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My Last SXSW

my last sxsw

Editor’s note: In her essay “It Is Never Too Late to Change Everything,” released this week as part of TheLi.st Kindle Serial The 10 Habits of Highly Successful Women, Leslie Bradshaw uses candor and humor to break down how difficult it can be to build and scale a company, while also landing large clients and managing massive digital campaigns. She was one of the earliest supporters of Tech Cocktail, and we wanted to share this timely excerpt about SXSW and how it can change your life.

Whether you are an entrepreneur looking to responsibly leave the company you helped build, or living in a situation that is negatively impacting your well-being, or just in need of some change in your life, I promise you that my story has something instructive and inspiring in it for you.

Starting at the age of 24, I helped turn a talented designer’s web design and branding “side-business” into a full-fledged creative agency. The year I turned thirty (2012), we were named “Small Agency of the Year” in the southeast region by AdAge, and my talented designer partner and I were named to Inc. Magazine’s “30 Under 30” list.

Why leave something you built and someone you loved? Because they darned near killed me. It sounds hyperbolic to say, but stress and depression are real things that can rob you of life (even if you still technically have a pulse). Running a virtual, “multinational” company exhausted me and stressed me out. The differing approaches that my former partner and I had was as upsetting as it was depressing; he was the creative genius and lone wolf, I was the pragmatic businesswoman who grew up playing team sports. Never the two shall meet. The “Sisyphian” task of trying to make every single stakeholder happy – from clients, to team members, to Jesse – was so frustrating that I felt defeated and deflated more often than not.

All told, it took me four years to recognize, accept, and finally take decisive action. But the real turning point occurred during SXSW 2012.

Like many in the technology industry, I have a love-hate relationship with South by Southwest (SXSW). We all love it because it brings together so many friends and movers and shakers in one place (and a cool, funky, weird one at that). We also love it for the keynotes and the occasionally stellar panel, provided you can get a spot in line early enough to enjoy them. But when it comes to the reasons I particularly hated it that year, mine were not quality-of-content, unbearably-long-line, lodging challenges, or hangover-related. No, they were entirely connected to the stress, anxiety, uncertainty, urgency, and immediacy of having to manage, curate, and visualize data on gigantic screens for paying clients.

When I landed in Austin on the eve of the SXSW Interactive Festival in 2012, it was raining and unseasonably cold for mid-March in Texas. My team was already boots on the ground, setting up for our client (a large tech brand hired us to visualize social data on enormous monitors in the main convention center), so I stood alone at the baggage carousel until it stopped moving. Despite being on time for my flight, the airline had managed to lose my oversized, zebra-striped suitcase on a direct flight from Baltimore. Yes, I said direct. And yes, my luggage was unforgettably zebra-striped. A customer service team member assured me that they would “send it to my hotel when it came in.” OK. That worked. Next, I needed to get a cab. Once outside, I saw what appeared to be a cab line that was wrapping back around itself.

I took a deep breath and got into line. No bag, rain splattering at my feet. It was in this moment that I muttered to myself, “Could this day get any worse?” And, of course, when you say things like this, it is as if you are tempting the universe to answer your snarky attitude with an emphatic YES.

That’s when the text messages started hitting my phone. To say my phone was “blowing up” would be an understatement. I was ready for the thing to have smoke billowing out of it, the text messages were coming in so fast. My heart rate quickened with every buzz. Nothing was going right on site, and I was hearing it from every direction.

In that bag-less, cab-line-for-days, text-message-fireball moment, two things became so clear to me that I nearly jogged the whole way to the Austin Convention Center.

First, there was nothing I could do to calm the barrage of text messages . . . except maybe go get some Tex-Mex for the team. While I couldn’t get involved in the behind-schedule project directly, I could bring the team Torchy’s Tacos. And guacamole. And queso. And chips. And caffeinated sugar drinks. And give them smiles and support. As soon as I got into my cab, I had the directions pulled up, and the driver and I rushed over to 311 South First Street as fast as we could within the law. One hundred and fifty dollars later, I was loading what felt like a few hundred pounds of beans, meat, tortillas, chips, macerated avocados, melted cheese, salsa, and sugar water into my patiently waiting cab.

Second, this would be my last SXSW under these conditions. Like a valiant bull rider, I held on for my eight-second ride once (2011). And then twice (2012). And there was nothing left to prove. Not to mix metaphors here, but I was ready for my jersey to be hung from the rafters.

After delivering the tacos to the team and scarfing down some myself, I doused as many “fireballs” that were flying at my team as possible, and then headed to my hotel only to find out that—wait for it . . . wait for it . . . —they gave my room away. Remember how I wondered if things could get any worse? Well, consider the hotel room being given away my rock-bottom moment.

Then the rain broke. And they found me a room. And my luggage arrived. And my cousin, who lives in Austin with his wife, texted to let me know that they had just given birth to a son. I hopped in a cab, and I went and stayed with them for what felt like hours. The experience was so life-affirming. And family-affirming. And relationship-affirming. To meet my little cousin Luke. And to see his parents love each other and love him with every ounce of their being.

Waiting at the hospital for a ride back to the Convention, I had another burst of clarity and came to a third conclusion right then and there: I was done living the way I was living – the stress, the unhealthy lifestyle, and endless days that became endless years that were only getting worse. That’s when my inner planner kicked into gear. What did my playbook look like and how did I execute against it? Read the full story here.

Leslie Bradshaw (@lesliebradshaw) is a seasoned marketer with experience building and scaling companies. Recognized as one of the pioneers of data-driven visual storytelling for brands, Bradshaw has been a trusted strategist for Intel, Nike, Google, C-SPAN, and Pfizer since her early twenties. Recently named one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business, Bradshaw also serves as a Fellow at the US Chamber of Commerce’s Emerging Issues Foundation.

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