What I saw, learnt & took away from SXSW 2017
1 — A first timer
It was finally the day — I usually get up from bed around 6am on good days. But today (09.03.17) I had a flight to catch to Austin, Texas to attend the week long SXSW conference. I woke up at 3am, and my wife was like, really this early, your flight is at 10:30am, whats wrong with you? I pretended I did not hear her (some of us men have made pretending an art…to our spouses that is).
I spent some time reading after the shower and took a cab to the airport. I was a bit too early at the check in desk, I guessed, by the look on the face of the desk steward (Dude, the aircraft is still-in-the-hanger kind of look).
I walked up to the nearest Costa to grab some coffee and get a seat for the next few hours and charge my phone. Its amazing how hours fly by when you are on Twitter / Instagram. The early rise was well worth it after all.
I took a United Airlines flight to Houston and the connecting flight to Austin — it was a long haul. You know its a long flight when your eyes become blood shot after the intermittent sleep patterns that happen every half an hour, because you get disturbed by the guy on the next seat who, either wants to use the toilet every hour or is falling over you sleeping. It was my first visit to Texas (landed in Houston) and I had downloaded the riding apps in Austin because Uber has left Austin and the good options are Ride Austin & Fasten (read some good reviews about both the apps).
I landed in Austin at around 3pm and its a decent size airport. The walk from the arrival gates to the baggage pickup is a good walk, with a good number of shops on the way. Some of the tech / gadget shops are really tempting when you walk past them.
I came out of the airport on the Presidential Boulevard and tried not to look like a first timer.
I guess I failed miserably. I do that always when I travel — Its a weird habit but I guess most of us do it. I quickly glanced at the app group (on my iPhone) that I made for the SXSW event to open Fasten app and order my ride. The App would not open and after 10 mins of trying to look really calm looking at my phone, I decided this is not going anywhere. So I deleted the app (I was just angry) and opened the Ride Austin App. That worked without a hitch and the cab guy came in under 4 mins. Thats as good as Uber. Good work here Ride Austin!
The cab driver was a really cool guy from Iraq who could not keep quiet for a minute. He knew this was my first visit to Austin once he saw me taking pictures from inside the car. And then he started with a barrage of information on whats good in Austin — places to visit, good food places and how the city gets really busy during the SXSW event.
He suggested going to a BBQ place called Franklins and gave some high points to this place.
I reached my AirBnB apartment and the host was super cool. Amazing lady who even offered me to do my grocery shopping and drove me to the nearest shops to buy some items for breakfast. I don’t know if this kind of customer service can be beaten by a hotel. And this was the first time I was staying in an AirBnB place.
I have always stayed at hotels during my frequent travels and I was a bit apprehensive about staying in someones home. You only see the good pictures on the AirBnB site to make up you mind about the booking and also your decision gets backed up by the reviews other guests have left. So I took a chance this time and thought, if it goes wrong, I will switch back to booking hotels for future travel.
By the way hotels get super expensive during SXSW and are full booked months in advance. So if you are planning your trip to SXSW in 2018, I advice you book accommodation at least 6 months ahead of your trip (if possible).
I think I am an AirBnB convert now. This kind of hospitality and customer experience is hard to come by in a room booked on the nth floor of a hotel. Agreed there are some perks — like breakfast and laundry gets taken care of in a hotel, and with AirBnB you have to take care of pretty much everything, from the morning tea to food, laundry, safety of your belongings etc.
You give some and you take some. But this has been a very different kind of experience for me with AirBnB and I am sure I will try it out a few more times in the future. I won’t say staying in some flat will be a 100% change to all my future travel plans, but this is something that anyone travelling should try out if they are travelling to a big city.
A spent a few minutes on my laptop and my eyes just shut automatically. Probably jet lag taking over and I woke up about an hour later. I then decided to plan my next few days and SXSW events can be handful to manage as they are scattered in a few places across Austin. I made a note of a few events on the first day and also took some screenshots of the SXSW app as a backup.
I reached the Austin Convention Centre at around 9am and started to proceed to the registration desk. The queue was long. When I say long — at least 500 people long. But the queue moved quickly and I grabbed my badge, t-shirt and the complimentary goodie bag (not sure there’s anything inside I would call a goodie).
But it did feel a bit heavy. Now I had 2 bags to manage. My Laptop bag (filled with all the items that I felt would be required if I was out and about) and the SXSW bag. It’s too much to carry stuff around if you have to walk all day from event to event. I saw that some guys were just wearing their badges and nothing else — no bags. Clever, I thought.
By the time the registrations finished the first talks were already underway. So I rushed to the next available slot in the startup pitch area and spoke to a few startups and other attendees who were also visiting this event solo.
I feel it gets a bit boring if you have to spend a 6 day event all on your own. Start making some friends who you can chat to everyday and also team up, to visit some talks together.
This will help to keep the spirits high and not feel tired walking around alone. I saw a lot of people who were clearly alone — made some eye contact, smiled but did not say anything. Maybe they had the same thoughts as me — How am I going to manage the next 6 days alone!
Story 2 — Some SXSW talks
The next talk was — Learning the language of Leadership by Brian Sullivan ( #leadertalk), who spoke about the the importance of conversations in c-level presentations.
Keep it a conversation and not turn it into a presentation.
One really cool statement that stood out was — The difference between Leadership and management is communication. Brian spoke for about an hour to a packed audience and the talk was very light hearted and easy to listen to.
Really basic information that people need to keep in mind when making presentations (aka conversations) and how preparations can go a long way.
Make up stories, just don’t make up data
In his words — A story is the lifeline of the presentation- talk about the structure of the presentation and use the basic formula — What? (3–4 slides), So what? (2–3 slides), Now what? (3–4 slides) to define the story in your presentation and you will be in good stead.
I came out of this talk and started looking at what could be the text interesting talk to attend. But excitement was taking over and I felt like going out of the convention centre and have a quick walk around to see what other venues had to offer.
It was a sunny day and Mazda were promoting Mazda Express for the attendees to try out. All attendees were given free Mazda band that allowed you free travel to venues with the SXSW radius.
Wave your hand at one of Mazda Express cars and off to the next event venue.
I wandered into Hilton Downtown Austin and made my way to another talk…
This was a talk by Kaan Akin (Twitter: @sadeceka) and his experiences in the silicon valley and how he started transforming his experiences into helping the startup scene in Istanbul, Turkey.
He runs an incubator in Istanbul called @Hackquarters (http://www.hackquarters.co/), enabling early stage startups to learn and develop from his learnings in the Silicon valley.
One question he gets asked all the time — When are we going to be like silicon valley
This is one question he constantly hears from startup founders while travelling to countries outside of US or western Europe.
He talked about how the silicon valley scene started with some of the brightest brains who worked at the Shockley semiconductors (A good post to understand how it all began) and eventually came out of the company and became ….
The Infamous Traitorous Eight
Some of the early members of the team were Eugene Kleiner, who went on to form Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB), one of the top venture capital funds in the world today — Full story here..
Kann then moved on to how early tech spent huge amount of money with government funding — Inside IBMs $67 billion SAGE, the largest computer ever built.
Now today after 50 years we all still want a piece of this industry, especially more in developing countries where new founders are more than enthusiastic in becoming the entrepreneurs of tomorrow.
He talks about an immigrant Turkish who became very successful in the tech startup scene and started Felicis ventures, who invested in Y Combinator. And also talks about more successful startups today like — Udemy, Positron, Iyzico who have one of their founders / co-founders from Turkey.
So what problems do startups and founders face today in Istanbul and Turkey in general?
Where do the problems lie — Information asymmetry. He explains about the concept of Proportions of economy — when you try out a successful idea in silicon valley and then try a similar idea in a developing country, what are the kind of numbers that you have to keep in mind.
Check if your startup idea can match the proportional numbers in your local country / city as compared to the successful startups that you were trying to emulate in your country.
One good example here is — Ola cabs, who looked at the success of Uber worldwide and started a similar venture in India and have been hugely funded and immensely successful.
Another good example that he cites for new and wannabe founders is to look at the Y Combinator page where they constantly track and discuss about they new trends where Y combinator will be interested in investing — Which industry they will most likely invest in the near future.
He also talks about founders to ride this wave as this could prove successful for them as they are on a wave thats already picking up speed and can test out their ideas quickly due to the interest shown in the wave by people already.
Next thing he talks about is — Population paradox
Kaan asked us to google this topic and understand what it means and then spoke in context with the developing economies. A Good read here, on the UnitedNations University website(http://bit.ly/2o6erqV)
In his experience (and generally everywhere in the startup scene) — Its not about raising funds, its about creating value. This topic is very close to my heart personally as I have worked with so many startups who take off on a great idea and then rush too soon towards getting funded.
A great post by Product Hunt on when & how to look at funding your startup — http://bit.ly/2o67t5c
The founders dilemma is what gets most startup founders (A good post by Harvard Business Review here on this topic — http://bit.ly/2o6kmwd ) and mosts startups die an early death by failing to find Product Market Fit.
Moving on, he talks about his experiments with — IDEA — EXECUTION — SPONSORSHIP
Kaan feels that there there is no marketplace for ideas — because ideas are not that important, execution is. True.
And most startups he meets have an additional problem at hand — Hard to find a good employee, nearly impossible to find good co-founders. Again true.
Founders have worked so hard on their ideas and have total determination to become an entrepreneur so they can leave their full time jobs and try out this idea in their head. His favourite quote -
Entrepreneurs are willing to work 80hrs a week to avoid working 40hrs a week.
Another quote —
Governments are slow by design
Taking a dig at public sector projects / work that drag on due to bureaucracy and lack of innovation. His advice to startups working with public sector — go for the given budgets (marketing, sponsorships etc), Understand their global approaches and pitch accordingly.
Everybody wants to eat an omelette but no-one wants to break their egg. (I really did not understand what he meant by this. A good talk nonetheless)
Story 3 — A cabbie’s dream
On my way back to my AirBnB flat, I met a Ride Austin cabbie, who spoke about how he was at the school studying Radiology and that he wanted to pursue his passion — Massage & Wellbeing therapy in his spare time. He mentioned he was using Facebook to target the local Houston market to advertise about his therapy sessions.
But he felt it was not working for him — Maintaining a website, running ads, posting content on Instagram & Facebook and then trying to write a blog about what he felt was the best available well being options for his clients.
On top of this he had regular school to attend full time and make some extra cash to support his tuition fee by working for Ride Austin & Fasten.
Too many things on the plate. Content marketing is not easy and its a full time job in itself. I broke the bad news to him.
New starters and small businesses who are trying out social media marketing to support their businesses have an uphill task ahead -
Finding their niche, find the core audience, find their pain / problem area, find a solution that customers will be willing to pay for and then produce content that serves this purpose.
We started chatting about this and it got me interested. Time to show off some social media skills! (Well just trying to help)
We spoke about how he can write short posts regularly (easier said than done) about health & well being and mix it with brands of products that he uses regularly. He can also talk about some of his favourite brands and then he can slowly build up a knowledge leadership in this area.
If writing gets tougher (which it eventually will) he can organise local meetups and bring small time brands and boutiques / specialists to talk at his events. These are all ideas only and need a hell a lot of ground work to make things move. But you need to start somewhere.
This way he can post on both Instagram and Facebook regularly and drive that traffic to his blog posts and website. Give quality content as much as you can and once the followers trust your posts they will be willing to try out stuff that you want to sell.
Again, its a tough job, but start somewhere. Anywhere. Don’t wait till you get the most polished idea / product in your hand — Done, is better than perfect. Some ideas will suck. Most do. Most will fail too.
Some will stick, a few (if you have done enough testing & ground work) will show traction.
This guy got super interested and asked me if I could help him out in just learning about the whole thing. Courses, blogs, anything that can help him get started. So we exchanged emails and I promised him that I will send him any relevant stuff that will help grow his business.
Story 4— A few more talks
This was another day. Raining all day, damp grey clouds over Austin.
The next talk was — Artificial Intelligence & Self Driving Cars by @dmshapiro of NVIDIA
He started the talk with the evolution of dual core processors in Video games, the use of simulated wind tunnels & crash tests used by leading car manufacturers like Daimler Benz.
A new era of computing — thats what he called the emergence of processing power from the PCs in 1995 to the mobile / cloud computing in 2005 to AI & iOT from 2015.
GPU has been an integral part of deep-learning process and it was the computing power of a GPU that helped AI beat poker players
He went on to talk about AI Generative Design — Where Software Mimics Nature’s Approach to Design, by Autodesk — More here
Next he spoke about what make AI so special when it comes to making a car learn to drive by itself..
- HD Map creation
- Localisation / Planning
- AI Computing
And how AI interprets an image using Neural Networks.
There’s this super cool beginners write-up about Neural networks (Eg. Recognising handwritten digits) and a bit deeper about Sigmoid Neurons (Helping Perceptrons to learn by introducing an artificial neurons called Sigmoid neurons) by @michael_nielsen — a Research fellow at Y Combinator research. Its my favourite blog on neural networks!
He went on to talk about how AI reads the edges of millions of images to find the final definition of an object, like a car.
What happens outside the car — Free Space Detection, helps the brain of a self-driving car to detect and react to situations outside the car.
The video below explains how the Car AI views its surroundings.. Go ahead view the video. And remember to come back to this post!
All this happens on the outside. So, what happens inside the car, when the driver (I mean the passenger) is not driving.
In car experience is what the future of UX / UI will have a big say on. Face detection of drivers will play a major role in seemingly simple tasks like — Starting the engine.
Some things that AI need to perfect are —
- Face detection
- Head tracking
- Gaze tracking
- Lip reading
GEO fencing allows a car owner to let the car go to certain places or a radius that they specify (A cheeky parent ring-fencing where their children can drive to or not — personally, I think this is evil!)
Danny then talks about the NVIDIA brain that powers the most advance cars on the road today (including the Tesla!), which can perform 24 billion operations per second (Equivalent to 150 mackbooks).
Some tests that Nvidia ran in California were on the Nvidia BB8 to show the power of the GPU. Click the video below to start
There were a few more talks that I wanted to write about but this blog post will turn into one big endless scroll post. So next one is the concluding part of this journey. Be with me on this one.
5 - SXSW Trade Show
This one’s mostly a collection of some good picture I took.
The whole SXSW experience was too good — Interactive, Music & Movies — 3 tracks and so many to choose from. The key is to plan ahead of your next SXSW visit, so you don’t walk endlessly from venue to venue.
Say hello on twitter — @leanux_bala
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