1. What launches in Austin sometimes stays in Austin.
In the mythos of SXSW, Twitter and Foursquare both gained massive adoption at the show and went on to mainstream stardom. Twitter’s utility at the show, creating a back channel to the panels and quickly sharing relevant news, was matched by Foursquare’s ability to easily share location and utility demonstrated at the show was applicable to the mainstream.
For the two last years, however, the darlings of the show have had limited appeal after the show ends. GroupMe, acquired by Skype last year for $50 million, is super-useful in coordinating large groups of attendees quickly, and is often more reliable than SMS in the bandwidth-challenged environs of the Austin Convention Center. Outside of SXSW, however, 90% of what it does can be handled by group MMS messages, iMessage, and Gchat. Similarly, this year’s “hot” app, Highlight, uses passive location to identify users nearby with similar interests, or contacts. Outside of large conventions, it’s hard to see how this will solve an everyday user problem, besides helping extroverts find each other more quickly. The other issue is that it needs to run constantly to work, which leads to…
2. Passive location startups need to figure out battery usage.
The biggest startup trend was around location services such as Highlight, Ban.jo, Sonar, and Glancee. All of them differ in utility and presentation, but share a drawback that the great-granddaddy of location services, Loopt (recently acquired by Green Dot for $43 million), had in 2005 – they are energy vampires. The GPS chip is one of the biggest power consumers on every smartphone, and having it on constantly dramatically shortens runtime. It will likely take phone manufacturers a lot longer to develop better batteries that can handle these apps, than the developers to figure out how to use the GPS less. If they don’t, it will take years for passive location to go mainstream.
3. The accelerator bubble.
One of the best panels this year was “Exploring the Top from TechStars, Frank Gruber from TECH Cocktail, Gabriella Draney of Tech W
ildcatters, and Aziz Gilani from DFJ Mercury. It was a solid, wide-ranging discussion, but one topic stood out – the incredible growth of accelerator programs worldwide. There are currently over 200, and David estimated that there will soon be close to 500. This is an industry that is relatively immune to the normal forces of market contraction – most are isolated regionally, so they face little competition, and most of the founders have large amounts of capital that can keep the lights on until they lose interest. The downside is that there is a finite pool of experienced mentors for startups to access, and bad advice early is one of the leading killers of great ideas. The upside is more access to capital means more ideas get funded from a wider range of locations. Time will tell on which wins out.Accelerator Programs” with David Cohen
4. Serendipity Rules
Going with the flow can produce incredible results. From meeting Christian Arno, the CEO of Lingo24 at the airport check in counter, to meeting Allison Hemming, Top Gun at The Hired Guns, on the plane, and sharing a cab downtown with Justin Glenn Davis, Lead Strategist, at Oniracom. Juan Andres Munoz Fernandez, CNN, Snr. Interactive producer.- outside hotel room door getting the newspaper. I also got a chance to catch up with Jeff Cutler and Chris Brogan one morning early at the Driskill, and it all came from waking up ultra-early due to Jet Lag and sending out a mundane tweet about being up at the crack of dawn. Who says what you had for breakfast on Twitter wasn’t valuable!?!
5. Tail wagging the dog
Big brands were out en masse at SxSW, but I’m just not sure it was because they really should have been there (based on proven media rationale) or because their social media manager or agency told them they should be there. From talking to various brand managers, I understand how the opportunity to reach 50,000 Millennials had merit, but how many of them were actually “reached” and was it worth the cost?
For those brands that did participate, the ones that added value really scored above those indulging themselves. Chevy’s ride system added obvious utility, whereas Kraft (an Evol8tion client) delivered simple pleasure (and sampling) with their Mac ‘n Cheese Food Truck and speculative move in the form of branded umbrellas (keep your noodle dry). Pepsi’s presence on the other hand seemed to be inconspicuous and even absent (this may have had something to do with a much larger presence last year and perhaps not the best location this year).
Let the debate continue…
6. Nike rawks
Nike decided to launch their Fuelband in Austin. Apparently you can only buy them in Austin (during SxSW) and a concept/factory store in Manhattan, NY. This was a really smart seeding strategy that involved a kick-ass experiential outdoor installation, a pop-up store inspired by Apple, a seamless buying experience with personal shoppers and a constant line outside designed to raise the eyebrows and good old fashioned word-of-mouth. As the festival unfolds, more and more people joined the line based on interactions with others at the festival. Really smart implications for future festivals, namely an initial pop followed by consistent ramping up due to the momentum established by the steady flow of buyers.
The big loser in my opinion was Facebook. Not only were they completely absent, but rumor has it that their employees had to pay their own way there. Guess they were too busy counting their IPO moolah, but on two counts: their presence and actual consumer usage, my take was a giant flat-line.
7. The Freaky Line has been crossed
As Robert Scoble refers to the suite of new services like Highlight, Glancee, Banjo and Sonar. A whole bunch of times my Banjo twanged, the person in question was literally standing next to me. Very freaky indeed. I’m still not sure how this will play out, but glad I got to play this time round.
It was also commonplace to hear every startup pitch begin with “log in with your Facebook account,” which seems like the path of least resistance, but at what cost?
8. Design and User Experience will win the SoLoMo race
From accelerator pitches to the line for the bathroom, every other conversation was with the founder of “the next revolution in Social Local Mobile utilities.” The space is certainly ripe for innovation, but the only problem being solved for seems to be “how do I find new and interesting things to do and places to go around me.” While there may be nuances in the platform approach (I.e. A virtual telephone pole with virtual fliers vs. an only positive recommendation engine) the usage and value propositions are the same, which means the battle for mass penetration is going to be won by getting user experience and design perfect (and this was the recommendation made to many of these startups by the VC judges on the accelerator panels).
9. Startups need storytellers
After watching 50+ pitches, it became very apparent that a great idea can be lost in a terrible pitch. With the typical competition contestant having a technology background, and being given only 3 minutes or less to pitch their idea, the number one question from the VC’s we heard over and over again was “so, what exactly does it do?” Startup founders have no experience selling, story-telling, or pitching, and thus a great idea is often lost in a too technical, emotionless, example-less, drab presentation. Startups need the consultation (or better yet a staff member) from those who know how to sell a great idea.
10. We NEED to be thinking globally
Some of the most interesting startups I connected with were from Chile, Australia, and London. With alternative (and sometimes more advanced) hardware, creativity abounds overseas. South America in particular had a noticeable showing throughout the conference, in both attendee and presenter numbers. With labor cost in South America being significantly cheaper (and creative design being a force to be reckoned with in S.America and Europe) not having a focused global effort will most certainly lead to missed opportunities.