As you probably saw on our social media and blog we decided to go to SXSW this year --- but not only as visitors but also as exhibitors (thanks to EU grant --- Go2Brand).
We've attended a lot of conferences before but it was the first one that we were exhibiting on. We did not really know what to expect but we had some assumptions. At first, it seemed like SXSW is a pretty huge conference that is covering not only startups and IT but also (and actually mainly) music and movie industry --- that meant that the topics of the talks held were very broad and there was even too much to choose from. But since we were exhibiting we could not focus that much on this part so our goals were mostly connected to the effects of having a booth there. Because of the size of the event, we were not expecting a lot and actually wanted to warm up before the next events and also gain some experience with being on the other side of the fence. Besides, since it was our first visit to the USA, we had some expectations regarding the country itself and we were really excited to see how everything looks on the other side of the "pond".
Trade show insights
First of all, we were a bit surprised that the trade show is not as huge as expected (we still had in mind our WebSummit experience). We were also surprised about the variety of companies (and countries too) that were exhibiting. We saw some typical software houses (mostly Polish by the way) but on the other hand, we met a company that is creating on-demand meteor showers shows. Seeing that we were not expecting a lot when it comes to walk-ins at our booth and we were actually a bit afraid --- will this conference bring us any new business. Luckily, it turned out differently. Personally, I believe that the way our booth looked like and the main slogans we were using "Dedicated software engineering teams" were quite catchy and attracted the right kind of clients. We were mostly approached by experienced people that were already doing some projects and are looking either for extensions to their teams or actual replacement. We also gathered a few partnership-like contacts and besides we talked to a lot of people that were outside of the business. But that is actually the great thing about SXSW (and maybe US conferences, but we will confirm that after TechCrunch) --- people were friendly, eager to talk and really interesting. We learned a lot about the USA itself and also about its culture. It was a great thing to actually look from our clients' perspective. All we needed to start most of the conversations was a smile and a simple "hello, how are you doin'?" --- and then we could take this amazing path and see where it is taking us --- either a new potential client or sometimes just a cool business talk and exchanging ideas or simply getting to know the US market better.
Walking around the trade show and seeing what other companies are doing and the way they are presenting themselves was also an enriching experience. We saw the mistakes people do and learned how to avoid them --- the main one was sitting behind the desk, staring at their cellphones and waiting for people to come to you and ask about the company. Since the first minute of the trade show, we took a very proactive approach --- and it paid off:)
Selected talks that we attended
As I mentioned at the beginning we did not fly there to attend talks, but we managed to squeeze them in, in our already tight schedule. I attended four of them, and the three were really interesting, so thought I could share some insights below. The full content of my summary can be found in a separate article, below I'll just summarize them in few words not to make this article too long too read;)
Amy Balliett, CEO of Killer Visual Strategies, "The Visual-first method: Boost conversions now"
A very interesting talk which covers the topic of a consistent strategy for visualizing content in the company. She described briefly the basic science behind information processing by the human brain and later explained how a company should approach the process of being oriented to present information in this manner. She explained the differences between video and image content on different social platforms and gave some suggestions about where to use each of them.
Bessie Lee, CEO of Withinlink, "How AI is changing advertising in China"
A mind-blowing hour spent on this talk:) Bessie gave us a great overview of Chinese AI-ecosystem and the way the government supports this. There were some slides that compared China to the rest of the world in the area of funding, patents and amount of data. All of this supports the idea that China will be the ultimate leader of AI oriented solutions. They are actually implementing a lot of those in real life in a manner that is unimaginable for the rest of the world. Then she showed examples of monolithic app/social ecosystem that allows advertisers to get insights from all the data gathered in one place and use them for the benefit of the users. Last but not least she explained that Chinese citizens do not have a problem with being tracked by a single app in all the areas, because they are pretty much used to the government following them all the time with the difference that in case of the apps they are actually getting some value in return.
Poppy Crum, Professor at Stanford University, "Empathetic technology and the end of the poker face"
A very interesting and intense lecture. Poppy wanted to show how we will be able to change the way the technology is perceived. She claimed (and showed examples) that the new technology will make us free and significantly improve the quality of our lives. And what technology did she have in mind? Mostly all things related to gathering bio-feedback, data from our bodies and processing them with using AI to predict/understand us. She is a big supporter of the idea that technology will no longer have "one size fits all" approach but instead it will be able to adapt to our personal qualities and state we are in to make our life easier. She sees great potential in med-tech and personalized smart treatments. Towards the end, she showed specific examples of how the data can be gathered and used. I totally recommend watching her TED-talk --- she has a lot of interesting knowledge but she also has a very specific vision about the future which is worth contemplating.
If you want to read more about any of those talks please visit my article "SXSW talks summary" and follow it by digging into other materials shared by the authors.
Few words about Austin and Texas
I wouldn't be myself if at this point I did not mention the city itself;) I won't reveal everything because I believe that you need to see it for yourself. We were really amazed and quite surprised as Austin proved to be something different than we had expected.
For people from a very core European culture (yup, some of you consider us eastern, but Poland is a western Slavic country) people in Austin appeared very friendly and open. Similar to people from southern Spain or southern Italy, they tend to smile and interact with you a lot in a very pleasant and non-intrusive way. Small talk in a mall? A casual chat with Austin PD office? Nothing surprising. People are kind, they seem to care about you and showed a real interest in where we were coming from. It is definitely one of the best things Texas gave us.
Architecture, roads and food
"Whoah, that's big and wide and freaking spacious" --- that's a typical thing you will hear from a European. Well, our streets are narrow, parking space worth more than gold, gas quite expensive. In Austin, we actually could feel that we could breathe, our rental Jeep would fit anywhere and as pedestrians, we were treated with kindness as almost every driver stopped immediately when he/she saw us approaching the crossing. We felt relaxed on the road too as the speed limits are lower than in Europe and respected pretty much by everybody.
We enjoyed Austin's skyline a lot (it looks best at night from Mount Bonnel or from the Colorado river shore) and we learned about the historical 6th street that today is still the main street for all kinds of entertainment. We tried some quality tex-mex food, drank hipster margaritas and listened to some indie rock bands giving live shows. We visited the famous White Horse to listen to country music and drink a cold Lone Star. We visited some BBQ joints in the county area where sausages and sirloins blew our mind. Highly recommended!
So as you can see we enjoyed pretty much everything. The thing about Austin is, that it's as people say different, a bit weird and not completely Texan for many Texans. Austin was always progressive and a safe place for everybody. SXSW is there since late the late 80s and also made this city and its population even more opened and friendly. It's a city where modern mixes with traditional, a city of skyscrapers and Texan prowess mixed with a tad of habanero pepper and tequila. Totally love it.
Overall summary and most important takeaways
If I would have to sum up the event with one sentence it would be "you have to go there". There are many reasons for that and most of them I mentioned before.
As for the takeaways
- The talks held during the conference are really diverse and I believe anybody can find something of great value. My advice --- if you want to see a particular talk, be there 15 minutes in advance because it can get crowded.
- If you're exhibiting make sure to ask about all technical things like electricity or TV rentals in advance, because during the event the prices go way up
- Smile and talk to people. I cannot stress that enough. I've seen a lot of booths where people were just sitting behind the desks and waiting to be approached. It doesn't work this way --- and because the people at SXSW seem relaxed and happy most of the time it's very easy to approach them and start a conversation. So be brave and do it:)
- The busiest days of the trade show are Sunday and Monday. Try to focus a lot during those days and do your best to talk as much as you can.
- Renting a car is not necessary, as the city is not that big and the traffic is pretty light even during the busiest conference days, however, if you'd like to visit the countryside, it's the only way.
I really hope this was not the last SXSW that we attended and in the future, we will have opportunities to visit Austin!