Photo by Tomek Baginski on Unsplash. Downtown view over the water from Lou Neff point of Lady Bird Hike and Bike Trail.

Lessons from R3 Printing’s Inaugural SXSW

Summary:

  • The following rules helped us maximize our SXSW experience: No Official SXSW Interactive Events, Plan a little (but not too much), Go with the Flow, and Be Authentic.

What’s South by Southwest?

For the past 31 years, South by Southwest — often abbreviated to SXSW — has taken place each spring in Austin, Texas. A gargantuan spectacle, “South by” is held over 9 days and is composed of concerts, screenings, festivals, and conferences that span the fields of music, movies, media, and tech.

SXSW attracts many of the tech industry’s finest minds — particularly those hailing from the tech mega-centers of San Francisco, New York, Boston, and Los Angeles — for a laid-back startup expo that is characterized by its carnival atmosphere. While some tech trackers have questioned the wisdom of major brands spending big bucks every year, it is undeniable that SXSW draws in a mix of students, founders, investors, and journalists for the single most important networking opportunity in the global tech industry.

This year’s SXSW was the first for R3 Printing. Our 5 days in Austin were incredibly fruitful, having met with a mix of entrepreneurs, capital-deployers, and everyone in between.

Having now been back in Cincinnati for a few days, the following Rules are based on our observations and experiences. They delineate how to best maximize the SXSW experience as an early-stage startup founder.

The Rules.

No Official SXSW Interactive Events: Going down to Austin with founder Edmund Zagorin of the fast-growing Bid-Ops (investors: take note!), we made the conscious decision to forego purchasing tickets for SXSW Interactive, the official tech convention associated with the SXSW brand. Ticket prices were steep and the sheer size of SXSW means that there are multiple unofficial events simultaneously taking place. Every hour of the day had us choosing from one of several events that we had already RSVP’d for while only having the capacity to choose one.

Plan a little (but not too much): While an overabundance of planning isn’t advised, going down cold isn’t either.

Here’s how we did it: the week prior, we sent out an email to a few South by veterans asking for advice. One of those emailed — a founder and serial SXSW attendee —gave us access to a crowd-sourced Google Sheet that included dozens of unofficial events scheduled for each day. Each event was appropriately tagged with its requisite RSVP link.

Armed with this wealth of information, we put together our own Google Sheet, choosing the events we wanted to attend. Even with a strict criteria — we decided based on theme, content, and geographic proximity — on average we were RSVP’d for no less than 4 events per hour for 5 days straight.

We then sent out an email with our itinerary to those New York and San Francisco contacts who we knew would be attending as well. Loose plans were made to link up and friends-of-friends were forwarded our Google Sheet and contact information.

One could imagine this leading to encountering the same people daily. The sheer scale of SXSW and the innately organic nature of the festival prevented such a situation from arising. Given that the average attendee is picking one event to attend each hour or every few hours, the vast majority of other events are missed. In fact, Edmund and I only saw each other on 2 of our 5 days in Austin — and we were working off the exact same itinerary!

It is essential to plan a little bit because RSVPing early is necessary for SXSW’s most popular events. RSVP applications submitted less than 48 hours prior to an event do run the real risk of being rejected.

Planning too much wouldn’t be an effective use of time: it is inevitable that any one individual will miss the majority of SXSW events.

Go with the Flow: During SXSW, Austin’s streets are at full capacity. Street closures, hundreds of automobiles, and thousands of pedestrians all but grind Downtown traffic to a complete halt. Rushing out of a venue every hour to grab an Uber is highly inadvisable. It’s better to pick two or three events for every few hours — optimizing for such characteristics as geographic proximity, attendees, who’s hosting, etc. — and then sticking around for a while.

Austin’s famous entertainment districts of 6th Street and Rainey Street are filled with venues that are rented out at all hours, so walking across the street or stepping into the establishment next door for another event is entirely possible.

The goal in navigating SXSW’s event landscape should not be to maximize the amount of people you meet — there’s going to be new faces in every room you walk into — but rather to cultivate good relationships based on making great first impressions. For us, that meant focusing on intimate venues — lake-side BBQ’s, sit-down dinners, private happy hours — rather than open-air concerts and consumer technology exhibitions.

Be Authentic: While the pursuit of conveying authenticity has almost become a cliché at this point, authenticity is crucial to getting the most out of the SXSW experience. Every year, these 9 days in Austin bring people who — first and foremost — are passionate about their work. South by isn’t an aggressive networking happy hour: it is strangers and old friends alike bringing their extended social networks to a single place where people can share what they are working on, swap notes, and appreciate the accomplishments of others who are also at the top of their game.

Final Thoughts.

South by Southwest 2018 left a great impression. The connections made, new tech examined, ideas encountered, and experiences shared were certainly worth the time and money. R3 Printing is very much on board with attending next year. Hopefully we’ll be seeing you in Austin.