How I Made My Way Through SXSW

If you have never heard of South by Southwest (SXSW), then I don’t believe you exist. It’s the largest interactive festival in the world AND the largest music festival in the world, at the same time and place. The venue is Austin, Texas – a vibrant city full of government employees (it’s the state capital), […]

If you have never heard of South by Southwest (SXSW), then I don’t believe you exist. It’s the largest interactive festival in the world AND the largest music festival in the world, at the same time and place. The venue is Austin, Texas – a vibrant city full of government employees (it’s the state capital), students (home to University of Texas), and musicians (I’ve never been to New Orleans, but I hear 6th street can hold its own against Bourbon Street). The festival takes over the entire town – more than 30,000 people gather to watch 1,000 interactive sessions and 2,000 bands across 100 official venues over a 13 day span.

Like small talk in a business meeting, planning your time at SXSW is both important and useless. Yes, you can maximize your chances of meeting the game changing business contact by planning meetings before hand and visiting as many networking parties as you can, but some of the best contacts I made at SXSW happened while I was taking time “off” to enjoy a band or grab a bite to eat. No matter how hard you try, you’ll only experience about 5% of the activity at SXSW. My advice to you – pick a few things you really want to do and let your SXSW experience develop in between and around those activities. This was my list:

Day 1: Eat BBQ

You won’t go hungry at SXSW – you can throw a rock in any direction and hit a food truck caravan, but everyone you know will ask you if you ate BBQ when you get home, so you might as well. Franklin Barbecue is famously good, so when I heard that Mopub, an Ad Serving startup recently acquired by Twitter, was serving Franklin bbq at their house party, I made it the highlight of my first day at SXSW.

A few beers and a full stomach later, I had met my first batch of contacts – a guy who started a music education program for underprivileged youth, a “well-known” “investor” with “great connections”, and a handful of enthusiastic sales people eager to make friends, collect business cards, and find their next clients. I didn’t discover the next early stage startup for Plug and Play to invest in, and I didn’t get hired to build an app for anyone, but I got my BBQ and added reconnaissance to my team – friends I could text to ask how long the line at the Spotify house was or whether the bars on Rainey street were checking badges.

Day 2: Watch Comedy

Seeing standup comedy was on my SXSW bucket list, so when I heard Sinbad and Jim Brewer were performing at Esther’s Follies, I made my way over. On our way there, we met Robert Morris and Dan McDuff, two guys who work in the MIT Media lab run by Joi Ito. They work on software that analyzes and integrates human emotion. Their research can be powerful – imagine a software that uses your web cam to analyze your facial movements, detect emotion, and predict how likely a youtube video is to go viral? It’s not hard to imagine big brands being interested in that kind of information. They had also just won an interactive award for creating a keyboard that shocks you when you spend too much time on Facebook. I mentioned I was competing in the SXSW hackathon the next day and asked if they would join us for the initial brainstorm. They agreed, and my hackathon team got smarter.

Day 3-4: Compete in a Hackathon

A hackathon is a competition amongst developers to create an app in a short period of time, usually 24 hours. SXSW hosted its inaugural music hackathon this year and I applied along with 6 developers and a designer from SF AppWorks, the dev shop working closely with Plug and Play to build their new website and startup community platform. The format for a hackathon is pretty standard – sponsors present their APIs and explain how developers can integrate their product into the hack. Want to stream music? Spotify and Beats Music will provide the library. Want to build a car app? Chevy has an HTML-5 API so you can build the next in-car dashboard app.

After the initial presentations, we brainstormed for 30 minutes as a team and decided to build a Silent Disco app for iPhone. If you’ve never been to a Silent Disco, it’s awesome. Hundreds of people gather to dance to electronic music – hands are waiving, the DJ is rocking, and everyone is wearing synchronized headphones. Outsiders hear nothing, other then grunts and extraordinarily loud “I LOVE THIS SONG!!”s. It’s hilarious.

Unfortunately, another company had already built a Silent Disco app and one of the criteria was to be innovative. We knew we had to go further. So we started to consider how to make the Silent Disco better. We wondered what was missing. Conversation, we realized. You can’t talk to other people with your headphones on.

We decided to explore this concept a bit more. Why would you want to listen to headphone music with somebody else and still be able to talk? We mapped out a few use cases:

1. You are in a dorm and want to have a party, but can’t be loud. You invite people over and have your silent disco, but add conversation so people can still talk.
2. You want to go running, snowboard, biking, or some other group activity. You enjoy listening to music when you do this activity alone, but when you are with a group you don’t listen to music so that you can still talk.
3. You are studying or working in a coffee shop. You want to listen to music, but from time to time be able to talk with your friends.
4. You are watching a movie with friends, but one of them doesn’t speak English. They want to stream a Spanish version of the language but still be able to ask occasional questions.

I asked myself the most important question before taking on any personal technology project – would I use this? I do run with my brother. We do talk. I do listen to music. I would definitely try it out and if we could get the VOIP working smoothly enough, I would love it. Let’s build a silent disco with VOIP!

3 hours into our 24 session and we had wireframed the app, prioritized the feature list, and delivered the roadmap to the developers. For the next 20 hours we furiously coded, trimmed features, made adjustments, and prayed that we would finish our prototype and successfully demo it on stage. The organizers were good to us – twice they invited musicians in to provide us with entertainment and a mental break. At one point I slept for 20 minutes and woke up in a panic because I thought I had slept for hours. 5 min before the demo we were still resolving a bug that prevented MUSIC FROM PLAYING. That’s how close we were to completely failing. Yet, when the bells went off and we took the stage, the app, which we called “Rock n Talk”, somehow held it together long enough to show the concept.

We used Gracenote to analyze your playlists and Spotify to stream them (we tried to integrate with BeatsMusic, but their streaming protocol RTMP is not natively supported by iOS). You could launch your own “music room” or join an existing one. Other people could join your room and listen to your playlist, and when you tapped a user in the room the music would dim and you could begin your conversation.

There were a hundred or so people that participated in the hackathon and 31 hacks were submitted for consideration. We weren’t picked as finalists, but we were proud to be a part of the experience and genuinely thrilled at the realization that we could build a working prototype in 24 hours. More importantly, we got approached by 3 major music companies who wanted to meet and discuss working together. They were the best meetings I could have asked for and they came to us because we took a chance, worked our butts off, and tried to do something impactful. If that’s not a lesson for startup hustle, then I don’t know what is.

There was a lot more to my SXSW experience that didn’t make it into the blog, including Plug and Play’s CEO Saeed Amidi speaking on our Berlin Digital Media startup accelerator. There is plenty of information available on that program here, and you can see our own technology EXPO next week if you are interested in some other top notch cutting edge companies.

I also didn’t mention the tragedy that occurred on Red River between 9th and 11th, not because it wasn’t important, but because there is a lot of in depth coverage and I didn’t want to casually allude to something so terrible. It was a sobering and perspective-rocking moment for us all and our hearts go out to the victims and their families.

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