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.