This year I was lucky enough to get to go to SXSW Interactive for the second time, which reminds me of how I pushed to go for the first time last year. I had heard it was “fun” from lots of folks and wanted to attend— but as the time came closer, I kept hearing it was a boondoggle. Thankfully, I didn’t listen and attended—and now having gone for my second year, I can stand up for the belief that a lot of people who don’t attend are missing out. And that those who attend but don’t find much value might not be approaching it the best way.
Some of the negative comments I’ve heard about SXSW
It’s for junior people.
A lot of people would rather focus on more “senior” events, which is understandable—but I love that SXSW takes pride in its diverse set of attendees with a pretty even split across senior decision-makers from big companies, middle management, junior employees and self-starters/founders. It provides an even playing-field, which means you’ll be exposed to ways of thinking outside of your normal peer-set, which can’t be a bad thing.
Not enough clients go.
In fact, a lot of clients and/or potential clients wind up being sponsors of SXSW, and part of the driving force behind bringing a strong lineup of sessions. That means that a lot of people from industries that creative companies serve are there and using SXSW as a means to open their minds.
It’s too party-centric.
Yes...there are a lot of parties at SXSW. This poses a threat to the desire to get a few nights of solid sleep to be up for the early (I’m looking at you, 8:30 am) presentations. However, SXSW is completely what you make of it. With almost 2,000 talks, you control what you participate in, how you curate your schedule, and what late-night parties you take part in. The parties are there, and the networking and connecting can be valuable, but attendance at all or most events isn’t mandated or even necessary.
It’s not relevant to my business.
This is the most surprising one to me, when I hear from people who feel a lot of the sessions aren’t central to what they’re doing right now. My challenge to that is that SXSW is there to be what you make it—whether it’s connections, learning, inspiration or something else—it’s completely in your hands. Additionally, while many sessions might not exactly pertain to what you do today, they may prove handy in future-proofing what you plan to do tomorrow.
Some of the key takeaways from SXSW:
Open your brain.
We often preach that learning is a huge part of our culture, yet it’s incredibly easy to voyeuristically tap into the world we’re trying to understand rather than actually shedding some of our predetermined understandings and experiencing it.
Whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, focus groups, research or anything of the sort, all are incredibly helpful but are no substitute for experiencing life and bringing that to your work. In the age of content-on-demand and algorithms, it’s become easier than ever to live in our curated bubbles and think that we’re servicing the world when in reality we’re servicing our little piece of the world.
I learned from every single presentation, panel, exhibition or experience I had at SXSW. Now I might not have learned how to make content in four easy steps or only things that are 100% directly applicable to what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis, but opening your brain is a part of SXSW. I learned where I want to focus my career, what I don’t want to focus on (just as valuable), how to better conduct myself as a professional, how people in other industries differently approach similar goals, new things I’m interested in—and old things that I thought I was interested in, but it turns out I’m not. All of this is valuable information that makes me better at my job and inspires me as an individual.
The evolution of makers.
A lot of us associate being a maker with having a tangible output or product that you put out into the world. However, in a more tech/software-focused world, there are a lot of different parts that come into play when defining yourself as a maker, including building a team, nurturing and growing that team, deciding on a goal, delivering against that goal and gauging the ROI.
One of the top panels I attended was “Product Mavericks: Top Tips from Women who Build” by Fidji Simo of Facebook, Merci Grace of Slack, Stephanie Hannon of Hillary for America and Tali Rapaport of Lyft. Other than learning that this was a panel of badass females creating incredibly smart products, it helped me expand my understanding of what a “product” is and the work that goes into making it. Also, the challenges faced by all makers, including how there comes a time where you’re going to have to kill something you’ve made that you love, which is one of the hardest yet most cathartic experiences a maker can have.
In short, a lot of us are makers, and we should challenge ourselves to reassess what we’re making and putting out in the world and to evaluate our output in a similar way to how typical “products” are judged.
Work with people and companies you might not have considered.
Nowadays, most companies have a form of a lab or a fund or an incubator or something of similar description. Thus come the challenges of how big companies and small companies alike compete in an ever-competitive landscape.
Matt Mazzeo, MD at Lowercase Capital moderated a panel around VC (with Kiel Berry of Viacom Labs, Molly Schmidt of WME, Suzy Ryoo of Atom Factory and Cross Culture Ventures) focused on the future of “Pop Tech” and the landscape of the tech world. One of my favorite panels, I learned that these folks versed in VC and Labs are asking themselves the same questions I talk about with colleagues and friends—yet they hold a typically more poignant stance as they are literally putting their money where their mouths are. This goes to show that getting outside of your bubble and your comfort zone, and exposing yourself to new ways of thinking from people you may not have crossed paths with, is insanely beneficial for determining how to structure your own team, company, way of working or simply career trajectory.
A diverse team is a good team.
Many companies are preaching diversity and trying to get there (albeit slower than many of us would like). Yet, taking in the incredibly diverse set of panelists reinvigorated my passion for and understanding of why it’s so important to have varying perspectives and opinions at the table. Some of the best things come from butting heads and getting to a unique solution that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.
Alexis Ohanion, co-Founder of Reddit talked about the importance of immigrants but also of how a forum like Reddit that allows people from all walks of life to know each other through a pseudonymous culture and how that grows people (hey, /shitty_watercolor) into unlikely yet brilliant things.
This goes to show how some of the top companies in the world understand that great ideas come not from curating a team of people like us, but of people who aren’t like us so we’re challenged, strive to better ourselves and end up with an unusual result.
Love it or think you’ll hate it, I highly suggest SXSW Interactive if you’re even remotely connected to some of the industries represented. Use it as a chance to learn—and, as corny as it sounds—a chance to challenge your mindset so that you return home a more open person who’s ready to apply new tips, ways of thinking and inspiration to your work and life.