What started as a music festival in the mid 1980s, South by Southwest has become one of the world's most influential events for interactive technology, music and film. This week in Las Vegas, the parent company, SXSW LLC, took a bold step in expanding its brand by launching SXSW Vision to Venture (V2V) for the startup community.
This move is analogous to the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference (TED). TED also started in the mid '80s and now has events of varying size around the world, including smaller satellite events called TEDx. TED's expansion has been a great way to grow its brand while still preserving its identity of "Ideas Worth Spreading."
But, as with any growing brand, extensions also have the potential of splintering the core audience. For their part, how can entrepreneurs be certain that this new SXSW event is worth their monetary investment and, most importantly, their time? Away from Austin, how can SXSW remain synonymous with fostering creative and professional growth?
While SXSW has become known for huge interactive technology launches like Twitter and Foursquare, that success has driven increasing commercialization by large corporations. It can now be expensive and require long-range planning for startups to make a splash at SXSW in Austin. New events like V2V offer an opportunity for SXSW to not only grow its own brand but also to provide unique value to niche audiences, much like a network television channel and its various cable offshoots.
SXSW Interactive Director Hugh Forrest told the V2V audience that attendance numbers "don't matter. It's about meaningful one-on-one connections that can take your career to the next level," he said. "The person next to you may hold the key to your future."
In its first year, V2V has shown that if it can provide inspiring speakers in a fun location, it will attract the right audience -- albeit a smaller one. There are roughly 1,000 people in attendance at the entire event, compared to the more than 30,000 registrants at SXSW Interactive this past March.
V2V speakers provided big ideas that challenged and inspired attendees. AOL Co-Founder Steve Case spoke of days when only a sliver of the population used the internet and for just one hour per week. Similar to the technology shift of the past few decades, he predicted that massive disruption is on the horizon in areas like education and health care. Meanwhile, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh awed the crowd not just with his efforts to rebuild a city but also by how he's systematically trying to infuse luck and good fortune into the residents' daily lives.
Likewise, Las Vegas proved to be an ideal location, despite much larger and more established startup communities such as San Francisco and New York. The area is bolstered by the efforts of Hsieh's $350 million initiative to transform the city's historic downtown into a new paradigm for entrepreneurship. The city of Las Vegas supported V2V and even provided lunch for attendees each day.
V2V also featured a great mix of people, all friendly, passionate and working on something exciting. For example, I had a laughter-filled, three-hour dinner with several people I had known for less than 24 hours. Riding on one of the shuttles, I also met a corporate development executive from a Fortune 500 company who attended V2V hoping to change the lives' of entrepreneurs through investment or acquisition, he said.
SXSW representatives said they are not looking to haphazardly stamp out new events, but they have recently added Austin-based spinoffs "SXSW Eco" and "SXSWedu." If they can stick to the formula of expanding minds in complementary locations, they will likely continue attracting the right blend of attendees to make each event special. Long-term, this bodes well for the SXSW brand.