SXSW Accelerator: An Evolution of Business

SXSW AcceleratorIn 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.


Brad and Guy 2In 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).

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A Very SXSW Interactive 2013 Recap

Every year, South by Southwest Interactive changes for me.

When I first started coming in the mid-1990s, I wrote about music and stumbled upon technology. By 1998, I’d largely abandoned the music conference for what we now call Interactive. I was a journalist, then a moderator, then a panelist, and now I’m a mixture of all three when I emcee the SXSX Accelerator finals.

What hasn’t changed for me, though, is that every year SXSW is the most intense, most humbling, and most accessible learning space that I have. Within 10 days, I have the opportunity to fill up on bits of information that I’ll spend much of the next year processing.

This year, I decided to stay out of the mix, and just listen to the summaries that filtered up to me. Here’s what I learned:

2013 is the year of hardware:

A few years ago, I had a conversation with some of the SXSW organizers about the proliferation of social media types. I was concerned that we were seeing a shift from hackers and makers to talkers, and that technological acumen was being pushed aside by second-class punditry.

This year, SXSW leaped that chasm and the hackers and makers re-emerged in a public way (although I’m sure there are still a plethora of the talkers). Nowhere was the more present than with the concept of 3d printers, which was trumpeted by MakerBot’s kickoff presentation and MakieLab’s 3d printed toys project that won the SXSW Accelerator Entertainment Technologies competition.

Build, Build, and Make:

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A South by Southwest Guide to Surviving the Nerdpocalypse (2013 Edition)

Greetings People of Earth:

A few years ago, I wrote my first South by Southwest Guide to Surviving the Nerdpocalypse, which included this handy Things To Do map of Austin. In just a few days, the post became the most read piece I’ve written since leaving Wired and MIT’s Technology Review.

Last year, I wrote the 2012 follow up that picked up a few important tidbits that I missed the year before and explored a bit of what you should do in Austin to make sure you don’t completely burn out.

As this year’s event is about to begin, I thought I’d add a few more things to the list of Things To Do in Austin When Your Dead.

First, though, a brief list of what I got right:

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A South by Southwest Guide to Surviving the Nerdpocalypse (2012 Edition)

*A note of introduction and hello to all who arrived from the SXSW Interactive website. They asked me a few questions, I answered, and they published this far-too-kind blurb. The lesson: Always make friends with the organizers! Enjoy the read.*

Greetings Earthlings.

Last year, I wrote a handy little survival guide for attendees of Austin’s South by Southwest Interactive Conference and Festival Week.

I did it mostly because after 18 years of attending, people oftentimes asked me how to navigate the conference. It’s a hard question to answer because the Interactive conference is so personal despite the reality that there are 12,000 lunatics wandering the streets Tweeting about the Naked Cowboy.

Instead of answering each question individually like a good human, though, I posted some advice and included a map of non-SXSW related venues that I go to each year.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Coliseum. The 2011 SXSWestians made my little post the most read of any of my personal writings so I guess that means you got a bit of value of this whole “blogging” thing.

With that in mind, I thought I’d update my Guide with the understanding that absolutely everything I said in 2011 is without question still 100 percent true: comfortable shoes, water, morning runs, sleep, avoid your friends, plugs, high fives, dinners, lunches, screen burn, avoid parties, and be respectful.

But I did leave a few things out…

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And So Another Ends To Begin Again

brad_andyI met this dude in 1996, the year I rolled into Austin. We worked together at Trudy’s. We also became best friends over a bottle of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey while discussing how we’d ended up in Austin.

The short story: the women we’d been with decided to not be with us. Good enough: we bonded as men.

Much has happened since then, but one of the constants in my life has been our friendship.

We lived together for two years then, when I moved away in 1998 to go to graduate school I’d stay with him  when I’d return for SXSW Interactive, and when I moved back to Austin in 2002 I bought a house where he’s lived since. (I lived here for two years until the job pulled me away.)

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A South by Southwest Guide to Surviving the Nerdpocalypse

Greetings Earthlings:

Nearly twenty years ago, I attended my first South by Southwest conference. At this point in my life, I have no idea about the specifics. I couldn’t tell you what I did and whom I met. All I know is the experience changed my life for the better.

I loved the conference – and the city – so much that I moved there in 1995. (And again in 2002 after I left Wired.) In the ensuing years, I returned to the conference every year. I returned for Music, then for Interactive, and finally for Film. Now, I return for them all.

I have done this conference as press, as an attendee, as a panelist, as a moderator, as an emcee, and always as a nerd. These days I do some panel vetting as part of the Advisory Board, I evangelize about the conference and I’ll be emcee’ing the Accelerator for the third year.

I tell you all of this narcissistic pabulum as a way to convince you that what I’m about to tell you has some merit or weight to it. Of course, this being SXSW Interactive you are more than willing to – well – interact with this content however you’d like. (And I know you will my Nerdikins.)

What I’d like to offer you is my SXSW Guide to Surviving the Nerdpocalypse (and my handy dandy map to all things Not-SXSW related in Austin that you must do):

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Austin Tales: Where I Worked from 1996-1998

There’s simply too much to explain about this place. But nearly everything of interest that happened to me in Austin – and by that I mean nearly everything I will ever commit to the page in this forum – happened at Antone’s, the best blues bar on the planet.

To list all the musicians I saw here would serve no real purpose, but there’s rarely a day that goes by that I don’t recall – in that sunset fading way – the days of my youth.

Empty (48 of 90)

It’s 10 pm on St. Patrick’s Day. It’s also the first night of the South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival.

I am home, sitting in my makeshift bed where I have been since 3 pm today after I dropped off the last of my friends at the airport.

I’m physically, emotionally and in every other way possible, drained.

I’ve been running for 2 solid weeks: Arizona, California, Indiana, Memphis, Arkansas and now Austin. I have boxes of research. Stacks of papers. Folders of digital files. Deadlines swirling around me. Conferences coming up.

It’s ridiculous, honestly.

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Why The People Who Hate on SXSW Interactive Suck (47 of 90)

ED Note: I exchanged a few comments and Tweets with Jolie earlier today. She was surprised by the spirited response to her blog post (from the blogosphere; not from me). Our conversation confirmed what I thought: she’s a decent gal. She just waded, unintentionally, into the annual post-SXSW Interactive reaction debate. For all of you out there who have a burning desire to be a hater-hater, please I’d like to offer the paraphrased advice from my favorite judge in California: all parties are advised to chill.

South by Southwest Interactive is over, and with that brings out the annual “Why I Hated SXSW Interactive” bloggers.

This year’s queen is Jolie O’Dell. She wrote Why SXSW Sucks, which has some rather disturbing assertions in it (which have nothing to do with the conference, yet are troubling) and some recycled issues that get brought up each year (which did have to do with the conference, and are also troubling).

I have no idea who O’Dell is (other than what her bio says) any more than I know who most of the people who attend SXSW Interactive are so I don’t want this to appear to be an attack on her. I’m sure she’s a fine human being and I enjoy reading other opinions. So it seems important to say – and then re-iterate – that this isn’t an attack on her ideas.

It’s also important to note that I’ve been to every SXSW Interactive save one (when we were re-launching MIT’s Technology Review website and I needed to be on site), I’ve been on the advisory board for several years and I make my home in Austin (although I teach in Indiana, which means I’m only in town for a few months a year these days).

The problems with SXSW aren’t new, although the scale is different. What is new is the community has grown. It includes a new set of people: not developers, not creators, not distributers. Not the core of SXSW. Now we have the “tool users,” the non-tech set who have built their operations on using the simple creation, distribution and aggregation tools built by the SXSW core.

I love the convergence. The show has been headed this way since the beginning. It’s just reached a tipping point because the ubiquity of the tools. (A great credit to the engineers in the country, by the way.)

Here’s the real problem: This new tribe is disappointed to find that SXSW isn’t meant to be Spring Break. It’s not set up to help you party. It’s set up as a conference and festival, a place to interact. Not a place to get drunk and check-in.

It’s not, in other words, set up to be all about you.


The first Interactive conference, one I can barely remember it’s been so long ago, took place in the far end of the Convention Center, in the area above the main keynote ballrooms.

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South By 5…(46 of 90)

It’s been a long day, but there’s but one full day left.

I’m too tired to be sad. And too far behind in my work to worry.

At some point this evening, I’ll need to get my Media Ethics lecture finished (although it’s possible that will have to wait until tomorrow and instead I’ll put up my Thursday lecture, which isn’t mine. It’s Larry Lessig’s.) Currently I’m awaiting the last of my videos to upload so I can send off my AEJMC Tech Meme column, FIVE GOOD MINUTES, a series of vlogs with some of the smartest people I know.

And I’d like to get some sleep since I’ll be co-hosting the Accelerator tomorrow for six hours. Delirium is a bad way, I understand, to host an event.

Still, too much great stuff to do and too many smart people to track down is a high-class problem, as a former work colleague used to say. Because today was another beautiful day.

The highlight was spending a few hours with Dave Ferguson, the director of the Center for Media Design, who is in town for dual purposes. We had the chance to grab dinner before we each sprinted off in different directions. Two hours that flew by far too quickly.

Funny, of course, that we had to fly 1,200 miles to have time to get dinner. Then again, that’s the nature of the modern technology fast track. The world may be flat, but the travel still takes time.

While this isn’t the most compelling blog post ever, it’s certainly going to need to suffice.

South By 4…(45 of 90)

It’s midnight here in Austin, the end of the South by Southwest weekend.

It’s a sad day. Not because the event is over. There are still three days left. But there is a shift on Monday and Tuesday. The parties slow, the conference slows. The business begins to set in as the end draws near. At least for Interactive.

A whole year crammed into 5 full days. It’s hardly enough time really. Still, it was an amazing day in Austin.

The day started with a trip to The Spiderhouse for some work. Unfortunately, Ball State University still requires that I, you know, do my job. That means dealing with administrative tasks.

That was dispensed with quickly enough and my friend Jenny Toomey, who now works for the Ford Foundation, and I had lunch, caught up on old times and laughed quite a bit. She’s a lovely woman, one I’m proud to know. We’ve traveled long roads the past ten years, but life has really evened out for us.


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South By 3…(44 of 90)

South by Southwest (SXSW) is simply seven days of heaven. The weather was gorgeous and the panel sessions really kicked off today.

It’s fair to say the conference is under way.

I started the day with a nice 3 mile run, although the hamstring is now acting up regularly. I think when I get home I may have to look for alternatives to running until it heals. For now, running is all I’ve got to keep myself going.

After that, I headed to grab Micki (@mickipedia). She’s promoting her company, Neighborgoods, at the conference so we picked up her flyers from down south. (Her business partner lives in town.)

After that, it was off to the panels. First up: Andrea Phillips talking about Alternate Reality Games.


The talk focused on how female stereotypes harm the writing process. I’m usually very skeptical of these talks (from my days as in the Women’s Study minor at Miami University), but she made a really compelling case for why writers should focus attention on female characters. When the talk becomes available, I’m posting it here.

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