With thousands of official (and unofficial) events and countless attendees, it's easy to get overwhelmed at SXSW. It’s a different type of conference and to help you connect, we spoke with several SXSW mentors, experts from an event program where attendees can meet with industry pros for one-on-one advice and career planning. These thought leaders in tech, marketing and strategy share their thoughts on standing out and fitting in to help you get more from your time in Austin.
Those pesky introductions
1. Connect first, schmooze later. Since the hardest part of networking is often breaking the ice, Michael Robin, the marketing director for Rocksauce Studios, suggests you take advantage of the time you'll be spending in line. Strike up conversations with everyone around you – but don’t bring up business too quickly. She says: "I almost never tell someone what I do within the first five minutes of meeting them. I want to find the one piece that connects us as human beings before I look for that piece that connects us as business partners."
"Listening is always a good skill for meeting people," says Rod Paddock, president and CTO of Dash Point Software, Inc., emphasizing that empathy should be the cornerstone of every interaction. As for where to break the ice, he suggests looking into the SXSW Start-Up Crawl, where badge-holders party hop between various Austin-based companies.
2. Be a lifesaver. Jenny Magic, the principal and vice president of content strategy at Site Goals, has a more direct route to starting conversations: "Bring extra phone chargers. You're everyone's best friend if you have extras."
3. Get a method for the madness. Although Magic says that she has made countless contacts in and in-between SXSW events, she says that you shouldn't hold onto every business card you are given. "I find value in being selective," she says, suggesting that you filter your new contacts as you get them. This will help you prioritize networking in the weeks and months ahead.
4. Be memorable. If you want to avoid getting filtered yourself, the key is to stand out. Cecy Correa, director of business development at web design firm Four Kitchens, recalls meeting someone who would photograph everyone he met with a Polaroid camera and write his contact information on the picture. It formed an instant and lasting connection. "You know exactly when and where you met him!" Correa says. "That always stuck with me and we're friends to this day."
Magic also suggests being particular about your wardrobe. "[Clothing is] a great conversation starter," she says, "I've definitely had conversations that started with 'That's a great hat! Who are you?'"
5. Be real. Correa reminds you to focus on events that are interesting to you. If a person is sitting next to you at any given event, you already have something to talk about. "I've met people from around the world doing really cool stuff because we're both at a session we care about," she says.
The Tools of the Trade.
Put your mobile tools to good use to build a network and get real-time updates that matter.
6. Check Twitter. Almost every mentor says Twitter is still king. "Events like SXSW are made for Twitter," Paddock says. "Follow the hashtags. Use your network. Follow what your friends are doing." Paddock remembers one year someone tweeted about a headache, only to have a stranger arrive soon after with a bottle of aspirin. An instant connection was made.
7. Be findable. Brian Behm, the motion design director at production studio Rooster Teeth Productions, recommends taking advantage of SXSW Social, the conference's directory of attendees. "If you're talking to somebody and you don't quite get their name, you can go into SXSW Social and track them down," he says, adding that he's found several missed connections this way. Don't forget to fill out your own profile so other people can track you down.
8. Get into people’s phones. Simon Erich, the founder and chief creative officer of Site Goals, suggests that attendees sign up a service called Contxts, which shares contact and business information through text messages. This way, your name will always end up on someone's phone instead of in a big paper stack. "You meet so many people and it's hard for them to remember you," Erich says. "By day five, my brain isn't reliable anymore!"
Talking to Your Heroes
SXSW offers attendees the chance to rub shoulders with some of the biggest names in technology and business, but whatever you do -- don't be that guy.
9. Have something to say. Be careful about approaching your heroes, says Magic. "Make sure you have something to say. Don't go just to say that you did. Don't give them a business card unless they ask for it." If you do make an approach, Magic suggests bringing up a specific example so these people know you're a real fan and not a hanger-on. "Interesting people are interested. Ask a question about me and we'll talk all night long!"
10. Be helpful. Once you have the attention of someone you respect, Magic suggests you find a way to help them, even if it's something as simple as a retweet. "If you take the time to do what you said you were going to do, that will earn a lot of respect and start the dialogue that ends up being the connection you were looking for."
Screwing Everything Up
While SXSW is an easy place to make new contacts, it’s just as easy a place to get lost in the crowd…or to stand out in the wrong way.
11. Be your best self. "The most cringeworthy thing I've seen at SXSW was a guy wearing a cardboard sign that said 'I'm a developer. Hire me,'" Correa says. "I don't think he even had any additional information. That's cutesy and it certainly got my attention and I'm still thinking about it today, but it was not the best way to present himself."
12. Don’t get trashed. Behm warns that while you should have fun, you shouldn’t lose control. "It's a big issue. SXSW can be a very Spring Break-like experience. Partying a little too hard and having that pop up all over social media can be an issue." He says, "The biggest SXSW faux pas is forgetting that you're there on business and making an ass out of yourself."
13. Remember your manners. Think you should interrupt? Think twice. It’s not always a good idea to insert yourself into strangers’ conversations and it’s Magic’s pet peeve. "I'm absolutely interested in meeting you but give me a second! If two people are in conversation, try to wait your turn."
And once you're in a conversation, Paddock says usual social etiquette still matters. "It's okay to have an opinion, but there's a certain point where your opinion becomes overbearing."
Have an Adventure.
Be open to events you couldn’t have planned to get the full SXSW experience.
14. Find your panda. SXSW's wild parties are just as famous its programming, and can sometimes sound like something from a Hollywood movie. Erich recalls the year he teamed up with a pedicab driver in a panda costume and the two crashed an exclusive, high profile party. "The next thing I knew we were dancing on the stage with a bunch of other people," he says. "My panda got me in doors that I would never have gotten into before and I made some good business connections. Everyone loved the panda."
15. Scout the small soirees. At more intimate events, it's easier to make meaningful connections, says Behm. He recalls an unscheduled event where Adobe bussed a group out to the famous Salt Lick restaurant to talk shop. "Getting a chance to spend a couple of hours with the folks from Adobe and talk over barbecue and then hang out on a karaoke bus as we drove back to town was really helpful," Behm says. "It was an environment that was very conducive to conversation."
16. Play, play and play some more. Behm adds that it's vital to be adventurous during SXSW and that having fun is sometimes the best way to solidify a connection. His suggestion? Go to the big LEGO pit and talk about business while you play. "You're at camp! Go hang out!” he says. “Experience as many new things as you can."
17. Throw out your plan. Each mentor agreed that the best way to tackle SXSW is to go with the flow. "In the moment, follow the energy," Magic says. "You'll see panels that didn't interest you from the titles have a surge of interest. By following them, I made two or three hundred contacts who are still key to running our business."