Confessions of a SXSW Rookie

When I was invited to speak on a panel at SXSW (South by Southwest) I jumped at the chance.  First, I love the panel topic – the future of mobile and retailing.  My co-panelists and I could wax on about the subject endlessly.  The guys from Checkpoints, Savvy Shopper, and Levis, taught me a lot about how shoppers are using their phones in store and in general.

But I was really psyched to see what the legendary SXSW conference was all about.  And in retrospect, I DID IT ALL WRONG!!!  First, I booked late and had to stay out in the burbs – every hotel room in downtown Austin was booked 6 months in advance.  This means no late night drinking, partying or networking which, as it turns out, is half the beauty of SXSW.   Second, I just showed up on Saturday morning.  That’s like just showing up at Disney World without a reservation.  I didn’t prep to see who else was attending, what events were running, which talks would wow and amaze.  There is a very effective APP called GO SXSW that saved me, but I kept running into people I knew (including my own agencies) who asked “why didn’t you let us know you would be here?”.    (Umm, cause I am a rookie here)   Third, I cut it too short.  I did the sensible type-A thing and tried to power through in a day and a half.  I left right after my panel on Sunday afternoon, only to realize that the good stuff was just about to start.  That night JayZee performed, the cool film and music people started showing up, and the interactive conversation melded into the hipsters of art and pop culture.  I just heard that last night Bruce Springsteen gave an amazing performance at SXSW while I am back here in Chicago.  Super.    All rookie mistakes not to be repeated.  I started to see SXSW as a mash up of Ted, Mill Valley Film festivle, and a Texas State fair.  No wonder its called Spring break for Geeks.

There were some great moments during my stay.  During the first weekend, the conference is mostly about panels and speakers who introduce digital concepts, and products or discuss relevant interactive topics.  I went to the information booth at the convention center to see if there was more of a traditional trade show room where I could meet a slew of interesting digital companies in a brief time.  Learning through panels and conferences seemed a little inefficent for me.  The SXSW staffer just said, “No, not really.  You should just hang out and talk to people.  You know, ride the wave”.  I looked at the other staffer behind the booth.  He nodded in agreement and re-iterated, “Yeah, ride the wave”.  Okay.  Armed with that information I continued down the conventeion center hall and saw a bunch of people camped out in front of a set of closed doors.  They looked like the fans that wait all night to buy tickets for a hot concert.  So I asked them, “hey, what are you all waiting for?”.  They looked back, smiled and one of them volunteered, “Seth McFarland speaks at 11:00″.  It was only 9:00 am, so I smiled back and said, “That’s great”.  Then they offered to save me a spot up in line with them if I was really busy right now.  Like that would ever happen in Chicago!  Then I walked another 50 paces and a guy asked me if I had a start up, and if so, they had a room full of VC guys to pitch later that day.  Would I want to attend?  See, I was already riding the wave.  I tried my luck again and struck up  conversation with the guy sitting next to me at a keynote talk – he is from Omaha and will now be by next QR Code vendor.  A little later I asked a SXSW staffer if there were any sessions on Fitness and digital.  He consulted his iPad, and said “OMG – You have got to go to Jimmy Fallon talking to Nike and EA about fitness and social media.  I’ll show you where it is”.  And so I did.  I did see Jimmy Fallon, I did love being on a panel, I did get the last parking space in Austin, and I did just ride the wave.  I am going to SXSW next year for the whole time, and with the right attitude.  See y’all there.

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