When I made plans to attend my first SXSW conference, friends told me it wasn’t for technology people anymore. “SXSW is only for marketing and PR now,” they said. Is this true? I needed to find out for myself, and I heard there would be fun and free food, so I headed to Austin.On Saturday SXSW hosted The Lean Startup @ SXSW Interactive, a sub-conference that featured engineers and executives from startups such as Etsy, Meebo, and Uber. I was excited to see some of the talks because the agenda sounded diverse and interesting, but the 10-15 minute presentations were too short to have any serious depth. I enjoyed myself and I learned a few things, but it wasn’t up to the standards of a serious technology conference.
I headed to the huge exhibit room on Sunday. There seemed to be some wheat among the chaff but the crowds made it frustrating to navigate. I found myself hiding out in the Meetup pavilion to network with some other media technology people I already knew.
So the talks were underwhelming, and the exhibits were crowded and mediocre. Was this a mistake? Should I not have come to SXSW? Luckily, SXSW has one thing going for it that trumps all those drawbacks.
The best thing about SXSW is being surrounded by some of the most creative people in technology, who are all their doing their best to pretend to be extroverts for that one week a year. Since everyone is there to mingle, there isn’t the time pressure to have an agenda that exists outside of the SXSW bubble. Conversations can get deep and interesting when no one is in a rush and there’s always another party around the next corner. It’s a place you don’t necessarily mind waiting on a moderately long line, because some of those conversations are the most random and memorable. You might meet a kid with a neat app idea, learn about a product that helps you professionally, or just hear a great story about something that happened at a party the night before.
Are there a lot of marketing people? Yes. Do salespeople try to sell you on their companies’ products? Yes. They aren’t there in overwhelming numbers though, so you still feel like the average person you might meet is probably going to be interesting in some way. You can’t get that anywhere else: the mix of entrepreneurship, creativity, and smarts in everyone you meet makes SXSW such a great time.
The panels and exhibits are compelling but the people are what make SXSW. Having a badge is a plus but wouldn’t be a requirement, as the parties are where the people are and those generally don’t require badges as long as you RSVP in advance.
I’m sure “it used to be better” and longtime attendees might think it has jumped the shark. Someday maybe the marketers and salespeople will tip it into irrelevance but my experience in 2013 was that it’s not there yet. I definitely plan to attend again next year, and if you do too maybe we’ll run into each other standing on line for tacos.
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