Last week I was in Austin at South by Southwest, speaking about automation and the future of sports analysis on behalf of Automated Insights
. Kind of a whirlwind trip—I got in Friday night and left Monday morning, not even taking advantage of my favorite South By, the music part.
I call SXSW Music my favorite part (and sometimes the “real” part) because it was my first experience with the festival way back in 2000, when digital was dial-up and interactive was creepy chat rooms.
It was back then when I first made a connection between Austin and the Triangle, and it held true on my most recent trip: Austin is Raleigh and Durham 10 years from now.
Back in 2000, it was a more generic “the Triangle,” before the individual identities of Raleigh and Durham as centers of commerce really took hold. And by that, I mean Raleigh was still trying to be Atlanta and Durham was just trying to figure out Durham, before American Anything or even the new ballpark.
But even back in 2000, and then again during a second trip to SXSW in 2009, and then this one in 2016, the connection wasn’t hard to make. Austin is a great example of a city grown around tech and startup in a place that isn’t Silicon Valley. It blends quality of life with a progressive, experimental attitude. It attracts young people without alienating families. And it’s a really, really good place to start a company.
Austin looks and acts nothing like Silicon Valley, and in fact, the comparisons are irrelevant. It has no right to be a tech hub, smack in the middle of Texas, anchored by UT, and a long drive from San Antonio or Houston. While the growth of both of those cities has been phenomenal, neither one has the cache or attraction of San Francisco or New York. Austin has a large corporate presence, but it’s not really “home” to anything massive unless you count Dell and Whole Foods, which are great but aren’t necessarily Apple and Google.
Austin itself has seen tremendous growth since 2010, the most on a percentage basis of any top metro.
Compare that to Raleigh and Durham—huge growth in the heart of the new South, practically awash in new grads from State, Duke, UNC and about a dozen other top-to-mid-level universities. A few hours from Charlotte, Atlanta and DC. Home to Red Hat and SAS.
Like Austin, Raleigh and Durham are decent and relatively affordable places to live. They have an inviting climate, if a little warmer than usual. There’s a lot going on all year round. In fact, the one big difference, beyond size, is that Austin becomes an electric place to be during the weeks (what used to be days) of its gigantic festival of everything.
But that’s changing too, and I think it’s another way we’re separating ourselves from Austin and should continue to do so.
Less than two months from now, specifically May 19th, Durham will host its first Moogfest, and let’s call that “SX with keyboards.” It’s the missing festival jewel in Durham’s cultural crown to match Hopscotch in Raleigh in the fall.
Like SXSW, Moogfest comes with its own interactive track already baked in—its "Future Thought" series. This is good.
But SXSW has exploded. Once just a music festival, it added the Film and Interactive arms in the 1990s. Then Gaming, Comedy, Television, Social Good, Sports and a number of other niche tracks found their way in. Again, this is good.
I don’t think that same kind of traction would work here. Not too many years ago there were several groups pushing an ironically nicknamed SXSE festival, stitched around Hopscotch and a few local tech events. Those efforts never really panned out, and I’m kind of glad they didn’t, even though I was a proponent at the time.
SXSW has seen all kinds of blowback in recent years, from the number of attendees being too many, to the number of attendees up to no good, to the blatant commercialization of the festival. I’ll admit that as I walked along 6th Street on Saturday night, I immediately noticed the difference between 2000 and 2009 and 2016. I didn’t see a whole lot of badges. I saw a fistfight break out. And the general attitude of the bouncers at the bars was somewhere between brusque and jaded.
I had already been told to “stay off 6th Street.” But you know me, I suck at doing what I’m told.
I’m glad I went down there though. I saw a potential Raleigh and Durham 10 years from now. It was fun to visit, but for the first time I wasn’t sure I wanted to live there. We don’t need an event-based identity any more than we need a VC-based identity or a corporation-based identity.
Raleigh and Durham are already becoming widely known as great places to start a business. Sure, we need the cultural expansion and attraction that’s springing up from our downtowns and infecting our suburbs. But that should be an outgrowth of our success, not the other way around.
As the wheels touched down at RDU after three fast-forwarded days of tech, music, food, drink and stimulation, I was happy to be back in Nerd City. Same way I feel after a couple days in Vegas or Manhattan or the Valley.
The secret of Austin is out. Raleigh and Durham are still kind of diamonds in the rough and, in some sense, maybe we shouldn’t let that secret out too quickly.