A lot of people fall in love with Austin, Tex., when they visit for South By Southwest. But after attending the conference four times, serial tech entrepreneur Taylor McKnight fell so hard that he actually decided to move to Austin last September, leaving his longtime home, Gainesville, Fla., behind. As it happens, the various projects he's been involved with over the years -- including, most notably, beloved music-blog aggregator Hype Machine, where he was part of the core team until 2011 -- were already spread out around the world, so he really only uprooted himself, not any of his virtual companies or his coworkers.
McKnight's main focus today is Sched, a conference-scheduling and conference-planning app and services suite that has had more than 3 million users to date across the globe at events including Comic-Con, Bumbershoot, and TEDx, as well much nichier get-togethers like the American Association of Law Librarians' annual conference and the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress. With SXSW starting today, I spoke with McKnight about the bigger-than-ever music/film/interactive conference, his new life in Austin, and Sched.
Simon Dumenco: Before we talk about SXSW, let's step away from it for a moment. For someone who's scrambling to go from panel to panel during the day, suggest a respite or two or three -- something that 's right there in the SXSW zone -- that you like or maybe even love. A favorite coffee spot, a cool shop, a particular vista, a patch of grass.
Taylor McKnight: The funny thing about SXSW Interactive in particular is , the only world that "exists" for most people are the areas between the panel rooms and the parties. Venture just a few blocks off that grid and you can find lovely spots. The food-truck park on 6th and San Marcos, a block east of the interstate, is a great grub spot with everything from the all-vegan Vegan Yacht, to Love Balls -- octopus pancake balls popular in Japan.
A few blocks further east on 6th and Navasota is the State Cemetery of Texas. It sounds bleak, but it's one of the most beautiful cemeteries I've ever seen. There's a beautiful pathway that flows through the obsessively kempt grounds and a quiet brook where you can escape the tweets and check-ins.
My other pick would be Walton's Fancy & Staple, a 15-minute walk west of the convention center. It's a coffee shop, bakery and flower shop in one. It feels like you're in a movie set and the honey bee cake is the best!
Mr. Dumenco: Now for someone who's OD'ing on South-by and needs to decompress a bit, suggest some stuff the unknowledgeable visitor to Austin should check out that 's not in or near the SXSW zone.
Mr. McKnight: This is no secret to locals, but on South Lamar there are two amazing spots right next to each other. One is the Alamo Drafthouse, where, besides being a first-run movie theater, they throw movie-related events every week. For example, during the holidays they had a "Home Alone" showing with unlimited cheese pizza. Right next door is The Highball, where you can find a bar, bowling alley, private karaoke rooms and dance hall combined in the most stylish way possible.
If you have a car, I'd recommend driving to San Marcos. It's a fun little college town, 30 minutes south of Austin. There's a great bar there called Zelicks that I love.
Mr. Dumenco: OK, I'll see you at Zelicks. The Blind Sally Manders are on me. As for SXSW itself, it's obviously become almost unimaginably big and unwieldy -- and increasingly hard to navigate. That's where you come in, right? Sched is doing an unofficial SXSW guide again this year. For the uninitiated, explain a bit how that works.
Mr. McKnight: Yep, this will be our fifth year doing it. We collect every single panel, party, film, show and meetup into one easy-to-digest schedule. You can create a custom schedule or connect your social-network accounts to instantly see your friends' picks. Instead of creating a strict schedule, I recommend using it to narrow the thousands of options -- last year there were more than 7,000 events listed -- down to a few hundred. From there you can take it to go as a mobile app, printed guide or iCal feed.
Mr. Dumenco: I think it's sweet that you offer a print-friendly option in Sched, for people who hate trees and want to see them die. Hey, what stuff at SXSW do you personally get excited about?
Mr. McKnight: For Interactive, I usually hunt out the speakers from projects and websites that I admire like Breadpig and MailChimp. During SXSW Music some of the bands I'm looking forward to seeing are Kimbra, Three Blind Wolves, Of Monsters And Men -- and Fiona Apple playing in a church! Two of my favorite ways to discover what bands to see at SXSW are Spotify playlists -- like Benjamin Wintle's SXSW Highlights -- and Kevin McStravick's Operation Every Band, where last year he literally listened to and reviewed every single band playing SXSW. This year he has a team to help digest more than 2,000 bands.
Mr. Dumenco: I know about McStravick's thing. Such a crazy but worthwhile project! Thank goodness he's got some help this year.
Let's talk about Sched's business model a bit. Conference organizers pay you for the use of your system, but you also work with sponsors, right? And for SXSW, where you're doing an unofficial guide, I guess you're not actually getting money from the conference itself, so are we talking a pure sponsor-driven initiative in this case?
Mr. McKnight: Event organizers are 99% of our client-base and purchase our platform on a per-event license. SXSW is the only event we do unofficially. We are essentially our own client in this case and use it as a chance to try out new partnerships and release experimental features. For example, we just released Eventbrite integration to keep all your party RSVPs in sync with your Sched.org schedule. We also sync data into Foursquare's app so that you can check in to parties and shows during the week.
Mr. Dumenco: You started Sched when?
Mr. McKnight: I started Sched.org in 2008 with Chirag Mehta, to share my SXSW schedule with friends.
Mr. Dumenco: So in that time, how many conferences have you personally attended?
Mr. McKnight: There are about 50 conferences and festivals I've attended over the years. I attend SXSW and CMJ every year and make it a point to hunt out new ones like The Texas Tribune Festival and Moogfest.
Mr. Dumenco: I remember you telling me about Sched users meeting you at SXSW in 2008 and getting all excited when they realized you created it -- because it was making their SXSW experience so much better. You kept on having what I think of as the "nerd rock-star experience."
Mr. McKnight: We launched our unofficial scheduler at SXSW 2008 and it was a whirlwind experience. We got interviewed by Wired ["SXSW: This Year's Twitter? A Simple Scheduling App That Brings Order to the Masses"], got recognized around the conference and I even got asked to sign this girl's badge. It was the closest thing to a rock-star experience a geek can have. After the event, a few conferences and festivals like Lollapalooza reached out to us, asking if they could use it at their events. We quickly hacked things together to extend the idea and soon a platform for all kinds of events was born.
Mr. Dumenco: When you launched Sched I thought you were really making good on the promise of melding solid information -- in your case, details about an event and its schedule -- with the so-called "real time" mobile ecosystem. By which I mean, if you poke around on Twitter, there are often a lot of people interacting with each other in real time and talking about nothing much in particular in a free-form way, but Sched marries an informational framework with the desire to interact with the people you know and the people you want to get to know -- in a specific time and place. And in that way you also foreshadowed Foursquare.
Mr. McKnight: You're spot-on. People pay a lot of money and attend events with a goal of meeting interesting people, learning something cool and being entertained. Yet at all the events I've attended, I'd say it's pretty hit or miss whether that happens. Our goal is to help make more of that magic happen. We can mash up all kinds of interesting data sources like an attendee's social network, check-ins, their current interests and even their friends' ratings about similar content at other events. This makes the odds of finding interesting people and content specifically for you incredibly high.
Mr. Dumenco: Out of all the conferences you attend personally and professional because of Sched, I get the sense that SXSW is still the annual highlight.
Mr. McKnight: It is . It's the conglomeration of all the things I love in a single week. I get to meet the geeks that make my favorite websites, see the bands I've been listening to all year and catch a few movies before they come out in theaters. Last year our team even built a tool to help us track which bands we saw. We rented a house in Austin for the month of March and packed it with people to the point there were people sleeping on chairs, couches and the floor. To add to the mix, the house also came with four pet chickens. That month made me fall in love with Austin -- not just SXSW -- and I moved here last September.
Mr. Dumenco: One last question: A long time ago you told me that you do these little personal challenges and projects just to see if you can do them -- like not drinking for a month or living and working out of Berlin for a month. And I guess living and working out of Austin for a month was another one of those -- and that ended up changing your whole life. What have you done recently along those lines?
Mr. McKnight: I did this project in January where I de-friended everybody I wasn't interested in on Facebook. Distant family, people I met at conferences, old high school friends I will never reconnect with. Hundreds of people. Then I invited the people left over, those who I truly care about, to a Facebook group. I asked them to give me their address so I could mail them a real postcard. The postcard was an annual report of the past year of my life based on various data points I had been collecting. It ended with an invitation to the recipient to call or text or mail me back and reconnect, let me know what they were excited about and how their life was. I printed 500 of them and hand numbered each one.
Mr. Dumenco: A real postcard! Hand-numbered! All I can say is , bless your heart.
Edited and condensed from a longer interview.
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.