A Rookie’s Guide to SXSW
By Jake Guglin
Two weeks ago I made my first foray into the Narnia of tech and pop-culture that arrives in Austin each year: South by Southwest. To put it mildly, I was overwhelmed.
I had been told repeatedly that the “real” SXSW happens in the parties, cookouts and meetings that take place outside the conference. That first day, I felt guilty as I bounced from keynote to keynote, rushing in and out of panels to get to the next in time, thinking I somehow wasn’t getting the most out of my time. I quickly realized it’s all a matter of perception however—there’s no wrong way to do SXSW.
Sitting in on panels gave me a finger on the pulse of the technology world, and a look toward the future, that I don’t think I could have found standing next to a grill in an Airbnb-ed backyard. During the “Future of You” panel, James Varga opened my eyes to how biometric companies like TwoSense will make active authentication a thing of the past. Likewise, a panel at the Michigan House effectively made the case for why the Rust Belt not only will be, but already is, the center of the pending IoT revolution.
The second thing that became abundantly clear is that everyone is at SXSW to meet people. The first time someone struck up a conversation with me in the bathroom (ahem), I did everything I could to not make eye contact with what I assumed was a crazy person. By the third time, I began to realize that I was the odd one out in not aggressively talking to every stranger in my path. Ultimately almost all of these conversations are perfunctory, and just meant to ease the awkwardness of exchanging contact information. My plan for next year is to learn to sling business cards like ninja stars and just throw them into people’s pockets, skipping introductions completely.
Eventually I got the hang of things, and by following some easy guidelines I was able to take full advantage of the last few days of my trip. They are as follows:
Hydrate (water > beer). You’re on your feet from the moment you wake up until the moment T-Pain leaves and they shut down the dance floor.
You will not get to see every keynote and panel you want to see, so pick two top choices (one in the morning, one in the afternoon) for each day.
Minimize your time in lines::
The lines for the main events are long (for Tim Ferriss and Cheryl Strayed it spanned four floors and the stairwells between). However, the massive ballrooms rarely reach capacity—arrive 5 minutes after the talk begins, and you can almost always walk right in.
The smaller rooms fill up early, especially if the topic is trending. Unfortunately in this case, there is really no real alternative to showing up early and waiting in line.
Buy a map and use a hard copy of the schedule to plan your day. Using Maps + the SXSW app will kill your phone’s battery before lunch. Save it for communication.
This one is a bit cliche, but for a reason—it’s the golden rule of SXSW. Go with the flow. The conference is an incredible opportunity to find out about things you didn’t even know existed, so if someone wants to drag you to something you haven’t heard of, go. Plus, you might even meet Morgan Spurlock in the bathroom there (true story).
And, if all else fails, follow the sun. When the weather is nice, people will congregate wherever there’s some grass to lounge. A little vitamin D in the middle of winter never hurts.