I attended my first South by Southwest Interactive Festival in 2011, and I remember walking away thinking, ‘What just happened?’
It’s one of those experiences that can only be described with a bunch of adjectives: energizing, inspiring, weird, delicious, surprising, fun, exhausting, overwhelming, exciting and I’m sure I’m missing a lot. At the end of the weekend, your brain is so full you can’t make sense of it any other way.
But looking back, I know that the people I met and heard speak gave me deep context for the interviews I’ve conducted and stories I’ve written since. So I guess if I had to pick a word to describe SXSW, it’s influential.
There’s a team of people that carefully crafts this experience, and the head of that team for the last 21 years is an Austin man named Hugh Forrest. And North Carolina (specifically, Wilmington) is lucky enough to be his host September 4th for the first Coastal Connect Entrepreneur and Capital Conference, an event organizers hope will spotlight the entrepreneurial efforts in their city along with its coast line (Check out ExitEvent’s take on Wilmington’s startup scene). I’m pretty pumped too, because they’ve asked me to host a “riverside” chat with him that day.
Forrest and I chatted yesterday to help me prepare for the event and I’ve published excerpts of our conversation below. I hope they drum up some other questions from those who plan to attend (leave some in the comments, if you want!).
The September visit will be Forrest’s third to the state – he attended an event earlier this year in Charlotte and a Bruce Springsteen concert years ago. He said yes to a longtime friend named Jim Roberts, who for the last year has run UNCW’s new Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship.
Roberts met Forrest at the festival years ago (Roberts has attended seven times) and starting in 2002 tried to convince him to hold similar events in our state (to no avail and Roberts says today “That ship has sailed.”).
Says Forrest: “Jim is a friend and I think that sharing whatever meager info that I have to other cities is good. One of the great things about the Internet is it displaces factors of time and place. If you’ve got a great idea, you can be in Silicon Valley, Austin, Wilmington or anywhere around the world. This is also a great opportunity for me to talk about what we do at SXSW and I hope to get more digital creatives from the Wilmington area and North Carolina at the event.”
The rest of our initial interview is below and you can sign up for the conference here.
EE: Is there a formula that has made SXSW so successful? If so, how do you (briefly) explain it?
HF: Our success is in many ways due to the fact that we have grinded it out for so long. We had many years where we were not growing or not growing as much as we would like. The great thing about interactive is we had this great music event that was paying the bills when we were not paying the bills on the interactive side. You hear this concept of the Valley of Death – you have a great idea and then get some money and nothing happens for a long time. We had a very, very long Valley of Death, 7-9 years, but managed to survive that then see some very positive growth about 10 years ago. It’s always amusing when I’m talking to people who think we started in the mid-2000s, and then I say we’ve been around for 21 years. For the first 10, we didn’t know what we were doing.
EE: What is the secret to making it new and different year after year?
HF: A lot of the programming stems from ideas that come from the community. The more we’ve learned to connect with, engage, listen, understand our community, the stronger the event has become. We have anywhere from half to three quarters of programming via community proposals that come in through SXSW Panel Picker interface. That helps keep programming fresh. We are leveraging the best minds in the community with the newest and coolest ideas to help us bring those ideas to the event. (…)
The keynotes, and this has changed in recent years, are people that you have heard of before. We’ve been able to get Chelsea Clinton and Elon Musk and Anne Wojcicki (of 23AndMe). It’s great to have bigger names to create buzz, but those bigger names are relatively recent in our journey. And whether it’s bigger names or not quite as big names, it’s people who are doing very creative things and inspire audiences with their vision of an innovative future. (…)
I also try to encourage my staff as much as possible to be reading all the relevant publications and websites to try to keep up on the most current trends. My staff and I meet weekly and one thing we do is have a game at the end of the meeting where we talk about current events. Whoever has most interesting opinion wins a Starbucks card.
EE: What are the top three technology topics or trends you are most excited about and why?
HF: Wearable computing, whether that be fashion that has some kind of connectivity or it’s a shirt that is less fashionable but can connect with your doctor or a computer to measure all your vitals. One thing I was quite fond of was the Memoto camera that clipped on your shirt and took pictures. This idea of wearable computing – We’re still very, very, very, very early in that whole growth cycle.
We’re also I think right at the beginning of this 3D printing growth cycle. I like to think 3D printing in 2014 is where we were with web publishing in 2004. You had to know html to do any kind of publishing on the web. Now, you have tools like WordPress where you can simply type. If 3D printing becomes 1. Easier to use and 2. There are more usable applications for it, we’ll see the usage and adoption grow and grow and grow. We anticipate seeing lots of sessions on 3D printing in 2015.
There’s a lot of buzz about self driving cars, autonomous cars, how that will change the way we work and live and change the way we consume social media.
But one of the values of SXSW is that we’ve got 700-800 total sessions. While those three areas will be big areas of focus, there are dozens and dozens of topics ranging from how tech is impacting healthcare to space exploration to new innovations in food and sports. Also, things like smart cities, education. There are lots of different areas of focus with the theoretical bottom line that these are all topics that appeal to the digital creative community.
EE: Outside of the main conference, do you do other events?
HF: We now have event in Las Vegas in the summer, an eco sustainability event in the fall and also an EDU focused event right before SXSW. I think as much success as we’ve had in Austin, we have learned that taking that success on the road is more difficult, so we’ve been pretty hesitant to expand a whole lot. Austin is a huge part of the success of SXSW. Depending on how the Vegas thing grows, it will influence what we do in other cities. Year two finished last week. It’s a much, much, much smaller version of interactive and proportionally much more focused on startups than interactive is.
EE: Advice for others planning big conferences or events?
HF: One of the traps is looking at where SXSW is in 2011-2014 and thinking that can be duplicated immediately. Maybe with a large operating budget, but as much as we live in this world of instant gratification, I’m a strong believer in slow organic growth.
EE: Do you take any responsibility for Austin’s bursts of energy and growth?
HF: What we do at SXSW shines a very bright light on the creativity that happens in Austin year round. Yes, we probably can and should take some credit but this stuff is happening here year-round as it is happening in lots of different places. SXSW brings all these media people to Austin – bloggers and tweeters and Facebook users – that help publicize that. That’s the real value.