SXSW Accelerator: An Evolution of Business
In 2009, the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive coordinators decided to carve out a corner of the conference where those people interested in start-ups, emerging technology, and entrepreneurship could gather.
At the time, this wasn’t necessarily a popular move. For years the conference focused on emerging technologies, media, and creative endeavors. The thought of turning SXSW into a business conference concerned some long-time attendees.
As part of that move SXSW quietly launched Accelerator, a program in which early-stage companies from across the globe would compete to convince a panel of venture capitalists, media experts, and business leaders that their idea was worth funding.
Early on there wasn’t much promotion. It was a mad scramble just to pull everything together in a professional manner. To do the heavy lifting, Hugh Forrest tapped Chris Valentine, who then set about creating the program, organizing the logistics, and working with sponsors.
Since I knew my way around the conference and was readily accessible, I was asked to co-emcee the all-day event. My job was simple: shepherd the start-up companies on and off stage, keep the show running on time, and make sure that all of our judges and co-emcees had the chance to ask questions.
Six years later the Accelerator has grown into an amazing part of the SXSW Interactive universe. Some 56% of the companies that participated have received funding, and all told those companies have raised $587 million, including companies such as Klout and (now Apple’s) Siri.
Whenever people ask me what I do at SXSW these days, this is the story that I tell.
In our first year my co-emcee was Guy Kawasaki, who started at Apple in 1983 before leaving to become a technology evangelist.
While our program started small, Guy’s participation and insights helped generate a great deal of buzz around the program. In between sessions, people lined up to get a few moments with him (and our winners were more than stoked to have the chance to get a picture).
Guy came back the next year as a judge, offering up more advice to the SXSW entrepreneurs.
The next year, my co-emcee was Chris Sacca, who spearheaded several mergers and acquisitions at Google and worked on new business development.
Chris was the most engaged emcee with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work. In between sessions, he made it a point to go into the audience to chat with the entrepreneurs.
He also put together a series of real-time polls to engage the audience as we worked on the stage set-up. (We also spent a good deal of time poking fun of each other’s wardrobe that day.)
In our third year I was joined by Mark Suster, an early-stage investor and a mentor at Techstars.
By this time the Accelerator show had grown quite a bit, and the ballroom was filled throughout the day. Hundreds of folks packed our room to listen to companies pitch and venture capitalists push back.
Mark was amazing. While he was hard on the competitors, it was clear that he had a very real interest in helping those early-stage companies get a handle on what they wanted to do. This year was really a turning point for Accelerator, both in what type of audience we would draw but also in how we approached working with the competition teams.
An aside on judges:
These folks (and the other judges) take time out of their SXSW experience to come offer their critiques and words of wisdom to the companies.
For the rest of us, we get the chance to hear folks who are on the bleeding edge of emerging technologies and business talk about what is coming next.
Into the fourth year of the program, the entire Accelerator volunteer staff had settled into a groove. The stage and production teams had largely stayed intact, which made my life on stage supremely easy.
Tim Draper, a third-generation venture capitalist and another in our line of supportive emcees, did an amazing job. He was so comfortable that he oftentimes led the discussion with our three-judge panels.
That gave me the opportunity to tap into my (former) life as a reporter, editor, and producer at Wired and Technology Review to ask some tough questions.
The fifth year brought my biggest thrill. I had the chance to co-emcee with Bob Metcalfe, the founder of 3Com and the inventor of ethernet.
Like our other co-emcees, there wouldn’t be time to list everything he’s accomplished. Suffice it to say, I’d met Bob when I worked at MIT and spending time with him discussing emerging technologies and business was one of the highlights of my 20 years at SXSW.
By this time, our show was being livestreamed on the Web and our the finals room was consistently packed. (I’m told we had lines out the door for many of our sessions, and absolutely for the final winners’ announcements.)
I’ve already started getting notes about the 2014 Accelerator program, and I’ll say that it doesn’t feel as though we’ve reached a plateau just yet.
So if you’re coming to SXSW Interactive this year, let me invite you to our little Show of Shows. (And if you come, make sure you come say hello or send me a tweet from the audience!)