Crash Course on SXSW

At this time next week, geeks from around the world will begin descending on Austin, TX for SXSW (South by Southwest) Interactive. This will be my third year, but I’m a bit surprised, in a down economy, how many people are going for the first time.

Believe me when I say, this will be possibly the best experience of your entire career. Each year becomes progressively better for me. I imagine that, if you return in future years, your approach to SXSW will follow a similar track as me:

  1. Year 1 – Wander aimlessly, taken in by all of the events going on. Looking around in wide-eyed wonder. Possibly returning unaware of what exactly you got out of it but knowing you got something.
  2. Year 2 – Operate at non-stop breakneck speed for the entire conference, stopping only to grab a coffee or a quick bite. Trying to meet as many people as you can and go to as many parties as you can RSVP for.
  3. Year 3 – Being old hat, SXSW is less about meeting everyone and doing everything than spending time building on the relationships that matter most. This means long lunches, and maybe avoiding the “meat market” networking parties in favor of smaller, intimate settings.

You cannot hit #3 without doing #1 and #2 first, so don’t try. :)

On a practical level, SXSW is a very busy time and if it’s your first time, you probably want to consider some things before you hit that plane and hotel.

  1. Pack Light – you will not want to carry a lot of stuff to and from the airport, hotel or convention center, not to mention the parties
  2. Do not plan to spend a lot of time in your hotel – You may have a chance to go put eveningwear on, but you very well might not. Plan to not have a chance to go to the hotel.
  3. Sessions are not all that important. In the grand scheme of things, whether you’re a design/UX kind of person (the old guard at SXSW) or a social media person (the new guard) or a government type (lots of those this year), your colleagues are descending on the place for 4 days. Spend time with them. Sessions you can get anywhere.
  4. Do not try to go to every party. You can’t and it’s no fun that way. Pick a few and leave some wiggle room in your schedule so that you can add the ad hoc unannounced party that you find out about at the last minute.
  5. Keep Your Posessions. Don’t lose your phone or Blackberry, as I did in 2007.
  6. Have a second pair of shoes. In case there is torrential rain (It can and does happen).
  7. Get sleep. It’s really hard at SXSW because something is happening at almost all hours. But you need to pace yourself and make it for the entire conference. Drink lots of water if you’re going to be consuming alcohol (who doesn’t?) and try to grab power naps if you can.
  8. Stay near the convention center. All the parties happen between San Jacinto St and Colorado Ave, from east to west. Likewise, most happen between 4th and 7th St, from south to north. In other words, everything is pretty tight in. If you can, get a hotel room (or share with someone) close to the show. Makes all the difference in cab fares and walking.

For the rest of you who have been to SXSW before, what advice can you give? Leave ideas in comments.

Aaron Brazell

Aaron Brazell is a Baltimore, MD-based WordPress developer, a co-founder at WP Engine, WordPress core contributor and author. He wrote the book WordPress Bible and has been publishing on the web since 2000. You can follow him on Twitter, on his personal blog and view his photography at The Aperture Filter.

14 thoughts on “Crash Course on SXSW

  1. Check the weather RIGHT before you go so you have the right clothes. Last year I checked a week before and it showed all sunny. I got there and it was freezing and I didn’t bring a jacket and ended up shelling out $50 for a SXSW hoodie. Ouch.

    You already nailed it in your post, but if you go to SXSW, go to meet people. Seriously, go out of your way to meet people. If you see someone you’ve always wanted to talk to, do it. Some of these people may be “internet famous”, but don’t let that fool you, it’s a lot like being famous at your high school. Nobody really cares ;)

    And toss a few extra drinks down for me as I can’t make it this year (moving, ugh!). Have fun you lucky bastages!

  2. Don’t get really drunk. Try instead to maintain a steady buzz throughout. Just enough to get conversation started, but not so much that you spend one of the days in bed.

    If you’re bringing a laptop, use a backpack, not a shoulder bag. Your body will thank you.

    If you’re wearing a backpack, be conscious of your girth. Don’t stand in the middle of a crowd and twirl around. Nobody likes that guy.

    Don’t necessarily bring a laptop every day, especially if you’re not within a 10 minute walk of the convention center. It’ll turn into an anchor.

    Bring an extra phone battery or its charger with you. Twitter is your lifeline, and iPhone users especially might not make it through a full day.

    Make new friends. Exchange cards like mad. Follow everyone you meet on Twitter (it’s okay, you can drop them later if it’s not a good fit).

    Find someone you admire, introduce yourself, and let them know your opinion of their work. This isn’t Hollywood. Most of the people you consider to be web celebrities have no idea and are really down to earth. Except for that Technosailor guy… :-p.

  3. Great advice! Mark’s point about not getting TOO drunk is spot on too (right, Chrispian?)

    I think I got through your Year 1 in the first day last year and progressed right into Year 2… I think I’m ready for a nice “Year 3″ mix this year. Looking forward to connecting with some old friends and just building relationships.

    See you there!

  4. I am admittedly a Swirgin along with @sengseng and @robotchampion who will be my partners in crime during the trip. I think since the three of us are going with the same mission in mind, we will divide and conquer. Now I only have to find out if Amy wears the same shoe size. I already know Steve and I can share hats and scarves.

  5. Not sure why no one mentions it… BUT, the convention center is… let’s just say non-coventional. By day 3 you’ll understand that you truly CAN’T get “there” from here. The good news is that by then you’ll also sort of feel empowered and in the know as you expertly wind your way from A to 3, to the daystage, the hilton , 4 and beyond. (no one ever goes to 2 – its like never never land — they never never take you there :)

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