At South by Southwest Interactive, giant personalities, tall talk and big dreams all collide to form the technology companies -- and customer finding tools -- of tomorrow.
Although this year's SXSW standouts are still being parsed, here are six companies that small-business owners interested in picking up added customers may want to keep on their radar.
WalkIN -- has an idea: dinner without the wait. Its restaurant-line manager app allows customers to walk up, scan a restaurant's unique code, secure a spot in the queue and issue a text message when their table is ready -- all without stepping foot into the restaurant or writing a single thing down.
Right now, the app is available for only restaurants, but, down the road, it could make sense for retailers or even media companies. One day, customers may be able to buy an outfit from a store window or from a television show via the app. WalkIN was one of two winners of the StartupBus' second annual competition -- a hackathon that tasks tech startups with developing a prototype product on a two-day bus ride down to SXSW in Austin. It should be interesting to see how it stacks up against such rivals as LineSnob.
Another standout is GroupMe, a group messaging service that lets users text-message groups of up to 25 people -- forming something of a mobile chat room or conference call where participants' pictures and locations may be shared. The company reportedly distributed more than 2 million messages to groups at SXSW.
The business implications for this technology range from conference calls on the go to dispatching email newsletter-style text messages or coupons out to customers. Beluga and FastSociety touted similar group messaging attributes.
Yobongo is another group messaging service. However, unlike competitors, Yobongo allows people to chat with others they may not know. The company's iPhone app lets users send messages to 10 (possibly unknown) people nearby, which could make offering up enticements such as sales or freebies to passersby a cinch.
Zaarly, a proximity-based site that helps broker the sale of almost anything, also made an appearance at SXSW. The company, co-founded by Bo Fishback, the former president of the Kauffman Foundation's Kauffman Labs, won first prize at Startup Weekend LA and even attracted an angel investment from Ashton Kutcher.
Like Foursquare and Gowalla, location-based app Whrrl users check-in at various locations. But Whrrlers can also join groups based on interests, as well as make lists indicating what they'd like to do. The site also serves as a rating system that places added weight on recommendations from frequent users. Those users have the best odds for capturing discounts or other prizes offered up by participating businesses.
Rather than get offers for random products and services through group-buying sites like Groupon and LivingSocial, Wantlet lets users list what they want -- broadcasting their wishlists to their networks -- and possibly receive discounts or other offers.