The SXSW Experience

by Adam on March 11, 2013

Before I go any further than this initial opening sentence, I want to say that I’m trying very hard to avoid having this post devolve into a rant. But it may, so I’m warning the 1-2 readers I have that I may be whining incessantly by the end of this. Fair enough.

This is my third year in Austin for SXSW Interactive. This year, the conference feels a bit less rushed, crowded and overwhelming than it did in years passed, perhaps because I’ve finally come to the point where I know what to expect and how to mitigate those issues. Or maybe it’s just that I’m getting used to the craziness and have prepared myself mentally for it weeks in advance.

By and large, I enjoy SXSW a lot. Unsurprisingly, I find that the breadth of programming and panels offers such a variety of content that there’s little to be desired. There are times when sessions fill to capacity, or aren’t what you expect, but when running a conference for tens of thousands of people, that’s to be expected and by and large SXSW does a good job to deal with those issues.

In the same vein, SXSW is a great place to meet people, network and build your business. There are a ton of events, meet-ups and other opportunities to get to know people in your industry who you might not meet otherwise. So, for entrepreneurs, it can be a great avenue for strategic partnerships.

I suppose this wasn’t the rant you were expecting…? Well sit tight.

I’ll tell you what drives me crazy about SXSW though. Or perhaps more appropriately, what it is about the attendees themselves that does.

Building a business, being an entrepreneur, developing new technology. This stuff is hard work. It takes dedication, focus, it takes a determination to shut out naysayers, shun our social life and invest immense resources of time, money, passion and experience to get something off the ground.

So, when I see thousands of so-called entrepreneurs and innovators come to SXSW, spend every evening jumping from party to party getting comp’ed drinks, dancing their asses off and framing it as business building, I think it’s a really unfortunate disillusion. That’s not building a business. And I can’t tell you how many entrepreneurs I’ve talked to who said they decided to pass on SXSW this year because they are “heads down” on product development.


“Do Not Disturb” signs on hotel room doors at noon on a weekday is not the sign of a driven entrepreneur.

Buying mimosas on a Monday morning before your first set of SXSW events is not a legitimate business expense.

“Hair of the Dog” is not a motto to build your business on.

I’m not trying to sound like some party-pooper who doesn’t like to have fun (which is exactly what I sound like). And I can go to a party and have a great time with the best of them. But, if you’re at SXSW because of the parties that rage until the wee hours of the morning, you’re here for the wrong reason (or, you’re here for the right reason, but don’t pretend then that you are here to do great things). I know many people who went to a party on Friday night and stayed out late and had a great time. And then got right back to it on Saturday and Sunday and continued “pounding the pavement” to meet with brands and didn’t miss a beat.

I’ve seen even more bleary-eyed, tousle-haired SXSW’ers who seem to be perpetually hung over while in Austin.

I think what makes this event so much of what it is, is the ability to spend one moment doing good work and another meeting people at a party and having a good time. To be professional at one point and let it all hang out at another. Or, much like the mullet, to be “business in the front and a party out back.” And everyone can do that while here and it’s worthwhile to do so. The events and the parties are a great way to meet people and the serendipity can be truly amazing. But don’t make that your only experience with SXSW, because when the party’s over and everyone goes home, you want to have more to hold onto than an empty drink cup.

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