Doing business at SXSW close

Mark McDermott
Mark McDermott
In Musings, Apps
18th March 2010

South by South West in Austin, Texas is the largest web technology event in the world. I had been sponsored by the UK Digital Mission to go there and launch DASH our web app product for streamlining the process of setting businesses up online. Despite the global recession the event has grown rapidly over the last few years from several thousand to 15 000 delegates. This was the first time the event had taken over the entirety of the ACC - Austin's gargantuan conference centre.

Before I went I had a vision of distributing thousands of flyers, talking briefly to hundreds of eager new users desperate to blog and tweet about my stunning new app and returning victorious with a database full of new DASH clients. As you can probably tell I am normally the guy building the tools for other people to go out to market with. This was my first experience of product marketing and I was in at the deep end.

Unsurprisingly I wasn't the only guy out there with something to sell. In fact I think virtually every tech company I could name had a presence there and they were chucking money at it. The trade show felt like a busy Souk with every trick in the book (free t-shirts, Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, booze, celebrity endorsement) being employed to grab the attention of the delegates. Additionally this was a festival of learning, most people were here on their own time and money, so likely to be a little resistant to direct sales unless I was wearing hot pants and handing out beers.

By the end of Day 1 I had given out 10 cards and done 5 lengthy demos. Plan A - Connect directly to end users - Scrapped.

Practicing what I preach a little more I decided to try and target a selection of key influencers and journalists. The poster boy for the start your own business crowd (DASH's primary audience) is a guy called Gary Vaynerchuk. The problem is that everybody wants a piece of him. Whilst I chased him from room to room I noticed a few regular faces, his support staff and PA, and although I actually got to my man in the end it will be those guys that I try and schmooze on twitter now.

I then started to look at the fringes of the conference and made appearances at events called "core conversations" where audience participation is encouraged and the speakers are the up and coming Garys of tomorrow rather than the social media celebrities of today. I used my insights as a web designer to contribute my thoughts on branding and technology which built a platform for talking about DASH. At the end of those sessions I was handing out 50 cards a go. (I should give a shout out here to the fantastic Ian Sanders for inviting me to talk in his Unplan Your Business session

I began to use the same tactics with journalists at the conference by effectively trading my personal commodity - content - in exchange for plugs on DASH. Look out for me on Techfluff.tv and Computer Weekly shortly!

Finally good old fashioned networking at the parties created some of the best opportunities. By not overtly thrusting DASH down peoples' necks and bonding with them personally I am pleased to say we will now be working with one of the world's top interface designers (who is also pals with most of the bay area startups), an advisor to angel investors who is bored on gardening leave and feels like a challenge and the promise of a few mentions on the larger tech blogs.

From a business point of view the success of this trip will be judged by moments in time rather than hours of hustle.