SXSW started as a music festival focused on serving as a platform for emerging musicians and artists. Back in 1986, the year when SXSW was brainstormed and before the internet takeover, Austin was gaining its reputation as the live music capital of the world. Visitors and passers-by would have an endless array of live music options near the downtown area. The Austin music scene was thriving, with Roosevelt Thomas being considered the founding father of Blues in Austin. Around 1988, Austin-born Teddy Wilson was Music Hall of Fame winner and considered one of the most influential jazz pianists of all time. He even played with Erskine Tate, Louis Armstrong, and Jimmy Noone..
Other famous music venues opened up including The Ritz in 1929, right on 6th street; the jam-packed street where thousands of SXSW attendees roam the street. The same place where the Red Hot Chili Peppers performed in November 23, 1986 (about a month after the first SXSW festival was announced), in what is considered to be the most famous concert during the 80’s. Threadgills, another famous venue opened up in 1933 just to become one of Janis Joplin’s favorite hangouts.
Fast forward exactly 30 years, and SXSW is now one of the largest, most popular festivals in the world. Back when our band was touring in Colombia, one of our goals was to perform at an official SXSW showcase. Little did we know about the monster that SXSW is.
But, as the Music track grew, it expanded to Film and Interactive in 1994, focused on independent and mainstream films as well as innovative tech where trendy startups including Twitter, Foursquare and Meerkat made their debut in the following years. Then there is a ton of other startups who might not get the same media buzz as the ones previously mentioned but can definitely use SXSW as a great opportunity and learning experience. I’ll share some of the experiences we’ve had and tips for up-and-coming startups. Ideally, those who are beyond the idea stage and have some sort of prototype.
As I write this, I notice that several of our posts refer to SXSW. In a way, we are fond of this festival because it’s how Stereotheque, as a company, got our start. More than a year ago, we attended the SXSW Music Hackathon and we promised ourselves that we would be there a year later, but better and stronger. We’ll be moderating two really interesting panels (How Tech Is Changing The LATAM Music Industry and Tech Innovation In Latin American Music Festivals) with great industry folks, we’ll be at the Trade Show meeting people and new audiences, and host performances with several artists.
More importantly, we’ll release our product for official beta testing.. A major feat.
But, how did we get here? Is it an easy task? If you’re a bootstrapped startup, how can you minimise risk but maximise the experience?
1. Define your goals and objectives
The first question we ask ourselves is, why problem are we solving? And as any other startup, this should be the first step into elaborating on your startup and business idea. Now, the challenge with a music startup is that it often times include a subjective element to it, simply because music is an intangible art. But as music and media entrepreneurs, we must learn how to effectively communicate this and the same applies to defining goals when considering SXSW.
As mentioned in the introduction, SXSW is built on the foundation of the love for music and its importance to society. Many investors might probably tell you to focus first on your product, don’t leave your office until you have 5,000 users. While this may be sound advice, I do believe SXSW is the best place where you’ll find a diverse, tech savvy audience who are eager to try new things and will probably fit your business goals.
In the process of strategizing your business goals, you must be aware that there’s a very small probability in becoming a Twitter, Foursquare or Meerkat story. Even though it sounds nice, it might be too much to handle as a young company, since you won’t have the manpower to execute at a much higher pace. So, think big, but start small! Here are our goals for Stereotheque:
- Get 300 influencer beta users who will give us direct, candid feedback on our product in a limited amount of time
- Meet with 5 major potential clients to elaborate our B2B, client-facing business strategy
- Connect with at least 10 relevant, industry-focused investors and advisors
- Document absolutely everything about our experience as a company (panels and trade show), our culture, and our workflow while under pressure
2. Panelpicker, Trade Show and Accelerator: Apply to all
This point is key, because it falls in line with your business and budgetary objectives. Right after we attended SXSW 2016, we knew about PanelPicker and its importance for the show. Why? Because it will not only help us have an industry-level and peer-to-peer presence, but it will help us have a game plan as a company in terms of Platinum Badges. Each Platinum Badge can cost between $1,150 and $1,650. And if you’re planning on attending with all your co-founders, it can add up pretty quickly.
If you get selected for PanelPicker, each of the panelists (make sure you label yourself both as organizer and moderator) gets a Platinum Badge. Topics for SXSW panels can vary, but in the end, it has to be something you are legitimately qualified to speak about. Find out on Twitter what topics are buzz-worthy in your specific music tech niche. Think VR, AR, Artificial Intelligence, Market-focused, Technological tools, etc.
PanelPicker is a several-month long process, where there’s a Public Vote, a SXSW Advisory Board vote, and SXSW Staff vote. While each step is important, the one that depends on you is the Public Vote. As soon as you apply, you have to come up with a communication strategy so your group of users, fans, friends and family will vote. A healthy and genuine discussion on the PanelPicker platform is important as well, so be sure to reach out to your potential panelists and tell them to share the proposal with their own circle. Send out newsletters and publish on social media constantly but without insisting too much, remember it must be genuine.
Trade Show and Accelerator
We decided that in order to fulfill one of our goals (get relevant users) we had to expose ourselves through a long period of time. We though about having a showcase, but we didn’t have the resources to rent an entire venue to host something like the Spotify or Pandora house.
So, we decided to go for a small Trade Show booth (10 x 10 ft) and have exposure there. Another benefit we’d be getting out of this, is another Platinum Badge and Exhibitor Passes. This way, we’ll have more ways to staff our booth while having an extra Badge and trade show exposure.
This can be costly, but if you apply early (around September of the previous year), you’ll get the best price. In our case, we got lucky since we got a small booth first, but just a little while ago we got the notice that the booth next to ours decided to drop out last minute and that we would be able to have a 10 x 20 booth, twice the size as ours, for free! So we went for it. I’ll update this post once we are done with SXSW to see how this went.
Also, apply to the SXSW Accelerator. Clearly, the biggest benefit of all is to compete in this pitch stage in front of very important investors, but also, it will give you two Platinum Badges.
3. Budget: Go big, not broke.
Even though you can attend many of the SXSW for free, make sure you plan ahead early, otherwise, you won’t be able to do attend as a bootstrapped startup. You can maximize your presence while at SXSW by applying to as many events and opportunities.
Plan your budget based on your goals. So for instance, if you’re a one-man startup, then you might probably focus more on getting a ton of meetings instead of being part of the Trade Show. You might also think of making sure that you’re included in at least 3-4 panel proposals, this way you’ll have better chances.
Budget will highly depend on lodging and travel as well. This is one of the major issues with Austin. Being a relatively small city but widely known for SXSW, airfares tend to surge quickly. One option (as we’ve done) is to arrive in Houston or San Antonio, that is, only if the airfare difference is substantially higher when going directly to Austin. As to lodging, SXSW provides speakers with rooms in the hotel next to the convention center. We believe these fares are still quite high, specially if you’re bootstrapped. So plan ahead, do your research and rent an AirBnB.
4. Marketing Strategy 101
Your presence at SXSW would be nothing if you don’t have a marketing plan in place. Create a straight-forward strategy with your team to promote your panels (if selected), your trade booth, or other events like the Accelerator or Release It.
Trade shows are usually packed with free giveaways and swag that startups give away from free. Again, you’re at disadvantage as a bootstrapped startup. But fortunately, there are thousands of ways you can DIY your marketing and merchandising items.
Research in advance what you want to do and how to minimize your marketing expenses. If you want to give away merchandise, make sure it has a clear Call to Action. Give it away for free, but ask something in return (a sign up, a tweet, a mention, anything). This will also depend on your objectives.
Merch and Marketing recommendations:
- Stickers, flyers, and others: Try Vistaprint or similar. These vendors usually have a ton of discounts and promotions. So sign up ahead of time for their newsletter and be on the lookout for discounts. Make sure you design everything in house and be sure to decide where to put quality dollars. For instance, investing in die cut stickers or standard stickers (this depends if your priority is branding or messaging, it all varies)
- T-shirts: This is always nice to have, but as they cost more, you have to enable an interesting system for your users to fight for them. This depends on budget, so it can be as low as a user sign-up or app download, up to charging them $30 bucks for each shirt.
- Booth design: If you were accepted to the Trade Show, then you’ll have to do a lot of planning for the booth as well. We did this using a Trello board for all our SXSW planning. But the booth definitely needs a specific kind of planning. Think about your objectives. In our case, we wanted to have music performances every now and then, so we decided to go with a DIY, vintage-looking booth, kind of like your own living room playing with friends. Many third-party vendors will reach out to you with booth proposals. It will depend on your budget, but keep in mind your goals and the type of impression you want to leave attendees.
5. Key players: Investors and Journalists
This is definitely one of the most important objectives you should have. And your entire team should be focused on this as well. It’s not useful to have a thousand business cards if you won’t be able to have real investor or press lead out of this. After all, SXSW will be packed with industry-related and like-minded people. So it’s a great chance to network. But network efficiently!
SXSW Social is a great tool for creating a list of people you want to reach out to in advance, always keeping in mind your business goals and the things you’ll want to talk about while you’re at South By (if you’re not bootstrapped, then you might probably ask another person or PR company for this). You can filter SXSW Social by industry, this makes it much easier to put all these contacts in a spreadsheet and then reach out to them at least 2-3 weeks in advance. For investors, keep it short and sweet. Be certain of doing extensive research in each of the folks you want to reach out to, this way, they will be happy to meet with you.
As for press, it’s good to make genuine contacts with journalists. Even if you don’t have a finished product, it’s good that they know who you are and what you’re working on. Then, when you launch, you can reach out to them once again. They will appreciate that you have contacted them before anyone else. If you’re selected for a panel, make sure to invite a few journalists, they will also appreciate the invite. And if they write about your panel, it will be free PR for you as an individual and for your startup.
6. Stay organised with these tools
It can easily get overwhelming to think about SXSW. It’s ideal to have attended before, otherwise, it can be a bit overwhelming due to the amount of events, panels and people attending. So take it easy, try to focus on your objectives, and plan as much as you can ahead of time.
We have been using these tools to help us plan the entire thing, but believe every company has its own workflow and style. Regardless of the tools you use, delegate responsibilities with specific deadlines and due dates. Bookmark the SXSW website and sign up for every newsletter they have. Follow them on social media and try to get an intern to help you out planning a schedule and must-attend events.
- Trello: our project management and planning tool. They recently got acquired for $425mm and surely, it’s for their great product. Easy to learn, accessible on desktop and mobile, and you can assign specific tasks for every team member. Here’s a screenshot of our board:
- Slack (or team communication tool): You might be using this already. However, open up a new channel for #SXSW. Connect it with this specific Trello board so you can get timely updates and communications on the status of each SXSW-related task. You will also be able to make fast decisions while still referencing the specific task.
- Pipedrive: This is a great tool to keep in touch with investors or journalists and follow leads. It’s originally though for sales people, but if you think about it, you are trying to ‘sell’ your idea or startup to people. We haven’t used it very much, but think it’s a powerful tool.
Bonus: Have fun.
Are you attending SXSW? Visit us at booth #229 and attend one of our two panels:
Do you have any other tips, suggestions or tools? Share your experience to learn from you. Thanks.