March Magic Memories: Aziz Gilani

The Forrest Four-Cast: August 29, 2017

A Partner at the early stage venture capital firm Mercury Fund, Aziz Gilani says that his job is to “to find entrepreneurs that I can help the most.” He is a multi-year veteran of SXSW who most recently spoke on the “Venture Funding Hits a Lull. Now What?” panel at the March 2017 event (listen to the podcast of that session via Soundcloud). We asked him a few questions about current tech industry trends, Star Trek, spring in Austin and the Texas Longhorn football program. Based in Houston, Gilani also urges readers to donate to the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund to help those in his city who have been devastated by the ongoing August flooding.
 
When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Like most South Asian children, I was taught that I was supposed to become a doctor. I on the other hand was content to play with my computer every day. I am thankful that I could turn it into a living.
 
Actors, athletes, musicians, entrepreneurs, scientists, whomever — you can any three living people from anywhere in the world to dinner. Which three people do you invite?
My daughter Aleena, Patrick Stewart, and Michael Okuda. Like myself, Aleena loves Star Trek and Patrick Stewart is her favorite captain. Michael Okuda is responsible for the science and special effects for Star Trek the Next Generation.
 
In your mind, what is the most over-rated tech trend at present?
Virtual reality. A lot of people overlook the fact that cheap display technology is VR’s primary competitor and can provide not only a high-res experience but a more community-focused experience as well.
 
In your mind, what is the most under-rated / over-looked tech trend at present?
The way innovation works is you have novel inventions and the distribution of those inventions. I think the biggest transformations happen with the distribution of current technology and less from new technology. For example, I am excited about the distribution of technologies like blockchain across multiple industries. 
 
How / when do you first find out about SXSW?
I was 17 years old and a freshman at the University of Texas and my sister was attending SXSW because she worked for a radio station in New Orleans. I was able to get a badge from her and go to my first event.
 
What memories do you have from that first experience?
I remember being in disbelief. I am a teenager and all of a sudden, the entire world was in my little town of Austin.
 
Over the various years that you have attended March Magic, who has been the most memorable speaker and why? 
In 2008, I remember seeing a speaker in a half-filled room promoting his new book. The book was about how the future is already here, it just isn’t evenly distributed.
 
What has been the most memorable networking event at SXSW and why?
In 2009, I went to John Zeratsky on his “get stuff done” methodology. I met the entire “Chicago Mafia” while I was there and they are still some of my best friends.
 
What is your best memory of the event that is not a panel or a networking event?
I spent an afternoon with Barack Obama in 2016 in the Green Room of the Long Center
 
SXSW is a very big part of the identity of Austin — and vice versa. Do you think SXSW could happen anywhere else?
Yes. I love Austin , but what makes SXSW special isn’t Austin. Instead, its the community of creators that happen to meet in Austin that week. It would be hard to recreate, but I don’t think it’s impossible.
 
What is your best tip for newbie SXSW attendees?
You have to open yourself up to serendipity. My favorite talks have been ones I didn’t know were happening and I just stumbled upon. You have to put enough slack in your schedule where you have the chance to explore. 
 
What’s the best way for startups to leverage the SXSW platform?
SXSW is a terrible place to launch a product. It is the best place to accelerate the adoption of a product. If you launch at SXSW, you’re going to run into bugs and problems and that’s the wrong time to have your tech exposed to the world. Use it for what it is which is a collection of the best technical people in one place at one time.
 
What’s your favorite place to eat during SXSW?
Usually on a Saturday morning I’ll drive to Lockhart and eat at Black’s. In Austin though, my favorite is breakfast at Threadgills.
 
What is the origin story for the Werewolf game at SXSW? Is this activity strictly for fun? Or have you made valuable connections via this game?
The game was originally played by Ben Huh, Harper Reed, and Dan Sinker as a way for these friends to meet others. I can point to six professional or personal investments that have come from these games.
 
Although you are based in Houston, you’ve worked a lot with the Austin startup scene over the last few years. What are the biggest strengths and weaknesses of this scene? 
The Austin startup scene has a long heritage in enterprise software. Whether it was National Instruments, Tivoli, or Build Forge, you can point to a long history of success. I think the consumer side of the Austin startup scene is still emerging. 
 
What does the Austin startup scene need to elevate itself to the so-called next level? 
I think the vast majority of the cities in America would like to be in Austin’s position and I don’t think it could grow faster than it is now. As someone that loves Austin, I wouldn’t mind if it paused for a bit so that the infrastructure can catch up to the city.
 
You are a big fan of the University of Texas football team. What are your expectations for the first year of the Tom Herman era?
It looks like the whole university community has rallied around Tom Herman. But college football is the only business I know that is more brutal than startups.

Please watch this space in the coming weeks for more March Magic interviews with SXSW community veterans.

Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals. He also tries to write at least four paragraphs per day on Medium. These posts often cover tech-related trends; other times they focus on books, pop culture, sports and other current events.

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