SXSW From 1998 To 2012: A Local Perspective

March 20, 2012

12:04 pm

I went to my first SXSW when I was 17, using my sister’s badge to catch a glimpse of Janeane Garofolo at Emos in Austin. You can watch that SXSW described by then-musician Fred Armisen here.

The conference has come a very long way since then. Originally a ploy by Austin bars to stay full during UT’s spring break, SXSW has become a mega-event, with an Interactive component larger than its music and film festival combined. The raw numbers are staggering:

  • 24,569 Interactive attendees
  • 2100 panels + parties
  • 900 film screenings
  • 2000 bands performing
  • Its own 2 day TED
  • Its own Startup Accelerator, judged by our own Tim Draper & Blair Garrou and emceed by MC Hammer

Every year folks look for the breakout SXSW hit. Previous winners include Twitter and Foursquare. This year was different.

“It” has grown: Part of the challenge of describing this year’s conference is the number of topics attendees were caring about. “It” now includes gamification, digital content distribution, social media, information sharing, big data, online advertising, 3D printers, and using all of the above to power non-profits. Although Highlight looked poised to capture the SXSW imagination, the reality of real-world cell phone battery limitations and coverage made the tool more annoying than useful. Instead of a specific product or application, my big take-away was around the theme of mainstream adoption of startup ideas.

“It” has become extremely powerful: Longtime SXSW mainstay Electronic Frontier Foundation listed out a long string of victories over the past year. Wins included defeating the RIAA’s SOPA initiative, pushing for voluntary standards in personalized advertising data and data privacy disclosures. The next big war will be over software patents, fueled by Yahoo’s decision to turn the cold patent war into a hot one. To a person, practically every major patent holder has made it clear that the current system is broken, with major legislative surgery as the only possible solution. The consensus pick is to move software IP protection from patents back to copyright of source code.

The Mainstream finally gets “It”: Talk about mainstream! Al Gore, Rick Perry, and Obama for America all took turns trying to woo the SXSW crowd. Arguably the biggest buzz came from American Express, GE, the major record labels, Chevy and a score of other brands making major announcements and unveiling new internet and social driven products.

SXSW felt more like a victory party than a technology conference. In previous years we had technology companies hamstrung by fickle content providers and reluctant advertisers pleading their case for why they  were the future. This year we had the “powers that be” pleading their case to the technorati on why they were still relevant. This concept was best encapsulated by the persistent rumor that media mainstay CNN was negotiating the purchase of web blog Mashable for $200M on the sidelines of the conference. It was bookended by the announcement that Britannica was shutting down its printing press after 244 continuous years.

“Its” All About Design: Even the nature of the technology panels felt different. Rather than have companies like Microsoft walk through technical demonstrations of new products, we had scores of design panels focused on consumer use-cases and UX. Attendees weren’t focused on what technology can do, but how it can do it better, more mobile, and more social with more contextual data.

With all of that said, the real power of SXSW wasn’t in the panels or public announcements (although my panel with Frank Gruber of Tech Cocktail, David Cohen of TechStars and Gabriella Draney of Tech Wildcatters about Accelerator Programs was an interesting hit), but the private meetings and parties. The uber-private Monks of Invention brought over 100 technology VIPs together to chart the future of the web, while private werewolf games at the Hilton ran until sunrise. An ad-hoc party at an abandoned Hilton ballroom on Monday night had me moderate between two public CEOs planning their next startup together.

I can’t wait to do it all over again next year, and I hope more of you can come to  Texas.

Image credit: James Buchan

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Aziz Gilani is a Director at DFJ Mercury. He has significant experience as an operator, consultant, and investor in technology companies, with a particular focus on enterprise and consumer software. You can follow Aziz on Twitter at: @TexasVC

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