A Reflective Interview on SXSW: Rain, Robots, and Revolutionary Thinkers

We sat down with Allison Kent-Smith, smith & beta CEO, to discuss her experience SXSW. As a festival veteran, Allison has seen the big spring gathering — its talks, events, parties, and food trucks — evolve considerably over time. SXSW 2017 was a unique smorgasbord of the expected — innovative tech, inspiring speakers, long waiting lines, and strong margaritas — and the unexpected — sideways rain.

Upon arriving to SXSW this year what were your initial thoughts?

As soon as I got off the plane it was clear this year was going to be different because it was very rainy. I have always biked from my hotel to all of the events, but that is a lot easier when it is seventy two degrees and sunny. In spite of the rain, I was super excited to be at SXSW and still intended to get as much out of it as I could.

Of the countless events you attended over the weekend which did you think were the most valuable?

I have always really enjoyed sessions that feel conversational, I get more out of those then the ones that feel like formal presentations. This year I really liked the startup sessions, particularly one that was led by Techstars that offered counseling for an hour to founders. It was conversational and the speakers were interesting and approachable. It was like I got to invite all of them over for coffee.

There was another great session with the Gawker Founder, Nick Denton, and Jeff Goodby. They were so comfortable on stage that it felt like I was eavesdropping on two friends talking over cocktails, yet it was in a gigantic room. Lastly, every year I make a point to go to a book signing, this year it was a signing for a cookbook. I don’t know why but I love to go to these and always come home with several books from the SXSW bookstore!

What was the best advice you received during the festival?

At the Techstars session one of the speakers said, “don’t use funding to figure out your idea, build the muscle for figuring out your idea before you seek funding.” This really resonated with me. You don’t need money to think of an idea, you need money to turn that idea into a reality.

Did SXSW 2017 make you feel more prepared for the current industry climate?

Every year I leave SXSW feeling like I have a better grip on the industry and this year was no different. I spent more time at “brand” events and got to know some of the interests of the larger marketing community. One thing that set this year apart from other years was that I thought of a few specific ideas and plans for the future of smith & beta — because SXSW is still a bit of a beta even though it is well established. I know there is a need for curation of the festival, so we plan to help our clients post SXSW with that. And next year, pre curation and tours are likely on the list.

What was your biggest take away from the festival?

There were a lot of great things to be learned in Austin this year and I tried to absorb as much of it as I could. For starters, it is clear that SXSW remains an awesome event to open your mind to new ideas, meet industry leaders, and enjoy the great city of Austin. One of the pieces of information that stuck with me was that so many of our jobs are going to be replaced (or at least redesigned) in the future by machines. The technology is significantly further along than I had even imagined, leaving us to wonder how fast this will happen and which jobs specifically will being replaced.

So what does that mean for skillsets for the future? I spent quite a bit of time at the IBM experience, really fascinating. If you’re not keeping up with AR and AI, then you are going to find yourself quite behind.

Do you think you will attend SXSW again next year?

I plan to go to Austin for the festival every year that I can. Apart from feeling that it teaches me an invaluable amount about the industry and my role in it, Austin is an incredible city and its an overall positive experience. SXSW inspires us through education and learning and reminds us of the need for a daily dose of innovative thought in our everyday work. Plus, there are darn good margaritas and BBQ!

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