Want to Get Value Out of SXSW? Stop Looking for the Next Big Thing

It's Possible That What Happens In Austin Is More Important Than We Realize

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With so much anticipation for South by Southwest (SXSW), how can it possibly deliver on the hype? If you're obsessed with coming away having annointed the "next big thing" it most certainly won't, but then you'd be missing the point. It's fashionable to declare SXSW "over" every year, but I actually think it's even bigger and more important than people realize. But to get value out of it you have to start looking for the small things.

Last year the big stuff at SXSW was easy to identify. It was the year the Nike Fuelband launched, which became a hot, mainstream consumer product. It was the year American Express connected its Sync program to Twitter, making a company founded in 1850 one of the pioneers of social commerce; sponsoring a free concert by Jay-Z helped too. It was the year that an agency turned homeless people into WiFi hot spots, leading Jon Stewart to remark on his show, "So rather than train people to become computer workers, we're training them to become computer equipment." Events just don't get much more memorable.

This year, there's no sign of any of that. Countless brands will be present, and many will have a presence speaking, demoing new technology, running hack-a-thons, or hosting private parties. Others will be trying to crowd into the Twitter party just in case Mike Tyson shows up like he did at Twitter's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) soiree. But there doesn't seem to be one hit product like the Fuelband, a hot breakthrough app like Foursquare or Twitter, or any train wreck that will distract Stewart from the sequester.

But forget they big things and the hype. SXSW has never looked so exciting. Here's why:

  1. It's still self-selecting. As popular as it is, not everyone has the time to go, or the interest. People who go to Austin for the event aren't going to just sit in a conference room checking email during some panels and then mill around for a couple hours at a hotel's buffet. People there want to learn, experience things, and – most importantly – connect with each other. These are the people crowding into every available hotel and Airbnb room within 20 miles of downtown Austin.
  2. Moments of wonder can happen anytime. No matter what sessions and parties one goes to during SXSW, there are interesting people everywhere. They may be entrepreneurs, musicians, investors, strategists, journalists, or people with roles way too hard to neatly categorize them. On any remotely bustling corner of Austin during the five main days of SXSWi, or on any line to get into a bar, or in any hotel lobby, there are going to be people to talk to, and these conversations can lead to real opportunities. One of the most pioneering technologists I have ever met was someone I ran into in a hotel elevator at SXSW 2008, and he's been kind enough to continue to enlighten me ever since.
  3. There are so many ways to learn. If you like sitting in on sessions, great – there are some of the world's best speakers (and of course plenty of forgettable ones). If you want hands-on technology experiences, then Google, Spotify, Leap Motion, and others will show the latest of what they're doing. If you want to learn about what's happening across the country or around the world, there are gatherings featuring entrepreneurs from New York and Los Angeles, Singapore and Israel. Then there's my personal favorite method: learning by schmoozing.

It's quite possible that by the time SXSWi wraps, there won't be a big story that everyone's talking about. That's fine. If all that happened at SXSW 2012 was the Fuelband and AmEx Sync, one could order the former from Amazon and try the latter using Twitter all during a lunch break, with enough time left over to skim a few keynote recaps on a blog. That's not why to go to Austin.

The small stories are the ones that matter. The stories start with lines like, "Hey, did you know that it's now possible to…" or "There's this new company we should talk to about…" or "You won't believe who I ran into in the elevator of the La Quinta." The stories may not be epic or get mentioned on The Daily Show. That's okay. Everyone can come away with their own highlights and memories and connections, and those are the ones that will matter most in the year ahead.

David Berkowitz is vice president of emerging media at 360i and spearheads the agency's Startup Outlook.
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