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SXSW: One Journalist’s First Time at the Mother of All Conferences

SXSW is inTENSE. In a post from Jeremiah Owyang, he stated that the 2012 paid attendance count was 24,569, up from 19,364 in 2011. That’s a whopping 27% increase. Wow.

There’s a really good chance it’s going to be even bigger next year. If you’re planning on attending in 2013 as a newbie, then first and foremost I hope to see you there. Even though it was rough at times, all in all it was the best conference experience I’ve ever had. Secondly, I wish you less frustration.

Here’s an overview of my personal, semi-tragic experience, complete with tips for avoiding the pitfalls.

Arrival: It Rains in Texas, too

There we were, Troy Larson (Mindjet’s Social Media Specialist) and I, standing in the longest cab line of time at the Austin airport, watching sheets and sheets of water come down all around us. It poured the entire time we waited, and continued right on through the 15-minute ride to our hotel – a.k.a. the middle of nowhere. It was really only about four miles south of the convention center, but that’s a journey and a half when you’re not on the free shuttle route.

Upon arrival we were greeted by a woman whose eyebrows I didn’t think could possibly get any higher, but when my debit card was denied she managed to raise them to the heavens. (Here’s where I explain my ignorance, one of the stronger themes of this trip.) All of my previous experience has been in reporting, so whenever I’ve gone to a conference it has been per the request of the organization throwing it. They generally take care of the details beforehand, and it’s a no-money-down type of deal for me, except for the occasional charge that is made in case of incidentals.

It turns out this is not the case in corporate land, and the horror that spread across my face after hearing the room total and recalling the number of dollars that I’d just spent on two tickets to Hawaii was surely the saddest thing Troy had ever seen. After what felt like years of painfully awkward silence, he tossed his AMEX on the counter like it was a life preserver.


  • Prepare for all different kinds of weather. Texas is a bit schizophrenic. 
  • Book your SXSW 2013 hotel right now (seriously), and make sure it’s on one of the shuttle routes.
  • Solidified plans and general financial awareness are both very handy tools when you’re out of town. 

Day 1: I Seek the Red Dot

Troy and I arrived at the main convention center by 7:45 am, only to discover that we couldn’t register until 9:00. After a quick coffee at a nearby café we got in line anyway, and by 8:15 the end of the queue was so far away we couldn’t see it. It was manageable madness until the girl at the registration counter handed me a regular attendee badge instead of a press pass. How could this have happened?

Oh right! Because I’m full of ignorance!

The more sessions I went to, the worse it got. Picture this: a journalist with a brain bursting with the greatness that is Baratunde Thurston, Scott Rosenberg and Eve Simon, attempting to put it all into a coherent article from the floor outside of a bathroom.

I ended up blubbering to the Internet like a baby and boom! Enter lifesaver number two, Tyler Willis of Unified. Tyler and I have been digital pals for a couple of months, so when he saw my crying jag on Facebook he offered to leave my name with the gatekeepers of paradise (the Samsung Blogger Lounge). I rejoiced and vowed to thank him in person before my SXSW time was up. Never has it felt so good to receive a red verification dot:

Post Blogger Lounge euphoria, I bonded over beers and ‘90s R&B with Edelman’s Michael Brito, another online contact of mine – and chances are one of yours, too. The dude knows everyone. We were sitting at a stoplight in one of those Pedicabs, and people were literally waving at him from the sidewalk. (Possibly this is also because he looks just like a country singer called Brad Paisley.)


  • Get in line early. This goes for both registration and most of the individual sessions. An event that’s so massive there are concession stands throughout the badge pickup line is no joke.
  • If you’re going to SXSW as a journalist, DON’T FORGET TO REGISTER FOR A PRESS PASS. There’s a lot of seating around the main convention center, but it’s nowhere near enough to take care of everyone. And the ground is really hard.
  • Take Pedicabs. You kind of sometimes feel like you’re going to vibrate right off of them and into the road, but they’re way more accessible than taxis and the people who drive them are really charming.

Day 2: The Day of Men with Impressive Facial Hair

The party culture at SXSW is just as intense as the geek vibe, so after a day of learning it was time for a day of not learning. I started by hanging out with Brito at Chevy’s Allhat party. I met a lot of good people, listened to some live music, drank a couple of margaritas, and even found a secret place between the shrubs to charge my phone!

I could have stayed there all day, just schmoozing and gorging on breakfast burritos, but then Jascha Kaykas-Wolff (Mindjet’s CMO) asked if I could swing by the Driskill.

Here are some things about Jascha: he is a really snazzy dresser. Tailored suits, pocket squares, jeans with fancy rinses – the whole nine. He also has a grab bag of secret talents, which includes the ability to somehow check in on social networks during a conversation without the people he’s talking to even noticing. And when someone that magical asks you to hang out with him, you hang out with him.

Troy and I booked it over to the Driskill in one of Chevy’s free cars – totally cool of you, Chevy! – and ended up at a table with a lot of really smart dudes with beards. Among them: Joe Chernov of Eloqua, the second coming of Tyler Willis (provider of the sacred red dot), and Jesse Noyes, also of Eloqua.

Joe’s got a really solid chin-and-jaw beard, with a solid, chin-and-jaw-beard voice to match (friendly, good for reading stories aloud). Tyler’s is also chin-and-jaw, but its sparseness hints at a mild soul patch. The combo lends his face a very huggable quality. You could even call it – get ready for it – hugspirational. Jesse hasn’t shaved since he was 16, so he has this crazy all-over-chin-jaw-face situation that’s made up of various shades of orange and brown and blond. It’s so marvelous that you can’t stop looking at it, except to throw your head back and laugh because he’s one of the funniest people you will ever meet.

Eventually the venue changed over to the W, where we added Patrick Dowley and Noah Horton, both of Involver and both sporting light-up-the-room smiles. It was a quality that proved pretty useful later in the evening when Jascha announced that the second ingredient in tonic water was corn syrup, and the horror that is thousands upon thousands of unintentionally consumed calories threatened to swallow the entire bar.


  • RSVP to everything. There are so many social events around SXSW and they’re all pretty great, but you definitely need to take the time to actually tell the organizers that you’re interested in attending. Sometimes really cool people can sneak you in at the last minute, but it’s better to be safe than sorry, you know? 
  • Make a point to go to the Driskill. It is to SXSW as the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park is to NYC: a place where you can sit and watch the entire city pass you by. 
  • Pay attention to nutrition facts, but not so much that you avoid the BBQ Austin has to offer. It’s pretty good.

Departure: These are a Few of my Favorite Things

Later this week I’ll share with you what I took from the talks – and believe you me, it’s good stuff – but in this moment, just as I’m getting ready to head back to California, this is what I’m buzzing with:

There’s no doubt that when it comes to the workplace, collaboration is one of the big opportunities of our time. My digital connections have proved to be extremely valuable, and I do what I can to nurture them, but nothing has been as solidifying as real face time.

In the end, the number one SXSW tip I have to offer is to spend as much time as you can connecting with people in person. It may seem obvious, but I think as we continue to stress the importance of a shift towards social in business culture, it’s a fundamental element that simply can’t be gotten any other way. Plus, the Texas flatlands during these three weeks are absolutely electric with fresh ideas and great fun, so buy an expensive ticket, get on a plane, suffer through horrible weather conditions and your own palpable levels of ignorance (if you’ve got ‘em), because that handshake is, without a doubt, priceless.

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