South by Southwest (SXSW) – the annual, international gathering of innovators, creative thinkers, film makers and musicians – will this week descend upon Austin, Texas, for the ultimate in conference festivals.
With keynote speakers US president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama joining this year’s line-up, the stage is set for one of the biggest events of its kind in the world, and possibly the most exciting in SXSW’s 23-year history. But how can you make the most of it?
The Irish contingent at SXSW is always strong and this year’s festival is no exception, with incredible productions expected from Macnas at the street theatre spectacular #Irelandon6thStreet, proudly supported by KPMG in conjunction with IDA Ireland.
In addition to IDA’s stellar work, Enterprise Ireland will also be at SXSW, showcasing more than 20 emerging and established Irish companies, including EightyTwenty, Engager, Catapult, Handy, Roads Entertainment, Drop Kitchen, Good Travel Software and Globoforce.
As you would expect, a range of networking events will showcase Irish capabilities, including products that enable fast-growing trends like the internet of things (IoT), the mobile revolution and the sharing economy.
In the mix this year are wearable sensors that reduce stress, mobile marketing automation, new gaming platforms, solutions that enable developers to create social and community-based mobile apps, integrated digital marketing platforms, HR tools to accelerate employee performance, and much more.
Dublin’s Start-up Commissioner, Niamh Bushnell, will also be there, highlighting the best of what goes on in Dublin with Dublin Makes Me and – building on the ‘Keep Austin Weird’ theme – an (I kid you not) Irish start-up wake!
Getting the most out of SXSW requires some forward planning, plenty of battery life and a comfortable pair of flat (for the women) or well-heeled (for the men) shoes, or the more likely choice: runners or Converse.
Having attended in 2015, here are my top tips.
1. Know why you’re attending
Before you go, set yourself a few key objectives. Ask yourself, ‘Why am I attending SXSW? What do I want to achieve? Who do I want to meet? What do I have to offer and how can I make things happen?’.
Whether you are aiming to break into new markets, raise finance, get advice on becoming the next big thing or you simply want to take it all in, know in advance what it is you want to get out of SXSW. It is simply too big to just rock up and expect it all to happen.
2. Make new friends
Accept invites for all the parties you can fit into your schedule.
In a normal conference, this would be equivalent to walking the floors and working the room. But SXSW is very different, and much of the networking takes place in the parties that take place after the formal business of the day.
It is funny, though: in this increasingly tech-centric world (and believe me, SXSW Interactive – the tech element that takes place over this weekend – is very techy), business cards are important. Bring them with you and swap them with those who you really want to connect with afterwards. Then don’t forget to follow up when you get home, either by email or LinkedIn or that old fashioned way – a call.
Many delegates find their next business partner or future investor at such conferences and, if nothing else, you will have made a new connection.
3. Don’t try to do it all
It’s easy to find yourself overwhelmed by the vast scale of SXSW. My advice is to study the map of where everything is and where everything is going to take place. Use the app (iPhone or Android) and note the sessions, keynotes and panels you want to participate in. Lock them into your diary/iPad/phone/app – whatever tool you use.
Plan your timetable so you can be there on time. Last year, there were huge queues outside of some sessions and others were easy to get into.
Walk the exhibition halls at least once and take note of the companies that catch your eye. The country pavilions are particularly interesting. Spend some time with the Irish team, being minded and managed by Enterprise Ireland, before branching out to the other countries represented.
Doing your homework ahead of time will pay dividends.
4. Take your chance and speak out if it is appropriate
An unusual feature of SXSW is that there are open mics at many of the sessions. Here, members of the audience queue up to ask the panel questions or, as I found last year, use the opportunity to give their viewpoint or make their pitch.
If it is appropriate, you’d be mad not to use the opportunity.
But don’t go overboard. The audience is generally there to hear the panel, not the audience.
5. Set up base camp
Find a comfortable base where you can recharge the batteries, as well as meet like-minded people. SXSW boasts plenty of lounges and venues that provide opportunities to meet and network with other digital natives.
Check out the IDA’s Emerging Business blog for the full line-up of Irish events taking place in the run up to St Patrick’s Day. Catch up with peers, both old and new, and make the most of your SXSW experience by finding a convenient location to do business.
6. Reach out
In advance, reach out to your social media contacts to let them know you are attending and perhaps arrange a catch-up on the ground. Update your LinkedIn profile and share relevant insights about the conference via Twitter.
7. Ask lots of questions
Curiosity is key. In order to learn from the best, you need to ask questions, and lots of them. Act like a sponge at SXSW and absorb the various pearls of wisdom, tricks of the trade, and success and failure stories from people in the know, and who have been there and done that.
To help ask the right questions, check out SXSWorld Magazine en route. The publication is a fountain of knowledge for the latest happenings from the worlds of music, film and interactive industries, so make sure you read up on the latest before you arrive.
8. Make friends with Twitter
Have something to say and use the event hashtag #SXSW to amplify your message and attract more followers and potential leads. This is a great way to involve yourself in the debate and start a new conversation that could help position your expertise and business ideas.
9. Soak up the atmosphere
Austin, Texas, provides a brilliant backdrop for SXSW.
Last year, I was was taken aback by the mix of old and new. The mix of high-rise buildings, modern hotels, old world bars and real-world cowboys (the type on horseback) was fantastic. The atmosphere is relaxed and the social side is just as important as the business side. Potential investors will be mixing with attendees on pub crawls, in food halls and at dinners.
Events like SXSW bring new life to our connections and can create all sorts of opportunities for meeting inspirational people.
Anna Scally is head of technology, media and telecoms at KPMG in Ireland.
Main image via Shutterstock