Tyler Arnold is co-founder & CEO of SimplySocial.
“Dude you gotta go. It’s like GOAP (Geeks on a Plane) x 1,000. You’ll love it.”
With that note, Antony McGregor Dey (founder of link.me) convinced me to go to South by Southwest (SXSW) a mere four days before the start of the Interactive portion of the conference. And having missed the hugely popular event the last two years, I didn’t feel like missing out on a third.
I never quite understood the value of going, nor did I have any expectations. I figured I had little to lose — although tickets, as you can imagine, were a fortune. That said, there are some things I wish I’d known heading into my first South by. So, below are some helpful tips for first-time SXSW’er:
Lesson #1: Flight and accommodation will be expensive.
Most of the tech world descends upon Austin for a single weekend a year and the city certainly makes the most of it. Flights and hotels are expensive, so just be prepared to pay the piper.
Hilariously, I was able to finagle last-minute accommodation with Kiip.com, a company we’re co-located with in San Francisco. They had done their SXSW planning properly by renting out a house months before.
But the house was full, so, they offered an air mattress — In a tent, in the garage.
Lesson #2: Take what’s given to you. You’ll need it.
Growing up in Alaska, the juxtaposition of “tent camping” at a tech conference actually sounded exciting. Being in a garage instead of outside in the rain (which I’ve done too many times) was a luxury I could appreciate.
It turns out that a dark and quiet place like this was the most appealing thing ever after 20 hours of South by mingling. As a friend described the experience, “SXSW is just all of Silicon Valley concentrated in a single place, with Vegas mixed in.”
Upon landing on Friday, I exited the airport to stand in the one-hour taxi line. The line was just a fact of life as floods of techies break into the city.
Lesson #3: You’re a guest, and there’s a lot of you.
Despite the crowds, you don’t have to stand in line at SXSW to have fun. There are always plenty of events going on, and some of the best ones fly under the radar. However, when it comes to transportation, it isn’t always easy to get around.
It’s also worth noting that there are lots individuals with a hell of a lot more money than you. One late night had the Kiip crew and I looking for a taxi in the rain at 5am. We felt we were being generous offering $30-40 to be driven a mile up the road.
A group in front of us offered $100 instead, for a shorter journey.
Lesson #4: SXSW is all about spontaneity.
I arrived in downtown Austin with a group of friends at an event going on in the middle of 6th Street, where a lot of the action takes place. For the first 30 minutes, I wondered what the heck I got myself into. Why was I here? I was over thinking things. I hadn’t had a game changing moment within the first half hour and it felt like… a waste.
Soon enough, we were up and mingling with the crowd and I began understanding the value of SXSW. I started running into executives at top-tier companies, getting feedback on our product, and meeting tech luminaries that also live in the SF Bay area.
I started collecting business cards, planning follow-ups, and eventually began looking for the next thing.
Lesson #5 Serendipity can be engineered.
Saturday was somewhat of a blah day. After a late start (it happens), I didn’t make it into downtown until 2 p.m. I was told you didn’t need a badge to network, so I never ended up getting one. I think the only time I would participate in the actual convention center events was if I was involved with a panel, but I’ll withhold judgement until I get to cash in on that experience.
After meetings and dinner in the city, I headed over to the Four Seasons. As I sat down, two gentlemen instantly invited me into their conversation. They both lived in the city, and after swapping backgrounds (“What do you do?” is asked more here in a weekend then everywhere else in a year) they introduced me to their friend Susan.
Susan, awesome as she was, ended up inviting me to the Founder’s Fund event on Monday night. I got to meet Peter Thiel.
Thiel, Facebook’s first investor and PayPal co-founder, has been someone I’ve looked up to since before I had a driver’s license. Equally great, however, were some of the people he surrounded himself with. I had a chance to chat with a number of individuals working to drive changes in education, aerospace (SpaceX), and healthcare.
Even as I settled into my seat on the bus to the Founders Fund party, one guy next to me was thanking the woman he was sitting next to for “getting (him) on NPR today.”
“This is the right crowd,” I thought to myself.
Those two people turned out to be Dylan Tweney of VentureBeat and Laura Sydell of NPR.
Lesson #6: There are two main segments to SXSW: The Casual Crew and The Partiers.
The SXSW magic really came alive when it turned a blah Saturday into an invitation to socialize with some of tech’s greatest names. Networking at the Four Seasons made me realize there are two distinct groups that come to Austin: those who network and those who party.
The Four Seasons crowd certainly seemed like the casual networking group and yielded a lot of interesting connections. Others, however, just descend on Austin to unwind from work and party with colleagues.
Both groups have their place here. I’ve always been more a networker by choice, so I let a lot of the “Vegas-like” parts of the event pass me by. Both the Vegas and spontaneity pieces were highlighted for me when one night, at the Kiip house, I saw Coolio (#gangstasparadise) making spaghetti after performing at their party earlier that evening.
This type of stuff only happens here.
Lesson #7: Value the intangible.
A number of individuals have asked me, “What did you get out of SXSW?” The answer, after having a number of experiences (not all outlined above), is hard to give.
First off, it yields a lot of great relationships. As a people-oriented entrepreneur, I value those connections greatly and don’t underestimate the value they could provide in the future.
There’s sort of a Burning Man/TED-like quality to SXSW. There aren’t a lot of hierarchies, gate-keepers, or egos that prevent you from reaching the key contacts you want to talk to. You can brainstorm ideas with top minds in tech. You can discuss journalism with correspondents from NPR. You can pitch your product to huge customers. It’s casual, it’s easy, and it’s fun.
Will it result in business? I don’t know — ask me in 30 days.
Will it result in investors? I don’t know — ask me in five years.
Will it results in friends? I don’t know — ask me in a lifetime.
But it certainly doesn’t hurt. In today’s digital world there’s so much noise. More emphasis is placed on relationships and key connections with folks you know. Trust is more monetizable now than ever before. People want to work with people they trust, and meeting them here is a great place to start.
Tyler Arnold is cofounder & CEO of SimplySocial, founded in October of 2011 with the idea that every organization should be empowered with the tools they need to tell their own story on social media. He previously founded Purlize and Tyler Systems. He has spoken at numerous events, including TEDx, and in 2011 won the Small Business Administration’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year award.