Planning to Attend SXSW Next Year?

Here’s what you should prepare for…

The Down-Low
Long lines waiting to get into sessions. Many people turned away from key sessions, instead watching in satellite rooms with a video feed. Trying to get overpriced food in the rain in a tent too small to call comfortable. Being crammed into venues not really designed to handle the number of participants. More than 30,000 people from 56 countries all in one city. 1800 speakers hosting more than 1000 sessions. Constantly trying to geo-locate the building for your next session. High hotel rates and difficulty finding a room. Lots of walking and shuttle rides. Sore feet.

The Upside
Meeting smart and fascinating people from around the world. Hearing some of the most interesting authors elaborate on their cutting-edge research. Learning about the projects that startups are working on, and seeing application of new technologies. Getting a feel for what’s coming next. Feeling the excitement of being around so many enthusiastic people. Feeding off the collective energy.

What That Reminds Me Of…
Bottom line? SXSW reminds me a lot of attending my first COMDEX show with my dad in the 1980s. There just wasn’t enough infrastructure in Las Vegas at the time to support what was becoming a wildly popular event. Today is a different story, but back then, exhibit halls in Vegas were strung across the city in hotel after hotel, using any available convention or meeting space, inelegantly tied together by shuttles. Early on at COMDEX, there was a buzz of excitement as it was rarely known what awaited you at each stop. Already, there were vendors from around the world. In the early days when the PC began to take off, there was a similar sense of excitement and potential. Granted, there are some major differences from SXSW, but also a number of noteworthy similarities when it comes to assembling such a massive gathering in Austin.

2013 SXSW Highlights

  1. Elon Musk – It was great to hear him speak. I walked away thinking he’s not only a very smart person but incredibly skilled at marketing himself and his companies. Don’t know the name? Here is some quick info: co-founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors; CEO, CTO and Founder of SpaceX; and Chairman of Solar City. Has been compared to Henry Ford and provided the inspiration for Tony Stark of Iron Man movie fame. During Q&A he was asked “What was your biggest mistake?” And his humble response, “I don’t know… I have made so many of them.”
  2. Al Gore – His writing style may be a bit choppy but he loves to study, read and research. Some of the pieces he has compiled lend heavily from travel, networking, board meetings, and the variety of experience which leads to some interesting insights. My key takeaway included some of his points on biotechnology regarding the increasing manipulation of DNA to produce not only organisms with novel features, but new materials and fuels as well.
  3. Bre Pettis – Co-founder and CEO of Markerbot, Bre had an enthusiastic presentation on the opportunities created via affordable 3D printing. My favorite moment was when he described the use of this technology to help children without hands to have a prosthetic made otherwise cost prohibitive. If you weren’t already excited about 3D printing, this presentation got the wheels turning.

Here’s hoping Austin and SXSW figure out a better, more effective way to handle the crowds next year. In the meantime, I definitely appreciated the benefit I derived from the chaos. Let me know if you will be there next year!