Gary Sharma’s SXSW 2012 Highlights: Jay-Z, Leo DiCaprio, Pool Parties, Grilled Cheese Eating Contests & More

This is a guest post from Gary Sharma (aka “The Guy with the Red Tie”), Founder & CEO of GarysGuide

Storyful's Erica Berger, ABC News' Maya Baratz, The Today Show's Rina Raphael and Fashism's Ashley Granata & Brooke Moreland hanging out at TheDaily's now epic Pool Party @ SXSW 2012. (Photo: Nick McGlynn)

This is a guest post from Gary Sharma (aka “The Guy with the Red Tie”), Founder & 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 follow him at @garysguide and reach him at

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“So, how do I score tix to the Jay-Z/Amex concert?!”

Yeah, that may well have been the single most-heard phrase at SXSW this year. In addition, of course, to “What’s a great badgeless party to go to tonite?”, “Can I borrow your Mophie?”, “Whats up with all this rain?”, “Just go with the flow, dude!”, “So, who’s hangin’ at the Driskill later?”, “I lost my _____!” and the ever popular “Wanna check out my new iPhone app?”

SXSW 2012 opened with crazy expectations, crazy amount of people (rumored to be over 30k for the interactive portion) and even crazier weather (srsly, Austin, rainy and cold?) But the weather soon changed to warm and sunny and everything mashed together to become one giant rollercoaster of parties, people, apps, marketing stunts, long lines, free food, fire dancers, business cards, party buses, taco trucks, drunken tweets, celebrity sightings, old friends, new friends, bbq, deals, hookups, checkins, random conversations, acquisition rumors and much, much more.

Thats right. Spring Break for Geeks was underway! Hop on or get outta the way! 😉

First off, thanks to everyone who reached out to me regarding sponsoring my Red Tie @ SXSW. I’m flattered & humbled by the overwhelming response! A big thank you to the social-polling-viral-voting mobile app BuzzVote for becoming my exclusive SXSW Red Tie sponsor and to InkBa (Airbnb for Ad Spaces) and ShoutEm (Mobile App Maker) for sponsoring the overflow spaces on my black suit. You guys all rock!

Gary's Famous (and Sponsored) Red Tie!
Gary's Famous (and Sponsored) Red Tie!

This was my first time at SXSW (and Texas in general!) I reached there a day early and arrived at the convention center to pick up my badge. There was already a small line forming. At 11 a.m. they opened up the ticketing counters and the first guy in line picked up his badge. The crowd hollered & cheered. Almost felt like an iPhone launch event. Welcome to SXSW!

The Hottest Ticket In Town
That would be the aforementioned Jay-Z concert at Austin City Limits Live on Monday where he teamed up with American Express to help promote their new Twitter-based discounts program. In the words of foursquare cofounder & CEO (and SXSW tech god) Dennis Crowley: “Soooo I met Jay-Z last night before his SXSW show. Coolest mf’er on the planet.” Couldn’t have said it better myself! 🙂 So how hot was this ticket? Well, rumor has it that one fan reportedly offered up to $1,000 for two tickets on Zaarly! Here’s the live-stream of the event on YouTube.

My two favorite hustlers, GaryVee and Jay-Z, posing before the Amex concert
My two favorite hustlers, GaryVee and Jay-Z, posing before the Amex concert

The Marketing & PR Stunts
As always, there was no shortage of marketing or PR stunts this year. Chevy offered free rides around downtown in their Chevy Cruze and had battery recharging stations everywhere, HootSuite had a giant owl-shaped-bus a.k.a. the HootBus that shot HootSwag to passersby. Foursquare brought back their popular foursquare court, Uber had Pedicabs, GroupMe was handing out free ponchos to keep the rain at bay, CanWeNetwork had a party bus, Skype had a Town Crier walking around reading tweets out loud, Highlight had their staff going around offering food and drinks in modified shopping carts and HBO was offering bike rentals to promote their new show, The Girls. There was a guy in red underwear over an electric green bodysuit with a sign saying “Hug the Grinch”. And then there were people people dressed like pigs and birds and even big, blue slices of bread!

The popular foursquare court was back again this year
The popular foursquare court was back again this year

The HootSuite HootBus!
The HootSwag Hurling HootSuite HootBus!

Among the more memorable ones was RecordSetter & GroupMe’s grilled cheese eating contest that was won handily by Japanese competitive eating champion (and familiar face around Coney Island come 4th of July) Takeru Kobayashi with 13 sandwiches in under a minute, despite a game attempt by TechStars New York chief David Tisch.

Go, Kobayashi, Go! Breaking the Grilled Cheese sandwich eating record with GroupMe and RecordSetter
Go, Kobayashi, Go! Breaking the Grilled Cheese sandwich eating record with GroupMe and RecordSetter

But the stunt that ended up being the most controversial was the Homeless Hotspots, a marketing campaign / charitable experiment by BBH Labs, in partnership with Front Steps, an Austin based homeless shelter which gave a bunch of real, homeless people Verizon MiFis and t-shirts that read “Hi, my name is _____, I am a 4G hotspot, SMS HH _____ TO 25827 for access” and a suggested donation of $2 for 15 mins. The money would go to the homeless person manning the hotspot. Call it brilliant or despicable, it certainly succeeded in garnering a lot of media attention.

The Free Food & Drinks
What with GroupMe’s Grilled Cheese sandwiches encore, Conduit Corner’s amazing gourmet Mac ‘n Cheese and Oreo Sundaes, SquareSpace’s Tacos & Burgers, Mashable’s Empanada bus, The Today Show’s Munchie Mobile and CNN & Fast Company’s branded grill restaurants, one was never really short on options on where to score some free food. Not to mention free booze literally around every corner! But my fave would have to be taking a half hour bus ride out of town with Saul Colt & the Freshbooks team and around 120 other peeps including the lovely Erin Tao of Aviary, Mariya Yao of Zoku and Amy Wu of Insight Venture Partners on a crazy, cold rainy evening to the Salt Lick Ranch for hands-down some of the most amazing BBQ ribs ‘n brisket you will ever find on this planet. Delicioso!

'How To Be Black' Author Baratunde Thurston with the Today Show's Vidya Rao at the Munchie Mobile
'How To Be Black' Author Baratunde Thurston with the Today Show's Vidya Rao at the Munchie Mobile

The Panels & Keynotes
Lets face it. SXSW is not really about the panels. But there were definitely a few awesome keynotes and fireside chats that stood out and got audiences buzzing.

There was Arrested Development’s Jeffrey Tambour teaching an acting class (oh I’d so pay to learn this!). There was Revolution CEO (and Aol Founder) Steve Case expounding on how fast-growing startups (and not small businesses or Fortune 500s) are the greatest source of job creation (yes!). There was WolframAlpha’s Steven Wolfram blowing audiences’ minds as only he can. There was How To Be Black author Baratunde Thurston (also digital director of The Onion) explaining how satire and technology have become pervasive components of revolutions.

There was late night talk show host Jimmy Fallon hosting a fitness panel and pimping Nike’s new FuelBand thing. “And that is why 12-year-old boys have higher Fuel levels” Fallon dead-panned even as he shook his wrist up and down emphatically to boost his Fuel score. (Groan!) There was Governor Rick Perry @ CNN Grill who promised to remember the third thing next time, and assured us that poor debaters can make great politicians. The crowd tittered. Mr. Perry may not be presidential but he sure gets laughs.

There was Google’s Vic Gundotra artfully dodging the growing perception of Google+ as a ghost town. And finally there was Sean “you-know-whats-cool?” Parker proclaiming January’s SOPA protests as our own version of the Arab Spring—a.k.a. Nerd Spring (yeah right, I can see that name sticking)—and Al Gore talking about using the power of the internet to fix democracy and exhorting the crowd to “occupy democracy.”

Al Gore and Sean Parker fireside chat
Al Gore and Sean Parker fireside chat

The Breakout Apps
Unlike past years when Twitter and Foursquare had their coming-out parties, this year’s festival didn’t really have a breakout app. And it’s understandable cuz as SXSW has grown in size, the noise has become deafening and its become increasingly hard to stand out. But Highlight, the new ambient, location-sharing app, does take the prize for generating a lot of buzz poth pre-SXSW and at the festival itself with people talking and arguing about its respective merits and drawbacks.

To be honest, I didn’t really end up using it that much—some for preserving battery reasons, but also for avoiding FOMO. If I’m having an awesome conversation with someone, did I really wanna be notified that someone potentially more awesome was down the street? Not really. SXSW is all about being in the moment. I’m actually more bullish on Highlight in non-SXSW type situations. Earlier yesterday morning, while cooling my heels at Atlanta airport waiting for my flight to NYC, I got a Highlight ping from Gizmodo editor Joe Brown, who was also at the airport, to see if I wanted to meet up. That, to me, could very well be the sweet spot for apps such as Highlight, Sonar, Glancee and others.

Highlight Founder/CEO Paul Davison and team

While location-based apps may have gotten all the attention there were a few other apps & services which also flourished at the festival including Eventbrite (which powered a large number of the events & parties posted), AirBnb (which saved the day when all the hotels & motels were sold out everywhere!) and Zaarly.

There were the SXSWi award winners—Pinterest (Breakout Digital Trend), Lego’s iOS app Life of George (Amusement) and Facebook-stalker video-maker Take This Lollipop (Best in Show). And then there was Nike which essentially turned an actual building into a music app that looked sorta like its Fuel wristband with the same colored lights and ability to track energy levels.

The Parties
And finally, as even a SXSW virgin knows, its really all about the parties! 😉 As expected it was another big, badgeless year where an increasing number of attendees chose to skip the panels and getting a badge altogether and just focused on the parties & networking instead. The parties (and drinking) started at 11 a.m. in the morning and continued till the wee hours of the night (which is when everyone starts scrambling around for cabs). So which parties did I go to?

There was the Pre-SXSW Calm Before The Storm party @ Ginger Man where I hung out with my good friend Scott Beale (aka Laughing Squid), I Can Haz Cheezburger’s Ben Huh, the @Photo guy ‘n others.

There was GroupMe’s Major Rager @ Cedar Street Courtyard where we all partied hard and got hammered and took pics which hopefully shall never ever be seen on the internets! I chatted with the lovely Dunja about her mobile app JukeMob and her experience taking part in the SXSW Startup Bus competition (10 buses/cities, 300 participants, 1 winner: Cerealize – a revolutionary subscription service that allows you to build your own custom cereal!).

There was the Don’t Mess With The Internets Party @ Conduit Corner with the likes of NY Tech Meetup Chairman Andrew Rasiej, Reddit CoFounder Alexis Ohanian, social researcher Dana Boyd, GirlDevelopIt‘s Sara Chipps and others in attendance exhorting the crowd to keep fighting the good fight to protect the internet. (Btw, kudos to Emily Gannett (IRL Productions) and Andy Morris (Morris+King) for the amazing Conduit Corner. It literally became my home-away-from-home and early-evening-hangout-central-before-the-parties during SXSW. And not to mention their hustling to get 2,000 umbrellas overnighted and a massive, big top-style tent when the rain threatened to ruin it all.)

Reddit CoFounder Alexis Ohanian at the 'Don't Mess With The Internet' event at Conduit Corner
Reddit CoFounder Alexis Ohanian at the 'Don't Mess With The Internet' event at Conduit Corner

There was the SoundCloud Party where I ran into videoblogging pioneer Steve Garfield and Teleportd Founder/CEO Gabriel Hubert and we chatted in the hallway about the future of photo/video sharing.

There was the late night scene @ the (supposedly haunted!) Driskill Hotel Bar. Not a party per se but this really was the place to see and be seen and I ended up hanging out with folks such as Movable Ink’s Vivek Sharma, Aol Ventures’ Andrea Hong, GroupMe’s Steve Cheney, Brooklyn Bridge Ventures’ Charlie O’Donnell, Flavorpill’s Sascha Lewis, Kohort’s Mark Davis, Women in Wireless’ Veronika Sonsev, Revision3’s Jay Adelson and others. (yes, as you’ve noticed, NYC was well represented at SXSW!)

There was the Y-Combinator Saloon @ Coyote Ugly where I downed copious amounts of Shiner Bock whilst chatting with YC Alum OLark Founder/CEO (and party host) Ben Congleton about where customer service on the web was headed and, among other things, how more startups should be bootstrapping instead of rushing to take VC funding.

There was the ultra hip Dachis Party @ the W which had Star Wars Storm Troopers wandering around and an actual bubble (yes, we all crawled inside it to see what it felt like 😉 ) A pretty, young thing whispered in my year that the W bar was the #1 place in Austin for hooking up. (ahem) (cough)

There was the Warby Parker Citizens Circus @ French Legation Museum featuring trapeze artists, song belters, victorian vaudeville and burlesque performances.

Warby Parker Citizens Circus
Warby Parker Citizens Circus

There was the RackSpace Party where uber-blogger and startup-hotness-predictor Robert Scoble was shaking a leg on the dance floor. I bumped into the lovely Emily Meithner from RecordSetter and MiniDates’ Beverly May who was carrying a printed copy of our SXSW Party Guide!

There was the always happening CNN Grill where I ran into everyone from ChangeTheRatio’s Rachel Sklar, WetPaint CEO Ben Elowitz, Ex-Mashable scribe Ben Parr, the lovely Niamh Hughes from Folio, Bubblicious’ Ken Yeung, Time Magazine’s Jen Nedeau, the folks from MakerBot and others.

There was the Ignite Party @ Molotov where I networked with a bunch of agency peeps and we talked about the future of social media whilst we all recharged our iPhones & Droids.

There was the Aol Ventures’s party where I chatted with Fondu CEO Gauri Manglik and Softbank Capital’s Nikhil Kalghatgi and ran into Trace Cohen who explained how his dad (NY Angels Chairman and The Red Tie Affair supporter) Brian Cohen became the first investor in the hot new startup sensation, Pinterest.

There was my friend Jenny 8. Lee’s The Awesomest Journalism Party Ever where a hot girl whispered the even hotter rumor of CNN acquiring Mashable in my ear (a full 24 hrs before Reuters’ Felix Salmon broke it, doggone it). And later chatted with current Y Combinator grad & Chute CEO/Founder, Gregarious Narain and Storify CEO/CoFounder Xavier Damman.

There was the ServerBeach GeekyBeach party @ the Roial Rooftop which lived up to its promise of bouncing beach balls and girls in bikinis everywhere!

There was Gary Vaynerchuk’s #Secret_Wine_Party (now a SXSW tradition) which literally had lines running around the block.

There was the gdgt party @ Austin Music Hall with Peter Rojas and Ryan Block. I got to play around with TechStars Boulder startup Orbotix’s Sphero which is super cool. Definitely want! The Sphero team is planning to open up its API to developers and organize hackathons soon. Stay tuned for more info.

There was TheDaily’s now epic Pool Party @ the Ashton Austin Rooftop where clothes & inhibitions were shed in rapid succession. 😉 Lounging by the pool were Thrillist’s Ben Lerer, Storyful’s Erica Berger, TheDaily’s Justin Silverman, The Today Show’s Rina Raphael, ABC News’ Maya Baratz, Fashism’s Brooke Moreland & Ashley Granata, The Daily Muse’s Kathryn Minshew, The Next Web’s Courtney Boyd Myers, Google’s Caroline McCarthy, BrewPR’s Brooke Hammerling, RecordSetter’s Dan Rollman, Morris+King’s Andy Morris, IRL Productions’ Emily Gannett (who organized the event) and a bunch of other hot young things.

Attempting the world record for 'Most People to Karate Chop into a Pool'!
Attempting the world record for 'Most People to Karate Chop into a Pool'!

There was, of course, the Made-In-NY Party @ Fast Company Grill where it seemed as if the entire New York tech scene had transported itself to with Gust’s David Rose & NYTM’s Jessica Lawrence (who were the party hosts), AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, NYC Chief Digital Officer Rachel Sterne, Gregory Galant of Shorty Awards (which is coming up soon), Recently appointed RTP Ventures Director Jalak Jobanputra, Pond5 CEO Tom Bennett, Sonar’s Brett Martin,’s Reece Pacheco, MakeLoveNotPorn’s always-awesome Cindy Gallop, Columbia Venture Lab’s David Lerner, Wanderfly’s Cezary Pietrzak, NY Tech Meetup’s Nate Westheimer, Mediabistro’s Laurel Tobey, Time Warner Investments’ Allison Goldberg and many more.

NYC Chief Digital Officer Rachel Sterne with NY Tech Meetup's Jessica Lawrence at the Made In NY event
NYC Chief Digital Officer Rachel Sterne with NY Tech Meetup's Jessica Lawrence at the Made In NY event

I ran into General Assembly CoFounder Matt O. Brimer who confirmed growing speculation that GA would be setting up shop in Austin sometime next year. Also ran into FlavorPill CEO Mark Mangan who I hadn’t seen since the RaiseCache fashion show back in November. We made plans to re-connect again in NYC soon. In fact, in between all the hipster line dancing, getting tattly’d, and munching on NY hot dogs, the phrase I kept overhearing again and again was “Haven’t seen ya in ages in NYC. Great to finally catch up … in Austin!”

And finally there was the ultra-VIP Mobli 2.0 launch party where the lovely Chi Zhao (Morris+King), Kathryn Minshew (The Daily Muse) and I rubbed shoulders (literally) with Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey ‘Spiderman’ Maguire (who is co-starring with Leo in the upcoming Great Gatsby), Kevin ‘E from Entourage’ Connolly, Jared Leto and Lukas Haas. Leo of course is an investor in photo-sharing app Mobli and Kevin confirmed that he’d put a bit of money in it too. Ashton may have started the trend and Justin and Leo may have latched on fast but something tells me that Hollywood is just getting started with this whole ‘invest-in-silicon-valley-startups’ thing!

Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire
Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire at the Mobli Launch Party

It’s a wrap
But in the end, the real draw of SXSW was not the panels or the food or the booze or the swag or the apps or even the parties (amazing as they were). It was, quite simply, the people and the random, impromptu chats and conversations one had while lounging at a hotel lobby, going up an elevator, waiting in line for tacos or walking down a hallway to a panel. That’s whats really at the heart and soul of it all.

And so ends SXSW 2012. Or rather the interactive portion, as the lanyard-sporting-wannabe-tech-rockstars make way for the dreadlocks-sporting-wannabe-music-rocktars. Yes SXSW has gotten bigger, more marketing-driven, more noise, too many people, too many apps, too many PR stunts, less intimate, jumped the shark, yada yada yada… But you know what? In the end it was as epic and crazy and awesome and amazing and inspiring as I imagined it to be. And I can’t wait for SXSW 2013. And this time I’ll remember to book my hotel room 10 months in advance. 😉 Hasta la vista, SXSW & Austin. I’ll be back.

Until next year, stay thirsty social, my friends!

PS. It can’t be easy to have a horde of geeks descending on ur little town every march, clogging ur traffic and crowding ur bars. But Austinites are famous for being warm, open, friendly and a penchant for “keeping it weird.” 😉 And they lived up to their reputation of being amazing hosts. A shout-out to all my new Austin BFF peeps including the lovely Rachel, Nicola, Ashleigh, Cassie, Ricky, Taylor, Bijoy, Melissa, Carlos, Courtney, Leslie, Marguerite, Cecilia, Alex, Manuel, Honey & Optimus!

Gary Sharma’s SXSW 2012 Highlights: Jay-Z, Leo DiCaprio, Pool Parties, Grilled Cheese Eating Contests & More