“Stay Weird” and Other Lessons from #SXSW
I went to SXSW this year. It pretty much rocked my world.
It was my first time to South by Southwest, the 10-day festival that has been bringing together a combination of music, film, startup, social impact, tech, and interactive media sessions since 1987. I was there to speak about social entrepreneurship, mentor, attend, connect, and meet unique, passion-drive people from around the globe and around Austin. Though there for just the first few days, SXSW — or “South by,” as it’s referred to by seasoned festival-goers and Austinites — proved to be an immersive experience not only embodying the culture of an incredible city but also cross-pollinating the quirky-creative-progressive vibe of Austin.
Here are a few lessons from SXSW I learned from my 2017 experience.
If you go to Austin you will likely run into “Keep Austin Weird” stickers, logos, hashtags, etc. It’s a slogan, an anthem, and a call to action. (an interesting aside, it seems that the original creators of “keepaustinweird.com” lost out on the trademark to the slogan…an interesting tale explained more here). The original intent behind the phrase was to “counter Austin’s descent into rampant commercialism and over-development” but over time it has evolved to become a badge of individuality, creativity, and community.
The lesson here is to not only identify the “other,” “counter,” “unique” aspects of our work or brand, but to find ways to lean into and celebrate it. For social entrepreneurs, building a business that prioritizes impact and a bottom line, can sometimes put us out of sync with traditional business and non-profit communities. But, it is that precise distinction that should be valued, championed, and developed.
Ultimately, what is weird about us and our work, is what makes us unique — and findable amid the noise of media. If we can find a niche of users, clients, investors to support our vision and work, we don’t need to ‘fit in’ but can be more easily seen and recognized by standing out.
Experience over Handshakes
SXSW is an alternative universe where experiences are just around the corner, at an interactive lounge down the hall, or at the next happy hour. Some of the most meaningful conversations happened with folks I met after they reached out via the SXSW app or vice versa, at a session, or while shuttling to and from venues via local car-share app “Fasten”.
Where many events like this are built around the customary exchange of business details, at SXSW there is a premium on having a meaningful experience together. The length of the event — 10 days — admittedly facilitates organic and planned experiences.
In 2 days, I met with an impact investor, connected with CEO of a DC-based nonprofit social enterprise; engaged a new friend and documentarian to informally cover my talk; reconnected with friends from college, a recent fellowship, past podcast episodes; had one of the most ‘real’ conversations with a fellow female social enterprise founder about what it takes to actually scale and grow an impact-driven business…and even sighted a few celebrities to boot. I connected with teachers who purchased my book in hopes it could help their entrepreneurial high school students further their work and had some incredible discussions with mission-aligned leaders in New York and Washington D.C. about hosting Impactathon sessions in those cities.
These experiences, a small snapshot of what is possible in a multi-day event, provided fodder for reflection, inspiration, and clarity. With each of these connections, we had a moment in a place where people think bigger and make the impossible yesterday’s news.
It made me re-think how I evaluate investing in experience over product. The things we have may come and go, but the experiences leave impressions, raise questions, build relationships, and can inspire and guide our work far longer.
It’s Always the People
One of the memories that stays close from my time at Apple was the credo each retail specialist carried with them which declared that, for Apple, “our soul is our people.” This simple phrase definitively conferred importance and value to individuals, relationships not distinct from the company brand, but central to it. I often echo this sentiment when considering my work and team.
As social enterprises grapple with how to attract and retain excellent talent, they can also look to that simple sentiment when considering how to cultivate a culture of respect and resilience.
Fast forward to SXSW which takes place in a city that has been consistently recognized as “friendly”. Among the designations Austin has amassed are: top five friendliest city, one of the most dog-friendly cities, LGBT-friendly city, and bicycle-friendly city too. The friendliness I encountered with people from Austin was consistent with the rankings, and I think it spilled over to the interactions between conference and festival goers too. It is the culture behind that kind of warmth and welcoming that has helped put SXSW on the map as a ‘go-to’ event for innovators, collaborators, thinkers, and doers.
It has also made me think about how a more open attitude can facilitate our next level of growth. How connection, collaboration, and respect can help relationships transcend given roles to become part of a lasting connection, that we re-visit, contribute to, and grow from over time.
I look forward to continue growing from the lessons learned at SXSW, and of course, to staying weird :)
For more photos from the SXSW experience, please visit the original post.