“I am but mad [south-south-]west.”

(quote from Hamlet, adapted for a 21st-century tech company audience)

You know you’re in business school when your definition of “long-term planning” is planning anything over a week in advance. By that definition, my planning to go to South by Southwest over 7 months before the first day of Interactive was practically an attempt to predict the future.

It started at happy hour with my manager in my last weeks in San Francisco in August. The conversation began with relaying team feedback about working with me and extended to her own career and things she had done — attending SXSW among them — to build it and continue learning along the way. Two drinks in and one week away from the end of my internship, I found the courage to approach the topic that was really on my mind:

“I know they don’t do offers here, but if I’m still looking for work when I see you next at SXSW, would you hire me again?”
“Sure.”
“Great. I’ll see you at South by.”

I bought the ticket in October. Even at the earliest “Early bird” rate, the ticket would set me back financially. Then there was accounting for the flights to get there, the housing to take care of, and the typically overpriced gluten-free meals at restaurants.

I ended up rationalizing the cost in three ways:

  1. If you don’t have a job by March, this is the money you’re investing to find one. You can talk to your manager and recall that conversation, but more likely, you’ll find a company you like down in Austin or you’ll get to chatting with someone pleasant in a coffee line who has “a friend of a friend who is a hiring manager at [dream company] and can put you in touch.”
  2. If you do luck out and have a job by March, this will be a great place to learn about forthcoming trends and exciting things happening in and outside of your industry. Or just to meet people doing cool s*** you didn’t know was possible.
  3. Job aside, you deserve a spring break — and this trip is still a third of the cost of the average MBA spring break excursion to some faraway corner of the world.

I apologized to my credit card as I typed in the digits into the payment page. I found some cheap flights, called upon the kindness of friends and strangers for housing, and it was official: March 9–16, I would be in Austin, Texas for my very first SXSW Interactive — and my very first time in Texas outside of an airport or outside the context of a job interview.

SXSW has been around for decades but has truly blossomed in the last ten years from an indie music festival to one of the best-known conferences in the country (and given the number of international booths I saw at the trade show and the fact that two of the ten people in the house where I was staying made the trek from Norway, perhaps the world). It’s where tons of fledgling bands try to get their breaks and just as many fledgling startups try to do their beta launches. There’s no conference I’ve heard of that combines media, technology, film, and music the way that SXSW does, and even if there is one, SXSW probably has it beat on execution.

The way I’ve decided to describe SXSW is “controlled chaos.” The best analogy I have for the city of Austin during the festival is a bag of microwave popcorn: for all the unpredictable popping and bouncing and craziness cooking, everything is impressively well-contained.

Below is the shortlist of diary-style recollections recapping my few days at Interactive in Austin:

Day 0 of Interactive: March 10

I am woken up at 6:30AM by one of the four cats in the house where I am staying. Even though it is early, this is the first time I have ever had a positive interaction with a cat and I am absolutely delighted.

Understatement of the year. #sxsw2016

I embark on the pre-SXSW “Startup Crawl” around Austin and learn about a female-founded month-to-month rental startup (genius) and a “Tinder for Recipes” called Dindr (this doesn’t make much sense to me — but hey, free koozie). Visiting a startup incubator and at least five startup offices, I witness a brogrammer to ping pong table ratio approaching that of San Francisco.

I fall head over stomach in love with an Asian-inspired restaurant called Koreinte and its gluten-free spicy tuna bowl.

Drowning out the sound of drunken patron chatter, 6th Street exhales in music.

Day 1 of Interactive: March 11

I find a Charleston, SC travel guide on my seat at the first panel at SXSW. It says there is a tech conference in Charleston in April. I start looking at flights in between tweeting morsels of wisdom from Jonah Berger’s keynote.

I go to a Parsons exhibit on connected fashion and a panel on wearables and connected retail featuring Uri Minkoff. My Rebecca Minkoff brand crush escalates.

Returning to Koriente for lunch, which now has my undying loyalty, I get to talking with the person next to me for lunch. She is the female founder of BeatBox Beverages a boxed jungle juice company, that went on Shark Tank and has Mark Cuban as a full-on investor. #casual. #onlyatSXSW

By the time I reach the end of the day for an exclusive concert with Bloc Party, I’m too tired to go on, take a Lyft home, and play with my host’s cats.

Day 2 of Interactive: March 12

I successfully chase down the co-founder of Gimlet media after a panel on monetizing podcasts and other free content. I play the MIT Sloan card (he’s a Sloan alumnus) and he concedes to my wishes to take a selfie.

I am pleasantly surprised by a Pandora-hosted brunch I was randomly invited to attend: Pandora does more than just internet radio these days and its employees are so cool and friendly that they make me rethink my feelings about working in the Bay Area.

I spend the rest of the day happily carrying my backpack of “survival supplies” from Pandora’s party to panels. Inside it is a knock-off Swell water bottle, a “first-aid” kit with earplugs, chapstick, and ibuprofen, and an iconic tote bag of a cat with headphones high-fiving an otter.

I meet up with a graduate from Sloan and crushing it up on a panel and hang out with her and hear about her entrepreneurial adventures in her home state of Arkansas. She tells me that organizing a panel gets you a free Gold pass to SXSW. I make a note and decide that next year, I will try to organize a panel.

I stumble upon a Nap Truck from the sleep startup Casper. I am unable to sign up for a nap, but their swag bag has contents as perfect on the inside as the slogan the outside: “We like to party, and by part we mean take naps.” I decide that I will have to socialize this finding as much as possible (eventually I do a Facebook post and write a blog post for my MIT class on Social Media)

I visit the Whole Foods headquarters/store mothership with Catherine, my MIT classmate’s sister who has become my de facto South by partner in crime for the rest of the trip. We buy a pommelo. It is glorious.

Day 3 of Interactive: March 13

I take a lap through the Interactive Trade show and pick up some free sunglasses, a sample of Bulletproof coffee and their new protein bar, and go in search of a quiet place to get some schoolwork done. I find a bar seat at Houndstooth Coffee Shop on 4th and Congress. The sun is shining and I am productive and life is good.

Life gets even better as I stumble down a random downtown street into a store called PRIZE and get to enjoy a happy hour sponsored by Laurel + Wolf, a startup I already like and grow like even more after hanging out with a few of their interior designers over drinks and coloring books.

I meet up with my summer manager for drinks, following through on the “See you at South by” from August. I am grateful that our conversation is about her love of Jimmy John’s and things we’ve learned at the conference and has nothing to do with employment

Back at the house, my host is throwing a barbecue party, which leads to a grocery-buying experience at a H.E.B. Walking down the aisles and observing the people perusing the items for sale, I think, “This is America.” The two Finnish men who drove from New Orleans also staying at the house for SXSW hull out the watermelon we bought and turn it into a keg.

Day 4 of Interactive: March 14

I attend my best panel of the entire week on women in tech and negotiating for what you want and deserve. I tweet at all of them and poach at least half of them for the podcast.

I run into someone I knew in college from the a cappella scene who now works in Seattle and a friend of a friend, also from Seattle, who I was supposed to have met in November when I was last in Seattle. My favorite person in the panel I attended during the morning lives in Seattle. I wonder if this is a sign that I, too, should be in Seattle.

I get some work done for the podcast in a cafe that, days before, had been overtaken by Friskies for a special event featuring “Grumpy Cat.” Because South by Southwest

I am convinced that SXSW is now a weird “Cinderella Story” and Austin“turns back into a pumpkin,” metaphorically speaking, the moment the festival ends. I wonder how much of the city I would recognize if I came to visit when the Mashable House turns back into a normal bar or the IBM Hub becomes its former self: a barbecue joint.

I go to the happy hour for 6Sensor Labs, which makes a gluten-free food sensing device that I have beta tested. One of the founders graduated from Sloan in 2014 and I admire her greatly. I laugh when her cofounder gluten tests the restaurant’s food, all of which is supposed to be gluten-free for the event. The fried chicken is not.

In the evening, we have a photo shoot back at the house. This picture of me wearing all of my swag and trying to offer some to one of the cats is taken:

Day 5 of Interactive: March 15

I have given up on hustling and forego panels on product designing for downward dogging at a local yoga studio and exploring parts of the city I have yet to explore: South Congress and South 1st Streets.

I have not brought sunscreen to South by, and fearing sunburn, I wear jeans and a jacket. I sweat like a fool and get some “Honey, clearly you’re not from around here” looks, which I return with one that expresses, “Believe me, I know it’s 85 degrees and sunny and I look completely ridiculous.”

Once the sun dies down, I change into the floral romper I bought from a small boutique to cool off. Paired with the cowboy boots and the trucker hat I accumulated at some point in the last five days, the look is perfect: as weird as Austin itself.

Catherine (see Day 2) and a classmate of mine meet up at a concert in the backyard of TOMS, which has a vibe somewhere between Brooklyn, New York, Portland, Oregon, and Venice, California with the beverage selection of PBR beer, Underwood wine, and bottles of Suja juice. To my total surprise, the closing act is a guest my cohost and I had interviewed 10 days before for the podcast. I had yet to see her perform live with her band. It was awesome.

The city starts to show signs of transitioning from the Interactive to the Music part of SXSW. After dinner, I witness my first show of drunken nudity since I arrived. As I pack at home, I am grateful that I did not follow through in volunteering for the Music portion of the festival

Day 1 of Recovery from Interactive: March 16

At 4:45AM, I reached the Austin-Bergstrom Airport, exhausted, with a significant sleep deficit and a significant addition of weight to my checked baggage on account of tech company swag. The smell of barbecue and breakfast tacos was radiating from the people in line with me at the Security Checkpoint.

I think, “Did I really survive this?” Looks like it.

Day 9 of Recovery from Interactive: March 24

I think, “Could I really do it all again next year?” Absolutely.


Originally published at www.erica-zendell.com on March 24, 2016.