South by Southwest holds great promise: a coming-together of tech industry geeks in a land of atomic tacos, free beer, and fantastic speakers. But when you start looking at everything going on at SXSW, it quickly becomes terrifying. How am I going to choose what to go to? When am I going to sleep? How will I survive this? I’ve attended several times, and collected a number of tips.
Don’t bring a laptop; it’ll be heavy, and you won’t use it that much. Bring your smartphone and/or a tablet instead. Bring extra batteries; there are outlets in the hallways of the conference buildings, but they can often all be taken. If you bring a power strip, you’ll make friends quick.
Wifi can be spotty, as can reception. But you shouldn’t spend too much time on your devices anyway.
You’re going to be doing a lot of walking, so make sure to wear practical shoes and clothes. Check the weather: unless it’s getting really cold, don’t bring a jacket. It’ll just be a hassle.
Going East of the freeway can be a little shady. Better to stay in the main area, which is North of the river, South of the University, East of Congress Ave, and West of the freeway. 95% of the events are there anyway.
Eating can end up being an afterthought, so plan accordingly. Bring some snacks. Restaurants can take forever, so head for the food carts instead.
Especially with the increased number of sessions this year, choosing the right ones for you can be a like finding a needle in a needlestack. Don’t overly stress about it. Instead, keep a loose schedule with multiple interesting sessions in each timeslot. You never know what might come up, and you don’t want to miss out on hanging out with smart people because you’re trying to adhere to your schedule.
Session quality is really varied, and anyone can write a good session title, so don’t base your decisions on that. Go to sessions with speakers you like/think are interesting. Check out Plancast to see what events the crowd is getting excited about. Avoid beginner-level talks (the level is listed on each event page), as they’re often very generic. Instead, aim for intermediate and advanced.
Here’s a few I’ll be going to:
- How to Build Entrepreneurship Communities
- Community & Influence: How Not to Piss People Off (disclaimer: I am moderating this panel)
- Your Marketing Sucks: Why You Need to Think Local
- Community-Centered Design: It’s Not About the User (disclaimer: my CEO is speaking in this talk)
- Crowd Sourcing Community Projects Like Tom Sawyer
- Community First: Lessons for Early-Stage Startups
- Get Lucky: Create Serendipity to Spur Innovation
The best thing about SXSW, in my opinion, is that a lot of amazing tech people are in one place. Make sure you’re making time to hang out with people, introduce yourself to the person next to you in the bar, etc. Bring a hell of a lot of business cards (and be sure to write some info down on cards that you collect, so you don’t forget who they were). Plan to go to some networking events, like the Community Builders Potluck BBQ. Create a list on Twitter of people you want to meet or hang out with, and reach out to them once you’re in Austin. And don’t stress if you miss a session because you’re connecting with someone…that’s much more important than a talk.
SXSW is famous for it’s parties. But frankly, I don’t recommend focusing too intensely on them. The “big” parties are often full and loud, making it impossible to talk to people. The events with free food and booze run out very quickly. Again, focus on events where you’ll find like-minded people (last year Etsy had a craft-making area, the UK embassy had an event for brits, etc). And, of course, RSVP right away for any parties featuring your favorite bands.
In the end, it’s almost impossible for you not to simultaneously love SXSW and feel let down. It’s not going to be everything you imagine, but it might be something you haven’t imagined! Just keep your mind open, go with the flow, and meet awesome people.