SXSW, In a Really Big Nutshell

(This is a recovered post from a while ago – my thoughts on SXSW 2008.)

I’m flying back from my honeymoon in Italy. My new wife is sleeping next to me, I have six hours still left to fly, and I kid you not, they’re playing a rerun of Wheel Of Fortune on the movie screen.

I realized that I never really wrote up anything regarding my experiences at the South By Southwest Interactive conference (SXSW 2008) in Austin just a few short weeks ago. I had meant to write on the plane ride home from Austin, but was simply too tired. I meant to write a post during the the week in between SXSW and my honeymoon, and never got around to it. Now, here I sit, and I’m realizing that it may have been good to cool off a little before mapping out my experiences. Most of what was written regarding people’s experiences at SXSW were immediate, gut reactions. Many were brilliant rehashings of what was an even more brilliant week. But I’m going to give you the three-week-later write up. It should be interesting to see what I remember, and what left a lasting impression on me.

SXSW for me started as a chance opportunity, initiated and enabled by some new friends I had recently made. I posted recently about my new experiences with the “Indy” community – how they had taken me in, were filled to the brim with stunningly talented people, and were incredibly… real. I spoke a little about how they had (without knowing it) convinced me to hand in a day job for working independently. Now here they were, again almost inadvertently setting up a new experience for me. It was as if it were effortless.

I was one of only a few regulars of the coworking space Independent’s Hall that had not already signed up for SXSW. As far as I was concerned, I wasn’t going. Times were a little tough – while the 4th quarter of 2007 had been fruitful for me, the 1st quarter of 2008 was proving to be difficult – financially speaking.

Sitting around Indy Hall, discussing the upcoming trip, I made mention that I wish I could join the crew, but would be there to represent in 2009. I knew that although I seemed to have the airfare covered from a previously canceled international flight credit, the hotel room would be too expensive (if any were even available a week before SWSX).

Alex Hillman simply pipes up (while looking over at his then SXSW roommate andawesome host of Two Guys On BeerJohnny Bilotta) and says “why not room with us?” Johnny quickly agreed – their room rate was ridiculously low (I won’t divulge) and all agreed that splitting the room three ways was cheaper than splitting it two ways. After some white-boarding of what turned in to some very advanced theoretical mathematics, it turned out that, indeed, $n/3 is cheaper per participant than $n/2.

Suddenly I was sitting there, surrounded by this group of people I had grown to love so quickly, and they had done me a serious solid. Generosity seems to shoot from these people like Old Faithful – regularly, and in spectacular fashion.

So faced only with the price of an event pass (thank you Craigslist for the discount), and the thumbs up from my new wife who never stands in my way, always supports me, and is truly wonderful, I was booked – on my way to SXSW.

That’s how it started. The community that had done so much for me already had now helped me get to SXSW like it was their job. It was already a fantastic trip. Important to note is the tone this set – while I know I haven’t even touched on SXSW yet, I was already imbedded with such a sense of community spirit. Things could only get better.

The first day we arrived was a whirlwind, and definitely set the pace for the rest of the week. We landed, got our hotel room, headed down to the convention center to get our passes, and immediately grabbed a beer. Before I was three feet in the convention center, Alex, who just a week or two earlier had met many a person at the Future of Web Apps (FOWA) conference in Miami, was introducing us around. I collected three business cards before I stepped in the line to get my pass, and plans for the evening were already formulating.

That night, I had the first of what was to be many long, beer-filled nights. I’ll admit, perhaps it didn’t look that good to the people back home. I tell them I’m heading out to Austin for a conference important to my job, and here I am drinking and partying until all hours of the night. Funny thing is, I met more people, made more lasting connections (and picked up more Twitter follows) at those parties than in any part of the day conference. The ratio of business cards handed out while in parties to business cards handed out while in the conference center approaches infinity if you chart it properly.

The best part of these party nights were the people I was surrounded with. Many were internet celebrities in their own right. None were full of themselves. Every one had the same sense of community spirit that had been responsible for me being at SXSW in the first place. My proverbial jaw hung open – the kindness and intelligence of the people I was surrounded with was like Indy Hall a thousand-fold.

Our first night was a co-sponsored coworking meet-up. (Indy Hall was one of the “sponsors.”) It was way bigger than anyone expected. Apparently the world is really, really ready for coworking. It’s taking off like wildfire. It will be near you soon, I can almost guarantee it. I met so many people that night that I couldn’t imagine that the rest of the week would be the same.

Wow, was I wrong.

But enough about our boozing nights. (Well, not really – more later.)

Despite the paragraphs above, the conference had some serious highlights for me. First and foremost were those dedicated to the actual running of a business – the theory behind it, and the importance of it. Many a great idea was passed around SXSW. I have more cards pointing towards Web 2.0 apps than necessary. Many will fail simply for the same reason as the first Dot Com rush – no business plan at all. Sure, the bookstores all were filled with Wired’s latest issue, which contained a giant “Free! Why $0.00 is the Future of Business” star sticker on it. Interestingly enough, it also highlighted the gentlemen from 37 Signals, who give little away for free. The contradiction was harsh.

Get Thee a Business Model

That brings me to Jason Fried’s talk regarding 37signals, and business in general. Yes, he touched upon the four day work week – that deadlines are met and productivity is just as (if not more so) high with people working four hard days than five, but what was to be taken away from his keynote was not that. It was also not his somewhat odd steps to being incredibly productive (which were really good, but may not work for everyone) – no, rather, to be taken from his keynote was summed up in one simple sentence (and I paraphrase) – “People will pay.” If you provide a service that people need, want, and find easy to use and introduce into their organization, there is money to be made there. It doesn’t require investors, it doesn’t require being purchased by Time Warner – although it also won’t make you a 22 year old billionaire. But it’s a business model, and as cool as your app may be, if you don’t have a business plan for it, you had might as well start polishing your resume now.

To be honest, despite the Twitterverse, Blogosphere, and any other internet-based spacial allegory that may have carried the story of Mark Zuckerberg’s interview keynote, Sarah Lacy asked (and continued to ask with no response) a simple question – what’s your business model? I’m not sure if Mark was too scared to say it, had been coached not to, was under some investor NDA, or simply wasn’t old enough to get it, but the business model is datamining. Although, I’m not sure it’s worth $15B, but that’s why Facebook was purchased – for their databases, not their community. Unfortunately for Mark, his grandiose vision of the future online community platform is a farce. If there is no money to be made, you will go under. Mark and Facebook had a commodity – a database of users, their information, their habits, (they’re drunken nipple-slip pictures), and all of this information was worth a pretty penny to Time Warner.

But I digress. Jason’s keynote was not to say monumental to me or many there – I understand the basic physics of how money is integral to a business’s survival. It was, however, as many of his company’s products are – simple, easy to digest, and important to all attendees to understand. Oh – and you can build your business withzero start-up capital. That’s important too.

Kathy Sierra Wrecks Up the Place

I had heard about how awesome Kathy Sierra’s keynotes were. To experience one is another thing.

Again, I have to stress the simplicity of it. Business doesn’t have to be so damned complicated! She had so many wonderful messages, but the biggest one was “How do you help your users kick ass?” The concept is, people could care less if your app rocks. They care if your app helps them rock. It’s such a minor semantic change that is really a revolutionary step forward in application development. 37signals gets it. Gary Vaynerchuk gets it (which is why he appeared on stage with Kathy at her bequest). Your app should and will rock, but people will use it because it helps them kick ass. Reviews of “I got so much more accomplished” are better than “The UI of this app is nice!” because empowering your users is what your job is – not getting them to love and praise your work.

Gary Vaynerchuk

Man, did this guy come into his own at SXSW. He went from internet celebrity toINTERNET CELEBRITY in less than a week. Although, he really did all the work to get there, so I begrudge him none of his success.

Gary actually played a big part in my experience at SXSW, as little as he may know it. First were the t-shirts and wrist-bands. We definitely sported the t-shirts. We wore the wrist-bands all day, every day. (Gary is a friend of Indy Hall, and as little as I personally know him, I was happy to support anyone that deserved the respect of Indy Hall.)

Next was his little appearance on stage with Kathy Sierra. She introduced him as a man to be admired – someone who was, without fear, shaking up the world just a little. He’s now famous for it. He took what he loved – what he really, really loved, and simply followed his heart in that direction. It has won him acclaim, respect, love, and don’t think for a second that he’s not making out on the backend. Now, this is not to say that he hadn’t pretty single-handedly been the mastermind behind growing his family’s business ten-fold in less than a decade after taking over, moving it from a sub-$10 million company to a near (or over?) $60 million company – all in his “pre-fame” days. Wine Library is a success story written on solid business practices. But don’t think that his show, his fame, and his credibility don’t all lend themselves to Wine Library online sales. They do, I assure you. The point that Kathy was making is that by shaking up the world just a little, you can achieve astronomical results. Now Gary just loves life, and why not??

I also attended many talks that Gary attended – by pure happenstance. But the second the floor was opened for questioning, Gary’s hand shot straight up (or sometimes you just heard his voice from the corner) – “What’s the business model?” Some fumbled with the answer. Other gave boilerplate answers: “Advertising.” “Feature Levels.” Meh. Some had real answers. Those that didn’t, needed to start doing some thinking. Having heard him ask that question at no less than three talks, it really drove home its importance to me. Business hasn’t changed that much. The same practices that made Wine Library a run-away success both online – and at their brick-and-mortar location in New Jersey – has made Gary successful at his latest ventures. Don’t ignore old business. It’s still the bedrock of “new business.”

Ask Geoff DiMassi, one of the founders of Indy Hall and owner of P’unk Ave in Philadelphia. He’ll tell you the same thing. (Pay attention to anything that guy tells you.)

Finally were Gary’s parties. I was lucky enough to be standing in line with some of the Indy Hall crew about a mile outside of the entrance to the 16-bit party. Gary-and-entourage happen to be walking away from the party, and pass by us. I flagged him down, and asked him what the deal was. His (almost) exact words were “if you think you’re getting into this party your crazy. Come back to the hotel and drink wine!” And he took off. The two gentlemen standing with me, Jason Trembley and Chris Conelly, looked up at the line. It was daunting. We looked back at Gary and crew as they walked off. His confidence won us over. Who were we to argue with immediate access to a party with Gary? That vs. waiting in line for what seemed like a really over-hyped party that we would never gain entrance to… it was a no brainer. Out of line we hopped, and headed over to Gary’s hotel.

We sat for a while in the hotel lobby. We chatted it up, swapped some SXSW stories. Shortly, the wine appeared and we moved into a conference room that may (or may not) have been sanctioned. Then Gary said this – “Tweet it out – free wine at the Marriott with Gary V.” We did as instructed. While I don’t have many more than 50 followers on Twitter, others in the room had hundreds (and many of my followers have said hundreds). Almost instantly began the flash-mob wine party that made headlines – seriously, headlines. Gary handed out for free what was easily thousands of dollars of wine. People began to arrive in droves. Then the celebrities showed up – Kevin Rose, Robert Scoble. Gary was launched into SXSW infamy. It was fun to be there to see that – the power of a man following his dreams, the power of a hyper-connected community (thank you Twitter), and my first experience of a flash mob.

It should be noted that said party quickly scared the hell out of Marriott, who – security guards in tow – quickly ended what had quickly begun. Still, it was revolutionary.

Why the Gary V. Wine Party was so important to me (and Indy Hall in general)

Later on in the week, we again found ourselves in a massively long line for a party, and quickly became disillusioned. We quickly devised a plan. Indy Hall had gained a reputation itself that week (and in the months prior to SXSW, including at FOWA). Between the dozen or so of us there, we had meet-and-greeted a significant portion of the population of SXSW. Inspired by what we witnessed with Gary V. a few nights earlier and the confidence we had gained in ourselves, the contacts we had made, and thanks to an earlier hugely successful coworking meet-up and Core Conversation at the conference, we decided to throw our own party – the Indy Hall party.

We went ahead and found ourselves a bar that was just about empty. The name probably didn’t help draw it in clientele. “The Mooseknuckle” it’s called. ‘Nuff said. We walked in – there were four people there. I sauntered over to the bouncer and asked if the manager was around. He wasn’t, and I asked if he could be. “We’re going to pack this place, really fast” I said. Although he didn’t believe me for a lick, he summoned the manager.

We hopped on Twitter, and sent out the message.

The manager arrived, and Alex and I went to speak with him. Alex approached him with one line: “We just sent out a message to around 800 of our closest friends. We’re going to pack this place.” Although I again I think they took us with a grain of salt, the manager and I were able to broker a drink-price agreement. Alex told me that if we got a hundred or more people he would throw down a bar tab for Indy Hall. His wallet was quickly relieved of his credit card.

People poured in from every corner of Austin. We packed the place to the gills, on a Monday night. The owner quickly showed up and help keep things running smoothly. They called in a DJ because, well heck, apparently we needed one. Alex got on the mic, thanked everyone for coming, pimped out a message for Indy Hall, and announced free drinks for all SXSW badge holders. Then the place packed up. More. (We turned in the largest Monday night the Mooseknuckle has had in its long history in Austin.)

It was hugely humbling and at the same time like Viagra for our egos. Indy Hall had made enough of an impact to, in less than two hours, bring a bar from four people to a line outside. It helped me understand again the power of the community we were involved in, and the fact that I was now a true member of it. We drank and chatted all night. Many attendees that had become like old friends showed up, and we passed the time happily with them. We met more people than I can number. (I even met a bunch of guys that were just hired at Comcast. They’re shaking shit up. Watch out for some awesome changes coming, subscribers.) Even Gary V. showed up, wearing of all things, an Indy Hall t-shirt. It just didn’t get better than this. Finally Robert Scoble showed up. We were on the charts baby.

The party ended at around 2 am. Thems are the rules of Austin, and we had not obtained any special pass from the city to extend the night. Revelers poured into the streets, to head home or to another party. We eventually headed home. A little sleep was needed to face the next day head on. It was all about to happen again.

Inspiration makes us do crazy things

I still haven’t come down from the pure adrenaline rush that was SXSW. Since coming back, Indy Hall’s founders have announced the founding of Round3Media. Expect awesome things. Johhny Bilotta and I have started our own online TV show, “Two Guys On Beer.” Inspiration comes from all over, but thanks to Gary V. for the courage.

I don’t think the high from SWSX will fade. I think it will continue to inspire us for the rest of the year. That can only lead to good things.


Seriously, this thing is long. So if you’re still reading, you need a job. But I appreciate it. Here’s what I came away with.

  • Business is no joke. Make good apps, and people will buy them. Make good services, people will pay for them. No business model will eventually equal failure for all involved. Have one – even if you don’t know what it is, or are unwilling to actually face up to it (Facebook, I’m looking in your direction). It’s not a “nice to have,” it’s the golden rule.
  • Be true to yourself and your dreams, and the money will follow. Gary taught us that, Kathy made sure we got it. Having experience helps, but it’s not necessary.
  • Help your users or clients kick ass.
  • Despite cries foul about SXSWi becoming too large and over-populated, this is just the beginning. I believe there will be another Dot Com burst, although smaller than before. It will weed out those without business models. The rest will survive.
  • There’s another revolution coming. It’s growing exponentially. Coworking. I didn’t talk about it much here because I’ve covered it, but it was officially recognized at this SXSW in a core conversation. It’s small now, but there’s something underlying it – the independent worker – that showing force in numbers, will change the face of business. For too long have designers and developers toiled under unreasonable deadlines, complete lack of support, and disregard for the amount of actual work it takes to put together and make live a web application (among many, many other things). Independents flip the table. We name the price, we set the expectations, and we make sure businesses play by our rules. Banned together, the phenomenon will continue to suck in the best and the brightest as Indy Hall has done and will continue to do. Side Note: Putting that many brains together in a room is bound to launch some of the best businesses and business ideas you have never heard of. You’ll hear of them eventually.
  • Community. It’s so strong it’s ridiculous. And more importantly, defined by this community: Give and Ye Shall Receive. If ever a place in this universe were proof of the existance of Karma, it’s in this community. I have had the fortune of being on the receiving end of good Karma, and it feels good.

Want to know what feels better? Giving to the community. I’ve done it. It’s awesome. It has changed my life. It will continue to for as long as I can hold on.

Here’s the best part. SXSW was just a grouping of these people from around the world in a single place for one week a year. But I get to work with them, in this environment, every day of my life.

Sweet. Only three hours left in the air.

  • Vik Duggal

    Wow! I’ve read about Gary V on the Internets and have watched his stuff. Have only in the last few months been active on twitter; am approaching an industry I love the best way I know how, launched a personal video blog, and have been debating attending SXSW. I was looking for someone who could tell me about their experiences and you have done it!

    I will be booking a flight, registering for SXSWi 2009, and am pumped! My adrenaline is pumping as a write this. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for this post.

    Will you be there?

    Vik Duggal
    (twitter: @vikdug)

  • david

    @Vik – NO! I won’t be there this year, I’m totally bummed about it. But keep an eye out for Alex Hillman, one of the members of IndyHall Labs and the founder of Independent’s Hall. He’ll be giving some talks (look for his name on the schedule) and be sure to introduce yourself!