South by Southwest: from Upstart to Startup Machine?

Has South by Southwest gotten too big for Austin’s britches? Maybe that depends on your expectations…

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SxSWi 2012 business card exchange

The traditional exchange of business cards.  Yes, people still do that.

Back in March of 2011 I drove down to Austin, Texas for my first South by Southwest experience.  I had no badge, no clue and no agenda– just the promise of a bed thanks to a visiting friend who had a hotel room south of the city.

During my three days there I learned three important things:

  1. Try to get a badge
  2. Always have an agenda
  3. Carry cash

These are important because South by Southwest is now about three factors: presentation, connection, and access.  You don’t get much of the first two without the last.  Cash is important because you will find too many situations where some vendor oddly refuses more modern means of payment.

With these things in mind I started planning immediately after the 2011 affair for a possible 2012 visit.  I was unable to obtain the sponsorship I hoped for, so no event badge… but Nokia’s Developer Marketing team did arrange a shared room and guaranteed me access at least to anything they had going.

Certain circumstances made my two days there this time both a good and frustrating experience.  To help you understand why, I will share some background first.

Austin possesses an energy and atmosphere unique within Texas.  Think of it as a bit of California’s craziest transplanted to this green, hilly heartland of the otherwise-conservative Lone Star State.  Whether that energy stems from the state capitol or University of Texas being located there, leftover echoes of Texas’ wild history or something else, it’s hard to ignore.  Austin’s ambiance has fostered a great many transformational deals and projects, making it the perfect home for something as stimulating as South by Southwest.

But the event grows every year.  In fact, it was much bigger this year than last.  In 2011 I had no trouble finding parking in the heart of downtown, at any time.  This year I spent two hours on a hot Monday circling public parking garages barricaded by “Full” signs.  I’ll get back to that shortly.

Last year I wandered around trying to find open events, which as I alluded to earlier can be exasperating.  This time, with a solid agenda, I limited my activity to whatever Nokia had going on for the most part.  That meant two days of hanging out in a white-domed construction resembling Eskimo ice houses, where outside some machines sprayed soapy fake snow out onto a surprisingly long line of people eager to see what Nokia is now offering the US.

Meanwhile, well outside of the Nokia igloos, the rest of South by Southwest was happening.  I missed quite a bit at the beginning: an AT&T developer hackathon, other mini-events run or attended by friends, and a cool keynote by the legendary Bruce Springsteen.  Apparently I missed even more than that, because in reading afterward about “South by” as it’s known I learned that many people, particularly techies, are losing interest… at least in the Interactive aspect.  The consensus is that it’s grown too big to serve the original purpose of getting innovative people together to draw up game-changing ideas on beer-stained cocktail napkins.  At some point South by Southwest Interactive growth achieved a critical mass and mushroomed well beyond startup facilitation.  It became a business connector instead of launcher.

This sort of outcome is inevitable.  It’s one of those “careful what you wish for” sort of things; everyone wants their napkin art to Change The World.  When change is successful, next comes popularity and the public.  Yet popularity, for the original lovers of an iconic idea, breeds ironic contempt.  That accounts for part of the discontent, to be sure, but not all and maybe not even the majority.  I suspect it’s more the results of high popularity that are causing the most anguish.

The change/growth I encountered in just one year was stunning to say the least… and makes me wonder about 2013, too.  Traffic alone, especially the parking part, is a severe problem that won’t get better on its own.  And it can’t get any worse than it was this year without significant attendee backlash.  Some now say they will no longer attend and I can’t say that I entirely blame them.

“South by” is now out of scope for Austin’s cozy, eclectic environment.  It’s too big, too polished, too impersonal.  Innovators bemoan the loss of the startup atmosphere– understandable, but I think they’re maybe looking at the picture through broken rose-colored glasses.  They see an expanding, cancerous monster with no cure in sight.

Let’s look at it another way.

When companies get too large, they often spin off components that no longer fit the vision… especially if that vision has changed.  So why not try this with South by Southwest Interactive?  Perhaps the mature parts are out of spec now.  If attendees want to restore the original nature, then the big, sprawling corporate parts need to be excised.  Possibly painfully.

Maybe SxSWi has reached a point in its life when it is a meta startup.  A startup generator.  And when a startup can fly, it needs to be cut loose to make room for the next batch.

I’m with the protesters.  It’s time to extract the swollen “business connector” portion, transplant it elsewhere (Dallas, for instance) and let Austin breathe again.  Allow the event to reboot, rediscover its roots, and regain that original coffee table conclave spirit.  Otherwise I expect South by Southwest in general to suffocate from its own success, and soon.

Reprinted with changes from Nokia News

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