A SXSW Guide to Surviving the Nerdpocalypse

I attended my first South by Southwest conference in 1995, one year after the introduction of SXSW Interactive (then called Multimedia).

To say the conference changed the direction of my professional life would be an understatement. I loved the conference—and the city—so much that I moved to Austin just a few months later. Three years after that, I ended up working for Wired and then Wired.com in no small part because of the freelance pieces I pitched from the event.

Throughout the last twenty-five years, I’ve had the good fortune to attend as press, as an attendee, as a panelist, as a moderator, and I was the finals emcee for SXSW Pitch (formerly Accelerator) for its first seven years. These days, I do some volunteer work as part of my thank you for everything SXSW has given me, I evangelize about the conference, and I offer up advice to small companies and new attendees looking help navigating the Nerdpocalypse. (Also, SXSW has a service hub!)

I tell you all of this narcissistic pabulum as introduction to A SXSW Guide to Surviving the Nerdpocalypse, a compendium of what I’ve learned in my time navigating what is now the greatest show on earth.

Of course, this being SXSW Interactive you are more than willing to—well—interact. Drop your own tips here, tell me what I’ve gotten wrong, and by all means say hello if you’re heading to the conference.

***Chief Programming Officer Hugh Forrest writes a bunch on Medium***

PART I: Preparing

  1. Think Urban Hiking: You’re going to be on the go all day long. Think comfort, not cool. I bring a backpack with an extra shirt (it gets hots), deodorant (um, it gets hot), a travel toothbrush and toothpaste, an extra power source, a couple bottled waters, and power bars.
  2. Power: I can’t emphasize this enough. There are a limited number of outlets. Want to make friends? Bring a power strip or mobile chargers. (More on this below.)
  3. Make a Game Plan: You can’t see everything. (I’ll repeat this repeatedly.) There are twenty-two tracks. There are venues all over town. I chose one track a day and then post up in the venue. Sometimes—if I’m feeling lucky—I’ll do a morning track and an afternoon track, but I rarely freelance. I’m there to talk with people who have the same interests as me, and I’ve found staying put is a good way to do that.
  4. Wear Comfortable Shoes: I’m not the first to say this nor am I the last. But trust me on the sunscreen. Er, shoes. You will be walking all over Thor’s creation and by the end of day one, your feet will be barking. Big deal, you say, it’s only one day. Yeah, it’s not.
  5. Drink Water: Runners know this to be true. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to hydrate. Drink while you go. There is booze everywhere. You will not be sleeping. You will be surrounded by thirty thousand germ-infested Nerdizens on Spring Break.
  6. Sleep: Every year, the post-SXSW Plague strikes down thousands of Nerds. South by Southwest is like kindergarten: a petri dish of illness waiting to happen. Got some down time: take a freaking nap. You’re missing something for sure. But you’ll be missing something every second of the conference. There’s too much going on.

Part II: The Conference (Shit Not To Do)

  1. You Can’t See Everything: There are hundreds of panels happening across the city. That doesn’t include the attractions, houses, and experiences that pop up in every nook and cranny available. If you don’t make a game plan (see above!) you’ll quickly find yourself swallowed up by the chaos.
  2. Getting Around is Tough: The city is at capacity during SXSW. The infrastructure is pushed to the limits. The highways are notoriously crowded and parking is at a premium. If you can stay downtown, do it. And if you can’t, avoid traveling during morning and evening rush hour. If you need to get around, here are your options.
  3. Don’t Show Up Just In Time: If you show up at the last minute to panels, keynotes, parties…really anything, expect to wait. And don’t expect that wait to yield entrance. (See Download SXSW Go below!)
  4. Don’t Just Hang With Your Friends: If you spend all your time with the people you already know, you’re missing the point of SXSW Interactive. It’s cool to have a posse. It’s cooler to have a new posse every day.

Part III: The Conference (Shit To Do)

  1. Download SXSW GO: Anxious to see a panel, but you aren’t sure if you should make the trek across the city? The app tells you the current seating capacity for each panel. This might not seem like a big deal, but the conference is sprawling these days and you don’t want to waste time showing up to a panel that’s reached its seating limit.
  2. Talk To People: The value of SXSW is—like Soylent Green—the people. Instead of trying to see everything, introduce yourself to everyone—in a non-creepy way, y’all. Chat with the people around at the panels—but not during the panels, y’all. Talk to people in the hallways—In A Non-Creepy Way, Y’all. Invite them to lunch.
  3. Do Lunch + Dinner: The smartest conversations I’ve had at SXSW come over the serendipity of food and drink. I plan at least a few lunches and dinners ahead of time. I use a combination of my own social network and the SXSocial network and I always ask people to bring whomever they want.
  4. Don’t Forget The SXSW Social Network: It’s tough to keep up with thousands of attendees, but you can use some of the tools created by SXSW to organize, find, and talk with folks you know before you get down to Austin. IN A NON-CREEPY WAY, Y’ALL.
  5. Use The Back Channels: Panels are fun, but the back channels are better. Want to get to know your attendees? Make sure you’re participating in the Twitter stream during panels and keynotes. Other folks are reading. Make virtual friends real.
  6. Help A Nerd Out: I drive from Pittsburgh to Austin, which means I have my car. Sometime around 2008, I started offering to pick up people from the airport and drive them into town. The first year I did it was one of the best SXSWs I ever had. I met people from around the world. I had great dinners. I had great conversations. I made wonderful friends. If you don’t have a car (and I suspect you don’t), look for other ways to help people: bring an extra power strip, pack different cords, bring an extra bottle of water.
  7. Thank A Volunteer: Volunteers have a thankless job. Be kind to them. Smile and thank them.
  8. Attend Bruce Sterling’s Closing Talk: Bruce is old school Austin and the King of all things SXSW Interactive. He originally hosted the closing party (back when attendance was in the hundreds) after he closed the conference with this talk. If you go to the Interactive conference and don’t attend this, did you really go to the Interactive conference?

Part IV: Returning Home

  1. Use the SXSW Soundcloud: The conference organizers post the audio from most of the panels and keynotes. Didn’t get to every session you wanted? Make a playlist and keep SXSW Interactive alive in your ears all year long.
  2. Follow Up: Take a deep breath and engage with the people you met. Turn all those meetings into your own little SXSW social network.
  3. You Will Get The Plague: Despite my instructions (that you ignored), you have gotten sick. It’s pretty terrible. You will be knocked out for 2-4 days. Plan accordingly for it.
  4. Send Feedback: The SXSW staffers read everything you write about the event. They respond, too. And they take it to heart. Keep that in mind as you write your follow ups.
  5. Don’t Write That SXSW Sucks Post-Conference Blog: Some of you will want to. You’ll ignore these rules. You’ll want to rip off a “SXSW Sucks” blog. My advice: don’t do it. Because Google Alerts never misses a blog, and you’ll likely be back at some point in the future. And the database doesn’t forget. It’s okay to criticize. It’s okay to be brutal. But don’t be petty about it.

Part V: Where To Escape When the Weird Turn Pro

  • Head to Enchanted Rock: The conference feels like it goes quickly, but it’s truly a marathon. In all likelihood, you won’t be able to maintain the breakneck pace you set for yourself. If you have time, take a little trip outside of the city to Enchanted Rock, where you can hike and rock climb.
  • Or Maybe Marble Falls: When I lived in Austin, I used to book time at Marble Falls just to get away from the city. Rent a bus or take a group of new friends into the hill country.
  • But Definitely Barton Springs Pool: This fresh-water spring is 69 degrees all year round. Bring your suit, lay on the sprawling lawns or swim in the spring. You can’t go wrong hanging out here all day. And if you fancy a run, it sits right along Lady Bird Lake Hike and Bike Trail.
  • Eat at Star Seeds: There’s lots of talk about the best place to eat in Austin, but the answer is clearly Star Seeds. It’s a twenty-four hour diner, and while it’s not quite the “seedy” it used to be they still make the best diner food in the U.S.A. #Fact. (Some folks will tell you Magnolia, but I’m a Star Seeds guy.)
  • Coffee at Austin Java: I like the original location on 12th and Lamar, but any of these will do.
  • Or the Spiderhouse Patio Bar and Ballroom: Years ago, this is where I wrote a large part of Dungeons & Dreamers with John Borland. The place has changed quite a bit since then, but the large outdoor seating area is perfect for an escape from the downtown madness.

One Last Thing

  • Be Nice: I subscribe to the Patrick Swayze Roadhouse school of life. “Be nice until it’s time to not be nice.” And like the Cooler said in the film: look at me and I’ll tell you when it’s time to not be nice.

That’s what I have for you, my good people. I’m sure there is more. There is always more. Feel free to add your thoughts below. Or send me a note via Twitter (@thebradking) and I’ll update as we go along.

I hope to see you around the block. Maybe we can grab some lunch.

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  • AnthonyGadgetX March 1, 2011   Reply →

    Thanks Brad, this is my first sxswi, your advice sounds time tested, will do.

    • Brad_King March 1, 2011   Reply →

      Make sure you find me and say hello while you’re there. Newbies are my favorite!

  • Patrick March 1, 2011   Reply →

    That makes me laugh and not want to go there…ever.

    • Brad_King March 1, 2011   Reply →

      I am funny.You are missing out on one of the best educational – and social – experiences in the techsphere. You should give it a try some day.

  • Robertsione March 1, 2011   Reply →

    Made me even more excited about my first visit to SXSW than i already was! Much appreciated.

    • Brad_King March 1, 2011   Reply →

      Great to hear. Make sure you track me down and say hello along the way. Newbies are my favorite.

  • Richard Ayers March 1, 2011   Reply →

    Sounds an awful lot like the Cannes film fest/market – but without the french, longer, and with a lot more geeks – all of which is good. thanks brad.

    • Brad_King March 1, 2011   Reply →

      It’s a blast. Have you been before? Either way make sure you say hello!

  • Angela Moore March 1, 2011   Reply →

    Brad, you have answered my anxiety-ridden prayers (and made laugh a lot too!) I’m packing my power strip and looking for you!

    • Brad_King March 1, 2011   Reply →

      🙂 I’m glad I could bring a little levity to your day, lady. Am I going to actually see you this year? I feel like we’re about – oh – 8 years overdue.

  • Jason Boehle March 1, 2011   Reply →

    Good post Brad. I found the information here very helpful

    • Brad_King March 1, 2011   Reply →

      thanks Jason! Are you joining us at SXSW this year? And if so: make sure you say hello.

      • Jason Boehle March 1, 2011   Reply →

        Yep im on a Core Conversation panel for SXSWi. “How to Make Money Traveling Around the World”.

  • Tarah Feinberg March 1, 2011   Reply →

    Thanks for the excellent guide. Hope to see you at the event.

    • Brad_King March 1, 2011   Reply →

      Thanks. Looking forward to finding our way into the same sphere!

  • Danielle Smith March 3, 2011   Reply →

    Perfect. Just what I needed as I venture to SXSW for the first time. I took notes. Will be high-fiving and making friends.

    • Brad_King March 3, 2011   Reply →

      Make sure you track me down and say hello. I love connecting with newbies at the event. And putting together dinners is too much fun. Aloha.

  • Linda Sherman March 3, 2011   Reply →

    @TheBradKing I would add – Last year at #SXSW @FourSquare @Gowalla @Whrrl were very helpful tools in indicating who was where and what they thought about the parties etc. http://asklindasherman.com/foursquare-helped-us-find-sxsw-parties-heathe SXSW had a huge positive effect on LBS apps as the type of people who spread word of mouth massively discovered in real time their usefulness.

    Everyone loves photos – take lots, post them on Flickr, Facebook etc and tag them with #SXSW and #SXSWi

    Lastly, I would repeat what Brad said – works for me at all conferences: Get some sleep. Don’t burn yourself out on the first night. Pace yourself. I usually reserve the last night for the biggest partying.

    Thank you @MayhemStudios for tweeting this. I am passing on to my followers. I’ve attended SXSW for the past 2 years and for various reasons am taking a break this year but I’ll see ya’ll at other usual suspect conferences.

    • Brad_King March 3, 2011   Reply →

      Thanks for the read (and the heads up on the Twitter account. Updated at DISQUS.)

  • Chanelle Henry March 4, 2011   Reply →

    This is awesome! Definitely saving this, I was so overwhelmed my first time last year, but hopefully this will help!

    • Brad_King March 4, 2011   Reply →

      Hey Chanelle:

      Thanks for the comment. I hope it does help you 🙂 Also: make sure you track me down and say hello.

  • Simon Staffans March 5, 2011   Reply →

    Thank you for this; I’m expecting a bit of a shell shock, but water and power strip it is then 🙂

    • Brad_King March 5, 2011   Reply →

      Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂 And make sure you track me down to say hello. A big part of the fun is meeting up with new folks.

  • Pingback: “South By” | Race To The Middle March 5, 2011   Reply →
  • Peggy Dold March 9, 2011   Reply →

    This is amazing. Thank you for putting such generous time and energy into creating it! I haven’t been for 10 years — it’s a different planet now. Looking forward to it!

    • Brad_King March 9, 2011   Reply →

      Thanks for the kind words Peggy. Please make sure you stop by and say hello 🙂 I usually post up at the convention center and say hello and chat with people.

  • FionaC March 13, 2011   Reply →

    Nice roundup, Mr Dude. Thanks for showing a newbie round town in 2009.

  • Chris March 2, 2012   Reply →

    I have been attending SXSWi on and off for the past 10 years and I have to say its all about the people. You sometimes have to try a little harder these days to find those with real passion for learning and innovating that are willing to sit down and talk with you in the hallways or over a drink offsite. I remember meeting the head of UX design for Yahoo! and I got to spend an hour having a really inspiring convo with him over a bag of Doritos and free Pepsi (the sponsor food sucks BTW).

    All that said, however, I seek out people with common interests to my own and try my best not to get swept up in the hype of the biggest trend. I then create a list of all the sessions I can reasonably make it to within that day. Get to the sessions early too. It’s so important and you will find those people you can connect with immediately. Once the session starts your SOL. Finally, take a LOT of notes then I find people I can connect with after SXSWi

  • anne d. March 6, 2012   Reply →

    nice! but you forgot the part about eat lots of bbq and mexican food esp if you are from the northeast because it just ain’t the same up here.

    • Brad_King March 6, 2012   Reply →

      🙂 It never dawned on me that anyone would eat BBQ or Tex-Mex anywhere else but Texas. The County Line and The Salt Lick are the two places people go!

    • Charlie Mariani January 24, 2020   Reply →

      Thanks for the tips Brad, really useful stuff! I’m planning to attend for the first time, have been wanting to take the trip and have decided to finally do it in 2020. Any tips for musicians that would like to perform at open mics and such? Cheers!

  • Pingback: Blast Radius at SXSW July 10, 2012   Reply →
  • Pingback: “South By” | Race To The Middle September 26, 2013   Reply →

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