South by Southwest Interactive isn’t just a conference. It’s “Spring Break for geeks.” That may have started as a joke, but it couldn’t be closer to the truth. Every year, thousands and thousands of web designers, programmers, gamers, bloggers and online marketers come together for what is most probably the largest technology conference of its kind.
The conference is huge, the parties are over the top, the venue is amazing (who doesn’t love Austin?) and the people are what it’s all about.
This was the first year I was speaking at SxSWi, I had a book reading for Online Marketing Inside Out on Saturday, March 13 at 11 AM (well, a little later because the previous speaker ran into my time slot). So I was incredibly excited about going this year, but decided to take a slightly different approach.
Instead of trying to go to a lot of panels and sessions, and trying to hit all the big parties, I would just take it as it came. The last two years at SxSW seemed to fly by so quickly and it seemed like I never had time to just sit down and enjoy the company of friends or really connect with people. This year I was determined to really make the most of it.
So what follows is a daily recap of my SxSW experience (with many thanks to Foursquare for the helpful history tool!). Be forewarned… it’s long and incredibly detailed. If you’d rather skip all the minute details and just read my takeaways, you can jump to the conclusion.
We have a client in Austin, and it was actually a trip to meet with them that led me to my first SxSW in 2008. It just so happened that our client meeting and the conference were extremely close, so we got tickets to the conference. For the past two years we’ve repeated that coincidence by scheduling our meeting around the conference.
We flew into Austin pretty early, and Donna (our client) picked us up from the airport. We went to their offices for a short time and then went to Rudy’s BBQ for lunch. We stuffed ourselves, then headed back to the office to get some work done.
Went out to The Salt Lick for dinner, one of my favorite places in Austin to eat. It’s located in a dry county, but you can take a cooler filled with beer. It’s got a great atmosphere and even better Texas BBQ.
After dinner I hitched a ride to the hotel and checked in. It was 9:45 PM when I got to my room and dropped my bags, so I decided to run over to the convention center to try to get a badge. I ran past Jim Caruso in the Hilton lobby, and he walked with me to the convention center. I barely got my badge before they closed at 10, then Jim and I went to the lounge in the Hilton and had a drink. Chrispian Burks met us there and we hung out for a few before calling it a night.
I went back over to our client’s office for a while and wrapped things there, then had Mighty Fine Burgers for lunch (owned by the same folks as Rudy’s). We finished up around 4 PM and I headed to the hotel and convention center. I went up to the day stage for Darren Rowse’s book reading of the second edition of his ProBlogger book co-authored by Chris Garrett. I met up with Julie Taylor, Josh Coffee, Patrick O’Keefe, Chrispian Burks, Deb Ng, and Chris.
Someone pulled the fire alarm right in the middle of Darren’s book reading and the entire convention center was evacuated. It was a little funny how slowly people were evacuating. If there was a real fire, I think half the world’s bloggers would have been lost. When we got the all-clear, we went back to the book reading and Darren finished. After the reading, Darren and Chris had a book signing at the SxSW Bookstore. I bought another copy of Problogger Book and got them to sign it.
I went back to the room briefly and then went downstairs to meet up with Jeremy Wright and head to dinner with some friends. He was in the Hilton lounge with a few friends. I grabbed a drink and he introduced me to Loren Feldman of 1938 Media. Loren seems like a pretty cool guy, the kind of guy that’d be fun to just hang out and have a few drinks with. We threw down our drink pretty fast because we were running late and then headed to Roy’s where we met Darren Rowse, Deb, Chris, Patrick, Chrispian, and some others. The food was great, but it was a little dark.
We headed to the Driskill Hotel (that’s where all the cool kids said the party was at) and it was packed. I saw lots of cewebrities there like Gary Vaynerchuk, Robert Scoble, Brian Solis, etc. Whoohooo! (note the sarcasm). I stayed at the bar upstairs for a while but then heard a few friends were downstairs at the 1886 Cafe and Bakery. I headed down and the atmosphere was much better. We could actually hear each other talk. We stayed there for a bit then I headed back to the hotel to get some sleep because I had a book reading Saturday.
I woke up early to prepare for my book reading, and as I was going over my notes and slides I decided to completely change my talk. Instead of going through several chapters in the book giving tips and tricks, I decided to tell a few stories about our experience at 2BigFeet.com over the years. I frantically retooled my slides to be much simpler and prepared some notes for the talk at 11am.
I got to the Day Stage around 10 minutes before 11, and the presenter before me was still going strong. Book reading presentations are supposed to be 20 minutes, but the time slot is 30 minutes. This gives the AV team time to get the next presenter setup and gives the people in the audience time to get up and leave or new arrivals time to find a seat. The guy before me ran really long, cutting well into my time. At 11am, I looked at the AV folks and they said he was wrapping up. 5 minutes later, still talking. Playing videos. Talking more. 10 minutes… STILL talking. Then as he was playing a video he told us he’d take ONE question after it was over. As soon as the video stopped, he said “I’ve got time for a couple questions” and proceeded to take two, and give extremely long-winded answers.
If people came at 11am for my book reading, I can only imagine what they were thinking. Did it get cancelled? Was it already over?
He finally got off the stage, and we setup the AV and I started. I was a little worked up about going on late and the previous presenter’s lack of respect, so I stumbled a bit over the first few slides. I think it went well as soon as I got into the three stories, and my talk was even covered on HubSpot’s Internet Marketing Blog.
Immediately after the book reading, I walked over to the SxSW Bookstore (a few tables across from the Day Stage) for a book signing. I sold lots of books and met some really cool people… and some really great friends like Patrick, Josh, Julie, Chrispian, Deb and Taryn Pisaneschi were there to support me.
Then we went to Patrick O’Keefe and Twanna Hines’ core conversation, “Shameless Self Promotion Without Looking Like an @#$%^&!“. It was originally submitted as a panel with Patric, Twanna, Darren Rowse and me, but was converted to a core conversation so Darren and I just attended and participated from the audience.
We were pretty hungry after Patrick’s panel, and one of my friends James Paden and Deb Ng had never had Texas BBQ, so I took a group of friends to Rudy’s BBQ (worst bbq in texas) for some brisket and beef ribs. It was me, Josh Coffee, Julie Taylor, Deb Ng, James Paden and Chrispian Burks. We had a blast, and have photos to prove it! We had to take a couple cabs out there, but it was worth it. Next year I’m taking them to The Salt Lick though!
It took a while to get there and back, so not much was accomplished that afternoon. We had RSVP’d for the Old Timers meetup so Patrick, Jared Smtih and I headed over there. We met some great folks like Alyce Lindquist from the Silicon Valley Social Media Club and Brian O’Shaughnessy from Skype.
We left there with intentions of finding a place to eat, but had trouble getting a cab back to the convention center area. When we finally got there we saw Lucretia Pruitt and Allison Worthington in the Hilton lobby. We were all hungry, so we just decided to get something to eat in the Hilton Lounge (food by Finn & Porter). The group ended up being me, Lucretia, Allison, Patrick, Josh, Julie and Chrispian. I had a great time talking to Allison about her BlissDom conference.
From there, we tried to go to the TechKaraoke party but the line wrapped all the way around the building. One of my goals this year was to not stand in any lines… you can waste so much time waiting to get in and there are so many parties going on. Why wait to get into that one cool party? We eventually ended up at the Bellmont bar and had a great time. They had live music and the weather was great, so we stayed outside on the roof most of the time. We closed it down, then went to Jimmy Johns for a late night snack.
Got back to the hotel really late, and suddenly remembered I was going to have to be up early because Patrick and I had RSVP’d for something Sunday morning. I set my alarm and tried to get a few hours of sleep.
I had to wake up early for Social Media Breakfast… but of course slept late. I woke up at 9, and was supposed to meet Patrick in the lobby at 9:30 to grab a cab. I jumped in the shower and threw on some clothes as fast as I could. We left the hotel by cab at 9:45, got there, got some grub and sat down at a table with Deb Ng, Chris Garrett and later Dave Barger. The presentations were very interesting and I met a few people afterward. I even scored a free Skype headset they were giving away. We snagged a ride with Patrick’s friend Nathan Wright back to the hotel.
The breakfast lasted until noon, and we were pretty hungry by the time we got back to the hotel. I went to Champions for lunch with Patrick, Chrispian, Julie, Josh and Jared. After lunch I dropped by the blogger lounge and said hello to a few people. Outside the blogger lounge Patrick introduced me to Rafael Marquez of MarketingLatinos.com and he interviewed me for his blog. Then I headed to the Interactive Agency Workflow session. The session started out great, going from requirements gathering and wireframing but seemed to linger about wireframes way too long. Most of the people got up and left about halfway through.
We skipped out a few minutes early and went over to the Twitter Dating panel at the Courtyard Mariott supporting Jeremy Wright (one of the speakers). The panel was hilarious… there was lots of participation and interesting online dating stories (probably helped by the free beer).
After the panel I went back to the Hilton and met up with Joe Hamm and the usual Patrick, Julie, Josh and Chrispian and headed to dinner at Cantina Laredo. We had some awesome gourmet mexican food and then headed to Lanai for the Big Omaha party. Nathan Wright was a sponsor and we spoke to him for a moment when we got there. It wasn’t very busy at all, nice group of people until Gary Vaynerchuk announced his “secret” wine party was there (about midnight). It packed out with hundreds more people and they cranked up the music. I got a pretty bad headache and decided to call it a night… went back to the hotel and got some sleep.
I think my body was trying to tell me I needed some rest, because I woke up around 7 and felt much better. I got ready and headed to the Blogger Lounge to catch up on some email and work before the sessions. Jeremy came in and sat next to me and we caught up on our SxSW adventures to that point — I think he had much more eventful time than I had at that point! I also talked to Rohit Bhargava and Patrick about professional speaking.
For lunch, Julie wanted to find some gluen-free pizza. She’s gluten-intolerant so she’d been just eating a little of this and that wherever we went. She did some research and found a couple of pizza places in Austin, but none of them close enough to walk to. We took a cab to one of the restaurants she found but it had closed down. We were sitting in two cabs with meters running so we decided to just go to Conan’s Pizza. We original and thought they had gluten-free pizza, but it turns out they didn’t. We decided to eat there anyway, and it turned out to be a very interesting place.
After lunch, we took a few cabs back to the convention center. As Patrick and I were walking through the convention center floor, we ran into Thom Singer and had a great conversation about professional speaking. Thom is a professional speaker and spoke over 50 times last year. He is a wealth of information about speaking and presenting, so I picked his brain for a while and asked a ton of questions.
Patrick and I walked back over to the Hilton and saw Jacqui Chew, who I had met earlier (but when and where is escaping me right now). We decided to head over to the Frost Tower for Gary Vaynerchuk and Brian Solis’ joint wine tasting and book signing. I saw a lot of people there including Courtenay, Taryn, and Jim. Taryn introduced me to Stephanie Lichtenstein and Lindsay Burck.
We were getting hungry, so we decided to find a place to eat. We had a decent sized party, and went to one restaurant that wasn’t going to be able to seat us for 30-45 minutes. They recommended Sullivan’s Steak House which was right down the street, and we got a table there almost immediately. Me, Patrick, Jacqui, Jim, Julie, Josh and Chris all had dinner, and it was great. The service and food were excellent, and they got us in and out relatively quickly. After dinner, Patrick went to watch the premier of MacGruber. We all went to the TechSet party but several of us weren’t on “the list” so we couldn’t get in. Josh, Julie and Chrispian decided to call it a night.
Jim, Jacqui, and I decided to go to the Rackspace Revolutions party, since Jim and I are both customers. When we got there, Jim spotted the chairman and he and Jackie ran off to find him and take a picture with him. I hung around the bar area, and ran into several people like Robert Scoble, who is now working with RackSpace. I also bumped into James Paden, Taryn, Stephanie and several others.
Later that evening, I noticed a crowd gathering around a table. They have hired someone to hand-roll cigars. After waiting in line for about 30 minutes I finally got a hand rolled cigar. After enjoying my cigar, I met up with Taryn and Lindsay. We stayed at the party until closing, when I walked them back to Lindsay’s car. Her car was dead so we asked someone else who just left the party if they could jump start her car. They just got in the car and left. I called AAA and they sent someone out to give us a hand. After waiting about an hour, a tow truck showed up and helped us get her car started. They gave me a ride back to the Hilton and I called it a night.
I went to a few sessions about mobile development and had lunch again at Champions with Patrick, Chris, Josh and Jared Smith. After lunch we went to the Press Lounge to wait for Abby Johnson of WebProNews who had scheduled an interview with Patrick.
After their interview, she asked if I’d like to interview again (of course I would!) so I talked about my book reading a bit. Afterward, I went to one final session on mobile advertising and then went back to the hotel to work a bit. Later that evening I joined Jim, Stephanie Frost, Chris Turner and Jackui for dinner at Eddie V’s. I had Ahi Tuna (rare, of course) and it was amazing.
I decided to go back to my room and work, forgoing the closing party since I had an early flight.
I originally thought my flight back to Atlanta was at 5am, but fortunately that was when I needed to be at the airport. My flight was at 6:55 and I was joined on the flight by lots of Atlantans heading home from SxSW. I sat with Joe Hamm and Stephanie Frost waiting to board.
The Big Picture Takeaways
SxSW was epic as usual. This blog post is a testament to that. This was my third South-by and was by far the most productive. My first year I tried to attend ALL the sessions and ALL the parties. As a result, I was always running around like crazy and can barely remember who I met or what I did. Last year I took it a little easier, but still tried to go to all the parties and meet as many people as possible.
This year I just decided to go with the flow. We made dinner plans at the last minute, hung out in the halls, went to meetups, and generally just bummed around the conference. If you just looked at my schedule, you might think I completely wasted my conference pass… maybe I did. But I got more from this year at SxSW than the two previous years combined.
I spent time with great friends (including some new ones like Deb and Chris), met some truly awesome people, and made some connections that I am sure will be extremely valuable. I stuck by my original goal and didn’t wait in lines to get into a party (with the exception of a short line to have my ID checked).
The overall takeaway for me is to experience SxSW like you’d experience a great little city you’ve never been to. If you’ve never been, you don’t know all the cool places to go see, you just go exploring, meeting people as you go. Not only is it much more fun, but I think you get a lot more out of it that way.
People that Made SxSW Rawk
I met literally hundreds of people at SxSW. I had great conversations, learned a lot, and really had a great time. But there were some people who really stood out and helped made SxSW 2010 really special. In no particular order…
- Patrick O’Keefe
- Chrispian Burks
- Josh Coffee
- Julie Taylor
- Jeremy Wright
- Jim Caruso
- Stephanie Frost
- Darren Rowse
- Chris Garrett
- Jacqui Chew
- Taryn Pisaneschi
- Thom Singer