"Survival" was a major buzzword at the South by Southwest Interactive festival this year in Austin, Texas, and event planners and marketers talked often in life-or-death terms. They seemed desperate to keep attendees like me in Wi-Fi and non-GMO energy bars at all times. I appreciated the efforts (and love non-GMO energy bars) but the extremes belied what is to me the real value of the conference, which has less to do with elbowing my way through a crowd and more to do with the simple, quiet surprises that come from chance conversations and interesting people.
Much of this occurred to me while attending Gary Vaynerchuk’s session “How to Rock SXSW.” He’s an entrepreneur, author and angel investor and this session was planned for the first official day. But it included so much of the simple, “aha” stuff, with applications outside of this event and this town, or business in general, that I share it now, after SXSW has ended. (If you are pressed for time, and cannot skip ahead, it all boils down to one point: Be good, but try your damnedest to be better.)
Here are some of the biggest takeaways:
Pay forward first.
Or as Vaynerchuk put it: "Don’t be a fracking taker." Ok, Vaynerchuk didn’t say “fracking.” You’re creative and you can guess what he really said.
Still, he addressed a problem that plagues not just business, but relationships in general. You can’t just push ideas at people. When you harangue and say "look at this, look at that, look at me," you’re trying to take time and attention that you haven’t yet earned. "This is an event when every single person comes with an objective to close. And the way to actually break out is to reverse it," Vaynerchuk said.
To illustrate the point, Vaynerchuk shared a story about his first SXSW when he ditched a party’s long line and created his own party in the lobby of a Marriott, serving 10 cases of wine he’d had shipped down to share. Yes, it promoted his business at the time, but it also set him apart from the crowd. Vaynerchuk refers to it as his breakout moment in tech. “The ones who break out take the time to provide value” and connect on a human level, he said.
Enjoy more. (AKA: “Stop fracking bitching.”)
Ripping on SXSW has become a sport in itself. Detractors cite long lines and crowded panels as reasons to dismiss the event altogether. “There could be 9 million people at this event," Vaynerchuk said. "You as a human being have the ability to make this a very big event or a very small event.”
Vaynerchuk pointed out that despite the demands of his business, his weekends aren’t spent working -- they’re spent with his family. “This isn’t tactical," he said. "This is a decision.”
Vaynerchuk said he realized recently when planning a vacation with his wife that he could have planned any number of other trips and hadn’t, and wouldn’t get that time back. Since then he created clearer divisions between his business and personal time. “I’m not super smart but I’m a good halftime adjustor.”
Farm. Don’t hunt.
The common advice for SXSW (or any networking event) is the usual say-hello-to-five-strangers. Vaynerchuk sees this as a type of hunting, or acquiring new people for your circle. But he emphasizes the importance of old friends and how he spends more time at SXSW with his friends in from New York than he ever does back home.
Vaynerchuk stressed nurturing contacts and spending a fifth of your time seizing the chance to strengthen those bonds. “Reinvest in the relationships you already have,” adding, “My biggest objective is to have the most people show up to my funeral as possible. I’m sorry. That’s what it is.”
In life and business -- and even SXSW -- there’s the pressure to make certain connections or get a certain type of visibility. But as Vaynerchuk noted, closing yourself off to experiences or people only limits your own opportunities. “I promise when you stop strategizing about people’s clout and start acting like a human being you will win.”
Vaynerchuk was born in the eastern European country of Belarus and immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was three. He sees that as his great luck, understanding the opportunities that entrepreneurship has afforded him.
As he spoke, I realized that I rarely hear native-born Americans acknowledging that same access. I know there’s any number of things I take for granted, even though I try not to. And when you take things for granted you can’t harness the energy that comes from feeling you’ve been given a special chance, setting the stage for grousing. “I hate hearing people complain their glass is half full when it is 4/5 full," Vaynerchuk said. "I’m grateful when there’s one drop because I know what to do with that drop.”
Finish what you start.
At a conference like SXSW, Vaynerchuk has a packed schedule -- so packed he’d considered citing business emergencies to lighten the load. But he realized that was just a sort of short-term selfishness. During the presentation, he reminded attendees that with anything in life or business, pangs of fear or even laziness can get in the way of doing what we really need to do. It’s in keeping our promises and finishing what we start that we not only learn, but that we can start to build trust.