Irish entrepreneurs hope South by Southwest route leads to success

11 Mar 2014

Kim Knowles (left) and Ciara McKenna, co-founders of Coldlilies

It’s no surprise South by Southwest (SXSW) was born in Austin, Texas, a city that bears the slogan ‘The Live Music Capital of the World’. What started as a music festival in 1987 has since grown to become a trio of events taking over the city.

SXSW branched out to include film and multimedia conferences in the mid-Nineties, with the latter event rechristened SXSW Interactive in 1999. By 2010, attendance at the tech-focused gathering surpassed that of the music festival as the event became renowned as a breeding ground for emerging technology.

American launchpad

This year’s SXSW Interactive festival began Friday (7 March) and runs through to Tuesday. Included among its estimated 36,000 visitors are Kim Knowles and Ciara McKenna, co-founders of Coldlilies, who hosted a panel at the event’s Fashion Track on opening day.

Coldlilies is an online retailer of curated jewelry from Irish and British designers. At the panel discussion on new technologies revolutionising fashion and retail, Liz Bacelar, founder of Decoded Fashion, and Liza Kindred, founder of Third Wave Fashion – both fashion-tech think tanks based in New York – joined Knowles and McKenna.

“All anyone is talking about at the moment is wearables [wearable tech], and it’s becoming a bit of a tired conversation,” said Knowles, who was looking forward to starting a discussion on other developments in fashion-tech.

From Coldlilies’ perspective, the global jewellery market – which was worth US$261bn in 2012 – holds as much promise as the emerging wearable tech market, and the site intends to become the premium online destination for design-led jewellery.

“We’re taking a lead from the fashion industry and the way clothing is sold online,” said McKenna. The purpose of their trip to SXSW is to meet with investors and raise funds for a more dynamic platform that will enable Coldlilies to mirror the in-store experience.

With technology at the heart of Coldlilies’ vision, its founders see SXSW as the perfect launchpad for the US market. Knowles and McKenna have spent the past year testing their concept in the micro-markets of Ireland and the UK, but now they want to launch where fashion-tech has already taken off.

“It has great potential for us […] our niche market is just growing over here but it already exists to a huge degree in the States,” said McKenna. “It makes sense for us now to really concentrate on that market, learn lessons, pivot our model and then be able to bring those lessons back to bear in the European market, as well as the Middle East and the Asian markets.”

Start-up opportunities

Of course, Coldlilies is not the only Irish company hoping to gain Stateside attention at SXSW. Enterprise Ireland has brought more than 20 companies to SXSW Interactive this year, 12 of which pitched at the festival’s Startup Village event co-hosted by NASDAQ on 8 March.

Other Irish delegates pitched to win the SXSW Interactive Accelerator, which has awarded US$587m to finalists and winners over the past six years. Cloud-based video-ad creation platform Viddyad was in competition for the Innovative World Technologies prize, while e-commerce and security firm Trustev set out to win the Big Data Technologies category – and succeeded.

The Irish cohort at SXSW also includes gaming community Fragd, ad-tech company Betapond, online ancestry service Irish National Crest Store, and wearable sensor-maker Lumafit. While the technology is varied, the reputation for Irish start-ups is consistent.

Enterprise Ireland has built up a presence at SXSW over the years and, for those companies visiting Austin, a positive reputation precedes them.

“There’s a decent buzz around what’s coming out of Ireland and it’s not just hype,” said Simone Boswell, senior vice-president of internet, media and entertainment for USA at Enterprise Ireland.

With plenty of Irish-born tech companies laying roots in Silicon Valley or doing business with companies all over the US, a high standard has already been set.

“If you look at the other country delegations that attend South by Southwest, Ireland generally has a much better reputation for quality and innovation,” Boswell added.

Making an impact at SXSW isn’t something that can be done off the cuff, either. There’s a lot of preparation involved and the delegates taking part this past weekend were thoroughly briefed.

For the Irish start-ups visiting SXSW, Boswell said there’s a variety of objectives, though for the majority, funding or validation are key aims.

“It’s kind of frenetic, so it’s good to understand the ins and and outs, and the pace – it’s fast-paced,” she said. “It’s one of those shows where you really need to do a bit of leg-work and figure out what your strategy’s going to be.”

A version of this article appeared in The Sunday Times on 9 March

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic