6 Things I Learned As a First-Time Founder at SXSW

As a first-time entrepreneur, I was told that SXSW was the place to be. So, with my co-founder, Brad Lawler, and a handful of other DRAFT team members, I jumped into SXSW to build awareness of our new investment analysis tool DRAFT. Trying to stand out in a crowd of over 40,000 people was a challenge, and here are the six most important lessons I learned.

1. You’ll meet the most important people when you least expect it

We were a featured company and active participants at least one event every day. Each of these events was a success, and we met hundreds of people, many of whom were genuinely excited about our app. But when I least expected it, we would meet someone truly amazing.

A Last minute pitch contest led me to meet Ray Hennessey, editorial director of Entrepreneur Magazine and Jim Lussier of Dell Ventures

2. The day does not end at 5:00 pm

Don’t expect to visit a few panels and then head back to your hotel at 5:00. The real meetings and events start after 5:00. During the conference, I never got home before 1am. We met most of the people I mentioned in #1 above after 5pm.

Many Important connections are made at the late night parties like this one put on by Yahoo

3. You don’t have to be part of official SXSW events

There are many events going on at SXSW, both official and unofficial. The unofficial ones can be just as valuable as the official, so don’t feel you have to pay to showcase your company with SXSW. If you’re a big brand with lots of money, it may be worth it, but if you’re a new startup, go the unofficial route. We paid to be part of a showcase and found that people were more interested in trying to sell their own services to us than in learning about our app. If your goal is brand awareness, look outside official SXSW events. You will pay much less and probably get better returns on your investment.

A non-badged event put on by the University of Texas was packed, and we paid $0 to be a featured startup

4. Get creative with your social media

The communication tool of choice at SXSW is social media, so leverage it. We used Facebook and Twitter all week to drive our campaign and get people to follow us, which resulted in a huge uptake in followers and signups. Have someone on your team solely dedicated to this task. It is best if they actually are not at the event, as long as you have a workflow to get them images and updates. People at the event have a tendency to enjoy the event and forget to update your channels!

We ran a campaign encouraging people to follow us and show up at different events. Here is one of our lucky winners!

5. Look bigger than you are!

Big brands send dozens of people to SXSW, which gets expensive. Instead, we leveraged our networks and found people who wanted to take part in SXSW. We paid interns with a badge and had good friends volunteer their time. One night, we had three different events going on at the same time and were updating social media channels about all of them. It looked like we had a contingent of 20 people at SXSW!

Group photos and people in your company t-shirts also make you look big

6. You’re not big enough to make a dent by yourself, so leverage others!

Another way to look bigger than you are is to join forces with larger companies. We didn’t have a big budget or name recognition. What we did have were some big partners who knew us. Partners like Yodlee. We leveraged their brand names and marketing teams, tagging along and introducing their followers to DRAFT. This paid big dividends for us at SXSW.

Our partner Yodlee allowed us to set up a table and distribute shirts at their fintech meetup

SXSW was an amazing experience — a great opportunity to spread the word on DRAFT, have fun and meet new people who can potentially help us along the way. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the importance of SXSW, but remember — it’s just five days out of a whole year of building your business. Those other 360 days are just as full of potential, so make sure you keep that in perspective.

Jason St. Peter — Co-Founder, CEO of DRAFT