SXSWisco: Madison Goes to Austin
It’s hard not to feel inspired during the Interactive component of the South by Southwest festival, where competition nearly dissolves in the face of collaboration, networking and learning opportunities, and passion and creativity abound with each dynamic panel and innovative display. And then there are the VIP parties, non-stop live entertainment options and exorbitant amounts of treats served from food carts. It’s no wonder that the annual Austin, Texas, event draws in tens of thousands of participants from around the world each year, including a healthy contingent of Madison-based innovators.
From high-tech startups like OpenHomes and BimVID to captains of industry Shoutlet, Hiebing and American Family, Madison was well represented during the 2014 conference, the whole of which wraps up later this week. In the middle of the mix was Zach Brandon, president of Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce and one of the increasingly tech-savvy community’s biggest cheerleaders, excited to bring Madison technology leaders together and introduce the city’s visionaries to an international audience.
“I think it was a good cross section of industry and size of businesses,” says Brandon of the attendees from Madison. “People were excited to hear the things we were working on.”
Brandon’s visit was prompted by a special invitation by SXSW organizers to be an onsite coach for the SXSW Accelerator pitch event. He took advantage of the opportunity by meeting with his Austin counterparts on business and economic development strategies for the city and the region, as well as witnessing firsthand the value of a signature event to the community.
While the common objective of attending SXSW was to learn and grow, each Madisonian took to the conference with a unique perspective. For Michael Adam, CEO of BankMyBiz.com, and his crew, the goal was simply to tell the world—including investors—about their company, an online service that works to bring business owners and potential lenders together.
BankMyBiz.com was offered a highly coveted platform to do just that when they were selected from thousands of applicants to be a Spotlight Startup at the festival. The opportunity to introduce themselves during the special event focused on promising startups landed them in meetings with tech industry pros in VIP rooms. And the networking paid off; the animated and ambitious guys will be part of the SXSX V2V in Las Vegas this summer.
“The biggest impact has been new user traction and potential funding,” says Adam. “When people hear about what we do at BankMyBiz.com they get it, they love it … It really shows us that a little bit of marketing goes a long way.”
While much of the buzz surrounding SXSW Interactive involves digital platforms and discoveries, Chris Meyer, founder and director of the Madison makerspace Sector67, had the opportunity to talk about his experiences with in-person tech development and entrepreneurship. Meyer, who attended SXSW for the first time this year, was invited to present “How to Create a Makerspace in Your City.” During his March 11 discussion, Meyer shared the story of Sector67 and heard from others who are creating similar spaces in their own hometowns. He also had the opportunity to tour ATX Hackerspace, Austin’s co-op-style workshop.
“It’s really healthy to bounce ideas back and forth and talk about a variety of strategies that we’ve all used to launch successful spaces like Sector67 in other locations around the world,” says Meyer, Madison Magazine‘s . Sector67’s own success has Meyer working with a team of entrepreneurs, developers, private investors and city officials on a project called StartingBlock, which would relocate and expand his hackerspace into the Capitol East District and serve as a regional hub for startup entrepreneurs and technologists.
This year was also the first time Aaron and Abigail Larner have attended SXSW. With a solid background in design and software development, the siblings founded 900dpi, a user-friendly CMS tool that provides designers with a simplified platform. Aaron relocated to Austin in August but continues to work remotely with Abigail and the rest of the 900dpi team based in Wisconsin.
“The most beneficial part of SXSW for me was the opportunity to be surrounded by potential 900dpi users and customers,” says Aaron. “We had been describing our customers as ‘web designers’ before the festival, and based on countless conversations I’ve learned that most of them describe themselves differently. Seemingly small things like this will really help us speak the same language as our customers.”
In an exhibition hall packed with big names such as the New York Times, Adobe and WordPress, Derek Gebler and Nate Leaf also hoped to connect with potential customers during the four-day SXSW Trade Show. As director of business development with MdotLabs, Leaf touted the company’s ad fraud detection technology. He said his position as an exhibitor allowed him to connect with big brands and tech providers, as well as with some Madison-based entrepreneurs. “It’s just a completely different vibe from any other event we attend,” says Leaf. “Attendees at SXSW are really open to striking up a conversation and are less on the defensive than at other events.”
Likewise, Gebler, president of publisher tools at BIMvid, found the exhibit hall to be a helpful spot for sharing information on BIMvid video platforms with broadcasters and publishers—just the types of organizations that are represented at SXSW. He even had the chance to reconnect with a business contact from Finland.
“I’ve talked to a lot of business owners and everyone is passionate about what they do and the products they represent,” says Gebler. “Each one presents a new use case or a confirmation in what we do with our video publishing products. I will take those ideas back.”
Brandon, too, returned to Madison with a head full of ideas and questions for the local community to consider, one of which is whether to organize an official delegation to SXSW.
“Chicago and Detroit had a pavilion,” says Brandon. “Does it make sense for Madison to think about South By Southwest as an authentic way for it to promote itself?”
Now a master’s student in public policy and management at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, former Madison alder Bridget Maniaci decided to use her spring break to find out, visiting and observing both Austin and the festival, and interviewing those she’s meeting along the way.
“Clearly marketing Madison as a destination market for technology and culture should happen at SXSW in the future,” say Maniaci. “The city of Chicago really captured a lot of attention for its Chicago Made music showcase and expo event here this week. Madison has so much to offer to the developing interactive and creative industries as a home.”
As both Maniaci and Brandon, a former alder himself, reflect on the possibility of Madison hosting its own signature event, they are paying close attention to event logistics and city policy, particularly in the wake of the tragic drunk driving accident that killed two people in downtown Austin early Thursday morning.
“I wanted to have a better understanding of the how, the why, the where, and what it would mean for the community in the long term,” says Brandon. “We have our own set of strengths and weaknesses, but we should think about what’s organic and scaleable.”
He also came away from SXSW amazed by the juxtaposition of the marketing side and the content side of the festival, now the largest of its kind in the world. “On the one hand you had mass market appeal—a 3-D printer for Oreos and Subway taking over a whole street corner,” Brandon says. “And on the other hand you had people like Edward Snowden and [WikiLeaks founder] Julian Assange saying all the data you’re giving the tech world has risks.”
For Brandon, it’s this kind of juxtaposition that signals how the conference has evolved over its twenty-one-year history, and how a future festival in Madison, as hypothetical as it still is, could do the same.
Hannah Kiddoo is a writer, editor and former Madison Magazine freelancer living in Austin, Texas.