SXSW is upon us once again. Over 32,000 people are descending on Austin and it’s time to think about how to tackle this massive event…if you haven’t already. SXSW is one of the biggest networking opportunities of the year for entrepreneurs. It’s also overwhelming if you don’t have a game plan.
Not going to SX? The same rules apply for any major convention or event you attend.
In each of my five years attending, I’ve had an incredible, life-changing time at SXSW Interactive Festival. And each year has been completely different. Turns out that SXSW is what you make it. It can be about the large parties, inspiring conversations, pitching or hustling, or if you want intimate and small, you can make that happen too.
If you find yourself questioning the value of SXSW, you’re probably doing it wrong. Whether you are a first-time startup laser focused on winning the SXSW Accelerator pitch or an experienced startup attending to close deals, there is always value to be found.
Here are 10 tips to tackle SXSW that you can customize to meet your needs as you tackle the event. Some are reminders of the importance of things I’m doing now, but many are actionable notes for how to approach any conference with specific goals.
- Do the legwork before the event starts to establish a plan of attack. Ideally, you establish a strategy prior to arriving in Austin. But if you’re like most startup founders you probably made the last-minute decision to attend and need to figure things out on the fly. Immediately upon arriving in Austin, sit down as a team and establish some loose goals and parameters — potential meetings, events, panels and what your expectations are to justify the cost of the trip.
- Define your SXSW goals to stay the course. Build your pre-SXSW schedule and break down your meeting goals into two categories. Crucial meetings you must have and meetings you would like to have, but would suffice with a call post-SXSW. You can safely schedule 8+ meetings a day during SXSW, but you need to make room for the fact that 50 percent of your meetings will most likely shift time and location. Try to lock in your high-value meetings ahead of time and make loose plans to connect at certain events with others.
- Establish a home base in the middle of the madness. It’s hard to schedule meetings on the fly. Pick a central location where you can camp out on the days you are planning meetings. SXSW has official lounges on the top floor of the convention center. These are great central locations for meetings, random run-ins and free beer.
- Be very targeted in which events you attend. If you’re a startup trying to break through the chaos you want to be at the events where you can stand out and can meet investors, advisors or customers. Save the big parties for the end of Interactive when you have accomplished all your goals.
- Schedule dinners or seek out a group to have dinner with. Dinners are a great setting to get to know people and create active connections. You can invite 3-4 prospects or friends and have them invite 3-4 others.
- Have a “wing man” so you can hunt in packs. At SXSW, you need somebody that roams around the conference with you and pick out the potential prospects. Every line you wait in is a chance to meet someone incredible. Even if at first they have nothing to do with your interest, the chances are that they will have an interesting story if you open up.
- The deal doesn’t need to happen today/tomorrow. There will be tens of thousands of people at SXSW. They will be there mostly to network, go to parties and hang out. They are not there to “discover the next cool SXSW app.” It is the peak moment of ADD for everyone in the tech industry and the tech press.
- One introduction can change everything for your business. All it takes is someone to open one door and from that 10 more doors will open. Reach out to your network and set up a short list of people that make up your conference army, like friends or acquaintances that you can ping to find the most relevant events or to guide you toward free beer and tacos. Seek out fellow attendees/speakers who have some experience with the event to give you advice, guide you and even show you around. The ethos of SXSW is very much about helping people for the sake of it and you should approach each day with the attitude that you are going to help someone new by providing them with an intro. Relationships last a lifetime. Provide value, knowledge and introductions and the benefits will be tenfold.
- Let go. Enjoy the randomness. Make new friends and let them lead. Go with something different. A million amazing things take place simultaneously and loosened schedules create chances to tap into longstanding information networks and find something great beyond the maddening crowds. Pack in your meetings between noon and 5 p.m. and carve out time for the randomness around evening events. Having a place to start will make all the difference, but then be prepared to discover things you would not have come across otherwise.
- Build connections with people. The true method of doing SXSW better than it’s ever been done before is about authentically helping others connect. Building future connections and helping others meet interesting people. You can find inspiration at the morning keynotes, but the late-night drinks are where the most inspiring conversations happen. SXSW is a marketplace of ideas, bringing together the brightest minds from across diverse industries to present and debate on a variety of topics. The resulting environment is one that breeds creativity and ultimately inspires a new way of thinking.
Thanks to my wife for supporting my SXSW trips, and I hope the rest of my family can now understand why I look forward to spending a weekend in Austin every March.
Ryan Stoner is the Director of Strategy at Publicis Seattle and he’s hosting a Mentor Session at this year’s SXSW Interactive Festival. If you want to see what’s going on at SXSW in real-time, you can follow Ryan on Twitter @stoneage where he’ll be posting about his experience.
*Photo credits: Jack Gruber (USA TODAY)