This year saw the 30th anniversary of the influential South by Southwest (SXSW) digital festival in Austin, Texas, and in those three decades the world has undoubtedly been changed by things that have happened there.
There are music and film aspects of the festival, but SXSW Interactive is the focus of this article, concentrating on technology and what the future possibly brings.
In Austin, startups and evergreen brands mingle like oil in a stream. Nobody really knows anybody because of the huge amounts of people there and some would say it takes 30 years of attending to finally understand how to ‘do’ SXSW.
The figures are astonishing. SXSW says that in 2015 it ‘injected $317.2 million into the Austin economy’ and this year there were more than 72,000 attendees in what, by American standards, is a small city. It can be pandemonium at times.
There are obvious comparisons with the UK’s Glastonbury festival, but Austin is a world apart from the local Glastonbury town of Pilton. Another more relevant comparison would be Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, with one major difference.
While the numbers are reasonably similar, there were 101,000 registrants at this year’s MWC, you are more likely to randomly meet an antenna salesman in Barcelona, whereas in Austin it might be a famous movie director or one of the biggest investors in Silicon Valley.
Others disagree with the idea of SXSW being an important event and describe it as showcasing the worst excesses of Silicon Valley, a 10-day bubble where companies throw money at parties as readily as a suicide onto a pavement.
They have a point, competition is so strong to get people to attend exhibitions, sessions and parties (especially the latter) that money sometimes does seem no object. Even in the months leading up to SXSW, there are invitations to events that that begin in October and end in March.
Some would also say these are ‘first world problems’. Choosing which party with free food and drink to go to is probably not on the minds of people in the European migrant crisis, but is crucial for startups looking for smart investors… and investors looking for smart startups.
There are certainly ways to make navigation of the event easier. Picking up registration badges on the first day of the show is a fool’s errand. Much better to leave the pre-event dinner or party to pick a badge on the evening before when nobody is about.
Moreover, it is good policy to find a particular hotel lobby to meet people the whole time while there; meeting in the cavernous conference space itself is not advised; avoid the Austin catacombs.
The JW Marriott Courtyard has a great bar and space, and people don’t have to shout to make themselves heard. The real parties go on over on 6th Street, so best to do the serious meetings at the hotel and then move over to 6th a little later.
So, who won SXSW this year?
There was one overall winner and that was Snapchat. Everywhere and on nearly every session, the chat network was discussed and held up as the company of the future.
Everybody wanted a ticket to that particular party and there were many startups describing their product as the ‘Snapchat of enterprise’ or the ‘Snapchat of ticketing’. The company was ubiquitous.
It was when digital natives and startups compare their product with a company such as Snapchat that the community knows that the tipping point has been passed. Over the last two years or so, Uber has held that crown. The ‘Uber of this and that’ used to be as predominant as Snapchat was this year.
For Uber, not only has that handy moniker seemed to have passed, it was also overtaken at SXSW by one of its rivals.
Official taxi partner to SXSW, Lyft was another company that was widely spoken of. At an event such as SXSW, it is vital to have as many taxi apps on a smartphone as possible due to the demand for rides.
In this respect, Lyft was a true winner. Nobody that I knew ordered an Uber while at SXSW and the service, apparently, from Lyft was beyond surge pricing and positioned itself as real future rival to Uber.
In recent months it has made intelligent decisions in the global partners it has chosen. First there was a deal with Starbucks, where free rides now come with regular coffee-drinking as well as free coffees.
Then it has been especially smart in working with General Motors (one for the long tail, that one) and also with many ride-sharing companies, not least with China’s Didi Kuadi.
Naturally, it is a long journey to come anywhere near Uber as the sector leader, but it is a destination (as it showed as SXSW) that is not an impossible peregrination.
While Lyft and Snapchat stole the show, there was more than enough space to go around. Some of the companies on show over the accelerator weekend were certainly ones for the future.
In the VR section, Grand Prix winner Israeli company Splash made a huge, ahem, splash and actually opened its pitch as the ‘Snapchat of VR’, while Vantage.tv walked away with the Most Innovative Company award.
Parknav took the prize in Entertainment and Smart Data, Murgency won the Health and Wearable award, while Chroma cleaned up in Payment and FinTech.
While these companies may be unrecognisable at this time, they are certainly the Snapchats and Lyfts of the future… if they handle the next stage of their company’s acceleration correctly.
Another aspect of the tech section of SXSW is the gradual crossover with the music and film festivals, where tech really does meet entertainment. On 6th Street, the talent on show at bars is extraordinary. If you want to see somebody play Voodoo Chile better than Jimi Hendrix, this is the place.
While Snapchat and Lyft did take the show, there were literally hundreds of other winners and it is worth reading a lot of the post-SXSW articles to find as many different opinions as possible.
On another level and away from technology, the band that I thought were absolutely brilliant played excellent local venue Antone’s and it wasn’t the main act White Denim, which I love.
It was the support band Sweet Spirit. They’re one for the future and if they’re touring Europe this summer, I implore you to go and see them, even better than Snapchat or Lyft.
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