SXSW: A Newbie’s Experience

Wow. South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) has exceeded every expectation I might have had before attending.

Five Key Learnings from my first ever visit to Austin’s SXSWi event

Wow. South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) has exceeded every expectation I might have had before attending. Even a few days after our return from Austin, I’m still in a high-adrenaline state of mind. Exhausted, but at the same time my batteries feel charged (even if I don’t like the metaphor), motivation is high and my mood is well above average. Now it’s time to jot down what I might have learned from my very first SXSW.

  1. Attract like-minded people. That’s a first and really important. This makes it easy to connect to lots of strangers, because there is common ground that can be easily discovered. The psychological and practical risk that’s inherent to any kind of communication is considerably lowered. In general, I would describe the SXSW crowd as open-minded people, interested in a lot more things than just tech. While tech is of course important, there is also a strong influence from contemporary culture, arts and philosophy that can be felt.
  2. Create an event that absorbs attendees’ hearts, minds, and souls. Many conferences cater first and foremost to the intellect. While that’s pretty important, it doesn’t suffice. The power of events lies in total immersion. Events can and should induce strong positive emotions and feelings, capturing not only minds, but also hearts and souls. Attendees need to love your event and the crowd they are a part of. And haters should simply stay away. Which leads me to my third point.
  3. Don’t make it too easy to attend. There must be some kind of hurdle that attendees need to jump over. Many events these days are invite-only, which is fine and works well. SXSW is different, because Austin is not just around the corner. Even from the Valley it takes several hours to fly in, not to mention the long-distance flights many people from all over the world have to swallow. This creates a strong self-selection of the audience: Only people who really care show up. Which is a good thing.
  4. Optimise the event experience for newbies (like me). Newbies shouldn’t feel like strangers. SXSW does a very good job for first-timers. Over the past 30 years, the event has attracted lots of new attendees, so they simply know what to do: Draw them in with a broad, well-curated selection of content, unusual and surprising meeting spaces, tons of side events, parties and stuff like that. And keep a very relaxed and easy-going mood that helps people even getting through the inevitable logistical hardships and nightmares that come with events at this scale.
  5. Let serendipity do it’s magic. At SXSW, people have to walk around a lot. But believe it or not, it’s easy to meet others you might already know, simply by chance. I don’t know how exactly this works, but it must have something to do with a few main walking paths people have to use over and over again. And probably also with the simple schedule that puts most sessions in one-hour slots and half-hour breaks between the slots. So after each session attendees essentially play musical chairs for a while and bump into each other.

That’s it for now. I might add more thoughts if they occur to me. But for now, I’ll try to figure out what we can learn from SXSW for NEXT.

First published at Medium.