I signed up for South by Southwest (SXSW) on a whim in September 2011 when a number of awesome people I met at a conference in the Napa Valley mentioned they were going. I didn’t know much about SXSW, but I figured these guys and gals knew what they were talking about so I bought a Platinum pass, booked some flights and a hotel, and next thing I knew it was March and I was on my way to Texas!
I got in a few days early to visit some mates – the lovely Nikolai and Lindsey – in Houston. Apart from letting me play with their three Labradors all day (bliss!), they bettered their hosting performance last October which featured Saint Arnold’s brewery on a Saturday morning – tough to beat – by taking me to bingo and to eat the hugest, most delicious chocolate cake I’ve ever had. Everything really IS bigger in Texas. Thank goodness Uncle Daryl’s chocolate cake is only available at The Chocolate Bar in Houston and not in Australia, or I would be the size of a blimp!
Thoroughly pampered, I bid Houston and my lovely hosts farewell on the Friday and headed to Austin, 3 hours drive away. The city was already in lock-down for the conference, and I was shocked to have to queue for 45 minutes to pick up my badge. Turns out I was lucky – if I’d arrived an hour later, I would have had a 3 hour wait to look forward to! Tip 1 for new players: pick up your badge on Thursday evening if possible, before the rush begins.
I’ll stop there with the SXSW event details (see my next post for my take on the best sessions, tips and traps for an SXSW first-timer to be aware of) but suffice to say that everyone is right: you cannot hope to attend all the sessions you want to. Even with perfect organization and programming, simple physics defies you to get to every session on time. I averaged 5 sessions a day during the interactive section and was knackered by the end of the week. Pace yourselves, people. It’s the only way to survive! That, and a solid breakfast…
Apart from having my mind blown several times at the conference, I did all the things one does in Austin when they’ve already gotten blind a few times on 6th Street: I ate at the famous Ironworks rib joint – needless to say it was the only meal I ate that day. I danced at Dallas nightclub… that is to say, I watched the beautiful Bethany dance while Chris and I got drunk. Of course, the highlight of the whole thing was catching up with some fantastic people I’d met in 2011 who either lived in Austin or were visiting for the conference. I even got to watch a couple of them speak at the conference (which they did brilliantly. Well done Gene Kim and Chad Mureta!)
After nine seriously exhausting but incredibly rewarding conference days, I was ready for the long haul home. 12 months should be sufficient time to recover, so I’ll pencil in my return for next year’s SXSW.
SXSW meant nothing to me a year ago. I decided to attend on a whim, based on what I heard about it from some rather fantastic people. Turns out it was an awesome decision, and one I would highly recommend.
For the First Timers: What the heck is SXSW?
South by Southwest (SXSW) is not just one conference: it’s three. There’s an interactive component which runs for the first five days and focuses on the wonderful world of technology and that interweb thingy. There’s a music component which runs for the last five days (overlapping with interactive for one day) and includes live performances and sessions for the music-industry inclined. The film component runs for the full nine days and includes screenings and sessions for the film industry. There are parties galore and, as you would expect, quite a crowd.
It would not surprise me if eventually it got so big they had to split them up somehow. There’s a definite transition between Interactive (read: nerds) ending and Music (read: hipsters) beginning. Fitting into neither category turned out to be no hindrance at all. It was an amazing experience I hope to repeat annually. Below are my tips, traps and highlights from this year’s conference.
Top 3 Tips:
1. Plan (optimistically) one day out
I went with the old-fashioned manual method: highlighting the pocket guides the night before, picking 3 or 4 things in each timeslot that I was interested in. This can be challenging if you’re attending all the conference segments (Interactive, Music and Film) as there are three separate pocket guides, so I focused on Interactive first. Be prepared: you will miss sessions. Lots of them. And to the best of my knowledge they’re not being shared online after the conference (major fail, SXSW organisers!) so if you really, really wanna see something, go early. Also check whether you’ll need to go to different campuses – you’ll chew time waiting for buses. A friend imparted some great advice for a newbie: stick to the Conference Centre and you’re bound to see the good stuff.
2. Pick some sessions purely out of interest
Some of the best sessions were ones that had at best a loose connection with my purpose for attending. They were awesome BECAUSE I didn’t know anything – it’s amazing what’s happening in the world that you have no idea about, and you have no idea what you’re missing unless you check it out. This is an ideal opportunity to do it: you get a 30 to 60 min rundown (usually a concise one) and the chance to ask questions. Who knows – you might find a career change! I especially found the keynotes impressive – as they should be. It’s not every day you get to see Al Gore and Sean Parker have a chin-wag about the state of democracy and how Facebook could change politics in America…
3. Take advantage of the free consulting (a.k.a. Question Time)
One of the panel hosts used the term ‘free consulting’ for question time and man, were they right! The presenters are passionate about their topic. They love it when someone engages with them meaningfully, and will usually be willing to help you in depth over a beer that evening. Take advantage of this! Be one of the first people up in the queue for the microphone with a well-worded, meaningful question you’d normally have to pay good money to have answered. If you can’t get them there and then, they usually give out their contact details, so use them! Hit them up via email or phone with that burning, brilliant question you’ll think of 30 mins after the session finishes.
Top 3 Traps:
1. Interactive schedule = headline-writing competition
The electronic schedule shows the first 5 words on your iPhone, and the schedule on a computer requires three clicks to get to the detail in any meaningful way. You’re basically picking the good headline writers by default, unless you trawl through the phonebook-sized full guides or click every item on the electronic schedule. The good news is, if they’re creative enough to write a good title they just might be creative enough to craft an engaging presentation.
2. Looking at your iPhone ALL THE TIME
I can’t tell you how many crashes of the flesh and bone variety I observed because someone was walking and looking at their phone at the same time. If you did this more than once, you’re a douche-bag. Heads up, people (literally!) If you’ve got your attention on the device in your hand instead of around you, not only are you a safety hazard to some poor unsuspecting person operating under the premise that people generally watch where they’re going, you’ll miss out on running into friends, hasty acquaintances and presenters you really wanted to speak to. You may even get run over (saw a few near misses around 4th). As much as the conference is about technology, its premise is getting like-minded people in one spot so some magic can happen. Don’t miss out because you’ve got your head down.
3. Queuing for hours
The inevitable by-product of so many attendees and a multitude of interesting sessions is having to queue to get in. If you’re keen on a keynote with a huge queue, note that these are streamed to rooms at most of the campuses. So, if you don’t feel the need to ask a question and don’t mind missing a bit of the ambiance, try the on-screen version instead.
Ah, so many choices! I was lucky enough to attend all three sections (Music, Film and Interactive). I’ve picked the top experience from each… and then included a laundry list of all the other awesome stuff at the end 🙂
SXSW 2012 Interactive Highlight: Frank Abagnale
Holy amazeballs. This was easily my conference highlight. Frank’s youth is the basis for the main character in the film ‘Catch Me If You Can’, and if you’ve seen the film you’ll have some idea of what an incredible person Frank is. He usually talks solely about internet security; this time he talked about his life: what was right/wrong in the film, his insights and his life since the events that led him to work for the FBI (he’s been there for 36 years, 26 years longer than he was obliged to based on his sentence). The talk had almost nothing to do with Interactive but it touched everyone. There were tears. Yes, from me too.
The biggest insight was his observation that life is in no way short – life is the longest thing you’ll ever do, and if you f*** up, you get to spend the rest of your life dealing with those regrets. He also said some stuff about being a real man which is less applicable to me, but boys: Frank reckons a real man loves his wife and family, and tells them he loves them every day, and demonstrates he loves them every day. A real man is loyal and faithful to his family and country. Sounds like he’s learned these lessons the hard way.
And he threw in some security advice right at the end (that alone was worth the conference). He recommends:
- Shredding all paperwork with a micro-cut shredder, and only a micro-cut. Shreddings can be reassembled from any other type
- Always using your credit card for purchases – this way you’re risking the bank’s money, not yours. Caveat: you must pay the credit card off without being charged interest – don’t use a credit card if you find yourself paying interest because you can’t afford what you buy with it
- On Facebook (or any other public forum), do not list your birth date (even omitting the year), your place of birth, and don’t have a full-frontal photo for your profile pic. These three items get you 98% of someone’s identity.
SXSW 2012 Music Highlight: Showcases (specifically the Aussie BBQ)
This was a tough one – over the course of the week I saw Bruce Springsteen, Kimbra, Lucero, Julia Price and a number of other stellar performances. Showcases turned out to be the best as they allowed you to go to one place (i.e. only line up once) and see multiple acts. However lame it may be to pick my own country’s showcase, I thought the Aussie BBQ was the best for three reasons:
- Lowrider – any band that can give such a brilliant performance at 11am deserves some kind of accolade. I bought their album immediately afterwards.
- Lanie Lane – cheeky, catchy and lots of fun.
- The meat pies – yep, the food was THAT good. Snags on rags were not the only Aussie staple, they also had ‘Boomerang’ pies that put ours to shame. Breakfast of champions…
SXSW 2012 Film Highlight: WE ARE NATION
I’m no internet geek, but I thought it was hilarious (they’ve clearly dumbed it down enough for the average lay-person… like me). And not only was it side-splittingly funny, it was remarkably poignant given the keynote later in the conference from Al Gore and Sean Parker about the role of technology in democracy. I won’t attempt to explain the plot here, but if you’re into documentaries and even vaguely interested in the potential impact the internet can have on our lives, you should check this out.
And the rest…
So many choices! Too many good ones not to mention them.
The Angel Investing panel – mainly because it included one of my heroes: Tim Ferriss.
Anthony Bourdain and his crew talking with their usual wit about how they use technology to create an active fan base.
Al Gore and Sean Parker talking about democracy and calling the internet geeks to action to ‘Occupy Democracy!’ We may have the difficult choice of Julia or Tony in Australia (for the Americans: they’re both basically d*cks) but at least we don’t have the American political system. Sheesh!
The Boss! I won one of the coveted 2,700 tickets to Bruce Springsteen’s show, which went for 5 hours including the opening acts (Low Anthem was particularly impressive) and included Tom Morello. Fantastic!
Julia Price. I bought her EP after the performance. Not just a pretty face! Incidentally, you ‘Mericans can catch her on BRAVO’s Miss Advised over the next 8 weeks. Check it out… and please tell me what it’s about – I don’t have that channel Down Under 😦
Dale Stephens and the Uncollege. This young man has gone out and potentially solved the problem of our archaic method of preparing people for life by sticking them in a classroom for 16+ years by developing an experience-based program. Can’t wait to hear how his pilot cadetship program goes.
Chad Mureta‘s book ‘App Empire’. I bought it because I met him last year and he’s an incredible guy, but it turns out he also writes well and about a very interesting topic. Definitely worth reading!
All you Texas detractors can bite your tongues. Adam and I saw both Houston and Austin over the last couple of weeks, and we thought they were great. Sure, we mostly saw Texas from the inside of bars and restaurants, and we only visited two cities, but that’s how we’ve seen most places…
First, let me say that I love Austin’s airport. It’s been our most hassle-free experience of aviation in the USA to date, both arriving and departing. Quick check-in, quick security, quick rental car pick up (and cheap! Go Ace!) – makes me far less apprehensive about our remaining internal USA flights. Bravo, Austin! Unfortunately, our expeditious exit from the airport robbed us of our usual time to plan what we were going to do in Austin, so we were very disorganised and haphazard about the 4 days we had. Still had a good time though 🙂
We arrived on Sunday afternoon, so took advantage of the minimal traffic in downtown to visit the State Capitol. I know everything’s bigger in Texas, but this building is bigger than DC’s to the tune of 5 feet! From a distance, it looks a dusky pink – a bit feminine for such a ballsy state, but it turned out to be Red Sunset (sand? lime?) stone – it’s quite attractive up close. The building was testament to the money in Austin: the building is grand, pristine and actually quite classy.
We bunked at Ryan’s dad’s house (thank you again for having us, Mark!) for a couple of nights, so got some tips to check out Zilker Park (lovely), drive around the wine region and sample the local BBQ flavours. Most people seem willing to admit that Texas produces crap wine, so we didn’t bother sampling it – just admired the scenery and architecture, and ate ribs (drool).
We managed to catch up with some new friends for dinner on the famous 6th Street, followed by some jazz at one of the local spots – it certainly whet our appetite for what was to come in New Orleans! And we took a short drive to San Antonio to check out The Alamo and the river walk – very peaceful.
Austin was lovely and I look forward to seeing it again next year for SXSW 2012! Now onto the pre-honeymoon cruise…