, pitchar, konceptutveckling och mediastrategier. Välbetalda jobb jag vet jag kan briljera i. Välbetalda jobb som täcker min nya vana av att köpa dyra tvålar, och lite mer därtill. Höga tempon och få lugna stunder. Ett drömläge för en ambitiös ung kvinna i sina bästa dagar.

Men ibland känns det som att jag står vid avgrunden. Som om de senaste åren när min karriär tog vid endast var ett spel för gallerierna och egentligen är ingenting alls. Det känns som slutet på något som knappt hann börja. Som en förälskelse som aldrig fick en värdig chans.

Sen plingar det till i inboxen. Någon har blivit tipsad om mig, ett företag fick nys om att jag inte längre är kvar på min tidigare arbetsplats, det finns en byrå som "stämmer perfekt in med din profil". Och så vidare. Och så känns det ljusare igen.

Tills det blir kväll och man gör grundliga analyser av vartenda litet beslut man någonsin tagit, och frenetiskt börja leta efter yoga och surf-retreats i ett fjärran land.

Ja. Berg och dalbanan. Den är inte nådig.