How to do SXSW the right way

First-yearers, I’m talking to you

If it’s your first year at South By, you’re probably going to do it wrong. I read up on what to do on blogs, watched videos and I still did it wrong. No, I don’t mean I got too hungover the first day, but it was very difficult to grasp the vision behind the event, especially when you’re thrown right into it.

What you need to know about South By:

  1. It’s much bigger than you think. I’m talking 72,000 participants. If you met 100 people per day, everyday (which you won’t), it would take you 2 straight years to meet everyone.
  2. It’s much more spread out than you think. Not everything happens in the convention center and it’s very hard to track people down. I logged over 40 miles walked throughout the week and that doesn’t include Uber rides.
  3. The sessions themselves are worthless, it’s about meeting people. Bang-for-the-buck, you’re wasting your time sitting listening to sessions. Your goal is to meet people and make connections, not entertain yourself.

How did my first year experience go?

SXSW is a life-changing experience the first time you attend no matter what you do. I prepared myself, but no level of preparation could have prevented me from making mistakes in the first year.

Everyone will have different goals for South By, but as a founder of multiple companies, my primary goal was to get connected with influential people that could move the needle for my current ventures. It turned out to be easier said than done mostly because of the sheer amount of people attending.

What’s interesting about South By is that badges are so expensive that no one seems to pay for them out-of-pocket. It’s all bought by company money.

What does this mean in terms of demographics? Lots of employees and people running booths, rather than founders and higher-value connections. Worst of all, from my understanding, they didn’t have different badges to differentiate speakers from Platinum badges so it was hard to vet anyone that you wanted to talk to. That being said, I still networked with hundreds of people from all around the world (Guatemala, Argentina, Australia, UK, Germany, etc.) but the majority were employees or part of completely unrelated industries to mine.

Because I didn’t have a badge, I willingly forced myself to meet people and get invited to private non-official parties. This worked particularly well, especially given the demographic I was targeting with who I wanted to meet. Founders love meeting and being around other founders. It recharges your energy and let’s you geek out about your nerdy success and current struggles: your own venting ears, if you will.

A lot of open bars and parties were during the daytime and I believe this was intentionally to keep out the riffraff (which I did encounter during the more nighttime Start Up Crawl). This meant that you could meet people during the day and find out what’s going on by the nighttime. And that’s why it’s so easy to get away without buying a badge.

How to do it right

You need to meet the right people, and you need to do it efficiently. Here’s what you do.

  1. Don’t buy a badge. You don’t need one because sitting in on sessions isn’t networking. People come, sit down and leave with a small period of time to talk with the speaker which everyone will bombard afterwards anyways.
  2. Research all the speakers in advance. Speakers are going to be the easiest way to meet people you want.
  3. Get there early (Thursday), but don’t stay past Wednesday of the second week. Most influential people will just be there Friday — Sunday, maybe to Monday. This is your opportunity to meet with them.
  4. Don’t wander too far from the convention center. There will be events all around town with drinks, music, women, whatever. The further you go from the convention center, the less influential people you will meet. The only exception would be private parties by invite only. Obviously if you get an invite to one of them, go to it.
  5. Have a clear mission of who you want to meet. Ask people for introductions of other people they may know. Your time there is limited

Final thoughts

You need to follow the right people on Twitter and turn on push notifications on your phone. There’s a handful of “freeloader” individuals who will tweet and re-tweet open bars and free parties the moment they find out about them. This turns your phone into a constant stream of things to do — like a scavenger hunt for fun things.

That being said, these freeloading tweeterers aren’t generally hanging around successful people which means even though events and parties may be fun to go to, you always need to consider why you’re at SXSW in the first place. As I learned, the further you get from the convention center itself (which is like the center of the beehive) the less quality people you will be. It’s a broad rule, but you’re welcome anyways :)

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About Alexey Rom:
I work for
Venmark Studio in Orange County, CA. Previously, I worked for numerous startups and small teams that scaled full-fruition.

Read my most personal and valuable lessons learned during 10 years as a founder at Follow me @alexey_rom.