This is a guest post from Gary Sharma (aka “The Guy with the Red Tie”), founder and CEO of GarysGuide and proud owner of a whole bunch of black suits, white shirts and, at last count, over 40 red ties. You can reach him at gary [at] garysguide.com.
This was my sophomore outing at SXSW (‘Spring Break for Nerds!’) and it was every bit as epic and intense as the first one. Five days of non-stop boozing ‘n schmoozing ‘n pool partying ‘n BBQing ‘n celeb meeting ‘n concerts with little-to-no sleep can take its toll. I feel like a HERD of elephants ran over me! Now that I’ve put that mental picture in your head, let’s dive in.
My 2013 SXSW actually began right here at La Guardia airport, where I ran into bunch of local tech peeps en route to Austin, including Newscred CEO Shafqat Islam. There was a storm coming, but luckily we got out before it hit. In fact, my flight left half an hour EARLY, if you can believe that, so thank you, United. (Of course, the return flight was delayed by an hour, so there went all the hard-earned goodwill. Oh well.)
As I landed in Austin, the good folks @ my buddy Greg Tseng‘s startup Tagged had a warm welcome party with gift bags, photo ops and a chauffeured ride into the city. I could get used to this!
To the uninitiated, most of the action at South By happens within a ten-block radius of downtown Austin, where around 30,000 attendees descend for Interactive. It’s like a college campus really. As I walked around, I spotted many familiar faces: “Great to see you again!” “Where you staying?” “You sticking around for music?” and the most common – “You coming to my party?!” I wish I could go to everyone’s parties!
Picking up my credentials at the convention center, I noticed the girl prepping my badge had a Hack ‘n Jill card. “You’re into coding?” I asked. “Yes! I’m starting to learn!” Noticing I was from New York, she added, “I’m a big fan of Girl Develop It and Sara Chipps! I follow her on Twitter!” Her enthusiasm was infectious and I promised to introduce her. That’s what SXSW is all about, people.
There was the much-anticipated fireside chat between Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk and Wired‘s Chris Anderson. Musk spoke of his hope that humans will someday be able to make it to Mars and admitted he’d like to take the journey himself: “I would like to die on Mars, just not on impact.” Well, I don’t think I wanna die on Mars, period, but I’d definitely fancy a weekend getaway!
There was Al Gore‘s insightful chat with the Wall Street Journal‘s Walt Mossberg. Mr. Gore’s coming out with a new book, The Future, and he talked about how the luddite fallacy (that technology destroys more jobs than it creates) could actually come true, the emergence of the global mind, an unfortunate focus on growth instead of progress and a dramatic shift in global power. Tongue-in-cheek, Mr. Gore confessed: “I had a business partner called David Blood. We wanted to call our company Blood and Gore but our investors wouldn’t let us!” On a more serious note, he said, “The future of democracy may well depend on the continued freedom and independence of the Internet.”
Hardware replaced social as the star of the show, and several 3D-printing companies had a strong presence at the festival. My buddy Bre Prettis, CEO of Makerbot, gave the opening keynote introducing their newest product, the Digitizer, which will scan real-world objects into 3D-printable digital files. Very cool!
Another device getting attention was the Leap Motion 3D motion-control, which, using a USB connection, creates four cubic feet of space to interact with a computer. The controls are similar to using a touch screen computer in the air. Sweet!
But the biggest star of SXSW though wasn’t Mr. Musk, Mr. Gore or Mr. Pettis. It was Grumpy Cat! The cat (whose real name is Tardar Sauce a.k.a. Tard) drew long lines (and I mean realllly long) snaking around the block and beyond to get a picture taken with his famously grumpy face. And he didn’t disappoint. (Apparently he had a lot of demands, too.)
The Marketing & PR Stunts
SXSW has never been short on marketing gimmicks and stunts, and this year was no different.
Ride-sharing startup Lyft offered free piggyback rides with men wearing pink mustaches. Uber brought back its pedicabs and Sidecar also offered free rides around town. Payments startup Dwolla put golden tickets inside chocolate “Dwolla bars” and hid them around Austin.
There were tacocopters, a hologram of a saleswoman, and even Cap’n Crunch got in on the action! Taskrabbit had a rabbit-y van, Hootsuite had an owl-y bus and Highlight had ice-cream trucks. There was even a Game of Thrones pedicab which proved very popular with my friends. (Season 3 will be here in two weeks!)
Hook-up site Bang With Friends (you know the one I’m talking about!) promoted its one-off site, Bang With SXSW, a way for attendees to meet and mate. As if that wasn’t servicey enough, they also distributed thousands of condoms all over town. Yes, VCs, they are looking for funding.
My friend Adam Ludwig of RRE has a new app coming out, called Albumatic. To promote it, they decided to sponsor a popular local Korean+Mexican fusion truck called Chi’lantro. Anyone who downloaded the app got free food! That’s where a whole bunch of us went after the Foursquare party. FYI, their Kimchi Fries are killer! (Feeling FOMO yet?)
In one of this year’s better stunts, journalists and companies received packages purportedly from a mysterious startup calling itself YamTrader.com (an online marketplace for yam enthusiasts and traders). Each both contained a set of instructions and … a YAM, with the promise that if you brought your yam to SXSW, you could trade it in for a $50 Amex gift card. Apparently it was all on behalf of TriNet, an HR and payroll cloud services company. Hey, $50 is $50!
All-in-all, nothing groundbreaking but thank God there was none of those controversial homeless hotspots from last year.
Like last year, there was no break-out app. Seems everyone was worn out from trying too many apps with no clear value proposition. (Not to mention a lot of them tend to be battery hogs!)
But I will give an honorable mention to GroupMe, an old SXSW favorite. I joined a bunch of groups for SXSW and they were definitely helpful.
A bunch of my friends–Tal Flanchraych, Erica Swallow, Jamie Roth and Jason Kende–participated in Startup Bus (a seven-hour hackathon on wheels) from New York and San Francisco to Austin, where participants teamed up to pitch ideas and build startups. Congrats to CareerMob (Startup Bus NY) for winning the competition! They help Army vets translate their war experience into a resume.
NBA legend Shaq is a big guy. And apparently, he’s a big nerd, too, because he was all over South By and (in his own words) “like a kid in a candy store!” Fun facts: Did you know Shaq has a masters degree in business administration? And that he bought a lucrative stake in Google before its IPO in 2004? Interested in having Shaq as an investor? He’s taking video pitches via one of his startup investments, Tout.
The housing situation at SXSW gets crazier and crazier every year. The hotels are long gone, as are the motels and even the Airbnbs. I had friends who were seriously considering either renting an RV or driving down from Round Rock every day. One startup helping ease the pain was my buddy Diego Saez-Gil‘s WeHostels, which rented out a block of rooms at the Firehouse Hostel at affordable rates, right in the heart of downtown. It seemed like every other New York City tech person I met was staying there, including Amicus’ Seth Bannon, The Daily Muse’s Kathryn Minshew and many of the Startup Bus folks.
My friend Polina (cofounder of travel startup Wanderu) had hired a monkey (yes) named Miki to endure a bunch of gawking strangers in exchange for some top-notch compensation (bananas?). I agreed to a photo shoot. Miki sat on my shoulder and posed as planned. That’s when things started going a little crazy. First he became fascinated with my hair, then he discovered my business cards in my suit pocket and proceeded to take them out one at a time and lick them and hand them around. He’s a natural!
On monday morning, Conduit Corner played host to the Change The Ratio / TheLi.st Mimosa Brunch. It was TheLi.st‘s SXSW debut and it seemed like everybody was there. Along with TheLi.st cofounders Rachel Sklar and Glynnis MacNicol, there was Travel Channel’s Nisha Chittal, Digital Undivided’s Kathryn Finney, Marie Claire’s Lea Goldman, AARP’s Tammy Goldman, The Daily Muse’s Melissa McCreery, Tech Lady Mafia’s Erie Meyer, Startup Institute’s Christina Wallace, Google’s Anthea Watson-Strong, Dot Complicated’s Randi Zuckerberg, Make Love Not Porn’s Cindy Gallop, NASA Mohawk Guy Bobak Ferdowsi, Gui.de’s Leslie Bradshaw, Fashism’s Brooke Moreland and Ashely Granata, SXSW’s Rebecca Feferman, Mediabistro’s Laurel Touby, Tumblr’s Rick Webb and Microsoft East Coast Startup Evangelist Tereza Nemessanyi (who was also the co-host).
On my way to one of the (many) pool parties, I bumped into Airbnb founder Brian Chesky and his entourage. They were fascinated to see the stickers all over me and wanted to know what the deal was. So I told them what the deal was. “Wait, so you get paid for that?” “Yup.” I elaborated on my grand plans to have a real-time, geo-targeted, visual ad network on the tie. Minds blown😉 The Airbnb founders had famously bootstrapped their startup selling Obama O’s and Capn McCain cereal boxes. I was learning from the best.
Finally, as even a SXSW virgin knows, it’s really all about the parties. The partying starts early and continues ’til the wee hours (when everyone makes a mad scramble for one of Austin’s 270 cabs).
There was the Verizon / Mobi rooftop barbecue party. I was about to ask third-generation pitmaster and mercurial BBQ legend J. Mueller “Why no sauce?” but then thought better of it.
There was my buddy Scott (Laughing Squid) Beale‘s annual Calm Before The Storm party, where I ran into pioneering videoblogger Steve Garfield and CNET-journalist-turned-Evernote-evangelist Rafe Needleman. I caught up with Charlie Todd, founder of ImprovEverywhere. A documentary about them, We Cause Scenes, was premiering at the SXSW film festival on Sunday.
I also met Rusty Blazenhoff of Laughing Squid, Aubrey Sabala of Sailthru, actor Seth Herzog (a member of Jimmy Fallon’s late night troupe) and Echo’s Chris Saad, who gave me the skinny on his space Villa, which is apparently San Francisco’s newest, hottest entrepreneur mansion. We could use something like that in New York😉 I also met the folks behind the amazing short Cicada Princess, nominated at the festival (and funded through Kickstarter, of course).
There was the annual Dachis Group party at Cedar St .Courtyard, where I ran into folks from vacation rental giant Homeaway, which apparently is headquartered in Austin and employs over 1000 people. Who knew? They invited me to a Sunday breakfast, where I had the best Bloody Mary. I later bumped into a local Austinite buddy, Bijoy, who was recently anointed by CNN as the secular high priest of the Austin tech scene. And his hair is as crazy as mine!
There was the popular Made in NY / American Express party on the rooftop of FEED House, where it seemed as if the entire New York tech scene had teleported itself. Attendees included NYC Commissioner of Media & Entertainment Katherine Oliver, NY Tech Meetup’s Jessica Lawrence, Gust’s David Rose, Social Media Week’s Toby Daniels, Box Group’s David Tisch, NYC EIR Steve Rosenbaum, NY Times’ Nate Silver, NYC Chief Digital Officer Rachel Haot and others. A bunch of us discovered there was a roof to the roof, where we hung out with MakeLoveNotPorn’s Cindy Gallop and Gust’s Justin Stanwix and got the best views of downtown. Cindy had given an awesome talk about the future of porn which, rumor has it, was as well attended as Al Gore’s talk on the future of the world.
There was the Awesomest Journalism party (thrown by my friend Jenny 8. Lee) which was chock-full of, you guessed it, journalists and news-focused startups. I ran into Jonathan Dube (CBS), Sandeep Ayyappan and Tom Weingarten, cofounders of Delve, Vinay Jain (Shake), Shafqat Islam (Newscred) and a bunch of others.
There was the Fast Company Grill party where I met Splash co-founder Ben Hindman. I also ran into my AlleyNYC buddies Jonathan Ende, Jason Saltzman and Michael Gold. Michael was organizing a big TechDrinkup SXSW Edition event in a couple of days.
There was the amazing Booze Cruise, organized by Macallan, where a bunch of us including WeWork Labs founders Matt Shampine & Jesse Middleton, Flybridge Capital’s Dave Aronoff, TravelZoo’s David Ambrose, Trinet’s Jennifer Daniels and Jasmine Cortez, and several folks from DUMBO-based Prolific Interactive spent a wonderful, relaxing afternoon away from the madness of downtown Austin. Of course, when you combine amazing Macallan whisky with delicious macaroons (which we all got to take home) followed by a ride back in the party bus with lights flashing, music blaring, AND a pole, things can get a little … uhhh … crazy.
Late night walking down 6th street I ran into the “other” Gary, Gary Vaynerchuk, hanging out with WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh (who had brought back his Happiness party bus). Gary did office hours in Austin and hosted his secret wine party (now an annual South By tradition). The guy sure keeps busy!
There was the popular late-night scene at the (supposedly haunted!) Driskill Hotel bar, where I ran into a ton of folks including Flavorpill cofounder Mark Mangan, Twitter investor Jeff Pulver, TechCrunch’s Ryan Lawler, DFJ’s Lucas Nelson, the Roku team, Business Insider CTO Pax Dickinson, SAI’s Alyson Shontell, Mashery’s Colin McCabe, Neuaer’s Dave Mathews and many others.
Tip: While the Hilton is a better bet if you want easy access to the convention center and panels, The Driskill (if you can afford it) is THE place to stay during SXSW because of its proximity to all the parties. Walk out of The Driskill at 2am (which is when everything in Austin starts shutting down) and you will see familiar faces appear like magic everywhere on the street around you.
There was the awesome Wall Street Journal pool party where I ran into WSJ bloggers Sarah Needleman and Rubina Fillion. “We’re big fans of GarysGuide!” Why, thank you, guys! I ran into The Daily Muse’s Kathryn Minshew and her cofounder Alexandra Cavoulacos lounging in the pool. Thrillist’s Ben Lerer, Buzzfeed’s Jon Steinberg, Barbarian Group’s Benjamin Palmer, Mediabistro’s Laurel Touby, Betaworks’ Jonathan Basker, Morris+King’s Andy Morris, Shorty Awards’s Greg Galant, Wander’s Jeremy Fisher, Sonar’s Brett Martin, Fashism’s Brooke Moreland, #DominateFund’s Ben Parr and a ton of other heavy hitters were there. It was good to see Rick Webb there (after he threated to skip SXSW this year). It’s just not a party without Rick!
There was the Fashion Brain Bar at the W, organized by my friends from Projective Space, James Wahba and Lauren Zapata. I caught with my West Coast buddy Gregarious Narain (founder of YCombinator startup GetChute and previous VP Product at Klout). Also ran into Internet Week’s Caroline Waxler and Cheekd founder Lori Cheek (congrats on the recent engagement!). The W Austin, as I’ve been told many times, is the #1 place in Austin for hooking up. Good to know?
Later that afternoon, a bunch of us went to the Getty Images party, conveniently just a few floors down at the W. I caught up with my old friend Melinda Lee, who is the Deputy GM at Getty Images Music. I ran into Nathaniel McNamara & Mike Weiksner, founders of the hot social commerce startup Tip or Skip. I learned some interesting facts about the app and what makes it tick and how users earn “sway.” It’s all about curation, really, which I can relate to. Also had a nice chat with Alix Boulud of LVMH.
There was the Angry Birds Toons pool party which takes the prize for most SWAGGED-OUT party at SXSW. (And that’s saying something.)There were giant angry birds plushies everywhere, and there was even an angry bird in a giant slingshot, aimed towards the pool. (No, it was not working. Yes, we tried.) Peter Vesterbecka (the Mighty Eagle himself) was there of course, excited about the launch of the new cartoon series, Angry Birds Toons.
There was the annual GroupMe party where pretty much everyone ended up that night. I chatted with Flybridge Capital’s Caitlin Strandberg, PivotDesk‘s Efrem Weiss and Adamant Technologies‘ Sam Khamis and Artem Mikhlin. I ran into my buddy, iOS developer Pablo Quinteros, who introduced me to Dan Benjamin, founder of 5by5.tv, a popular web video and podcasting networking affectionately called ‘NPR for Geeks!’
Later, I headed over to the SHFT party with my buddy Greg Gopman (cofounder, Angelhack) and Megan Berry (cofounder, RebelMouse). There I ran into a bunch of my West Coast pals including Altimeter Group’s Brian Solis, Yammer’s Maria Ogneva and The Next Web’s Ken Yeung. Entourage star (and local Brooklyn boy) Adrian Grenier was in the house. Adrian (who cofounded brewery startup ChurchKey) is also the cofounder of SHFT with film producer Peter Glatzer.
I caught up with an old friend Jonathan, who told me he wanted to introduce me to the West Coast version of myself. It turned out to be Bravo reality TV star, Hermione Way. She pulled me close and whispered in my ear “I’m going to the Four Seasons. Come along?”
So there you have it, folks. Another amazing SXSW. I head home with literally a ton of potential deals, partnerships and followups. I’m going to cherish the new connections & friendships made, old ones re-kindled and of course the wonderful, random conversations in hotel lobbies and waiting in line for late night tacos. I love Austin. Its a wonderful, laid-back city with great weather and a penchant for keeping it weird with the friendliest people and the yummiest BBQ. I’ll be back!
But as my flight started its descent into LaGuardia and I saw familiar landmarks on the horizon, I smiled. I was now in a New York state of mind.