SXSW's Biggest Debuts -- and Disappointments

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What started out as the intimate South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival in Austin, Texas nearly 30 years ago has grown into SXSW—one of the most closely watched launching pads for up-and-coming musicians, filmmakers and, increasingly, tech entrepreneurs.

Indeed, some of the today’s most well-known companies debuted, or gained much-needed traction, there. But the festival has also had its fair share of flubs, too. In recent years, there haven’t been the kinds of smash success stories emerging like during older events, in part, because “the space gets more and more saturated over time, making it harder for new companies to stand out,” says Adrian Penn, director of design and user experience for sonarDesign, an Austin-based tech start-up that has been selected as a finalist at the SXSW Accelerator pitch competition in March.

Here’s a look back at some of the most important industry initiatives, corporate launches and the misses that have defined the festival over the years: 

Mid-1990s. 1994 marked the first year that the music festival officially expanded to include a multimedia conference and events for independent filmmakers. While there were only eight panel sessions and just 36 speakers in total, SXSW’s growing popularity inspired a number of unofficial showcases—including one in 1995 that featured a trio of brothers performing a song in a cappella and that led to them to a lucrative recording contract. The tune’s title? “MMMbop,” by Hanson.

2001. Two words: Pyra Labs. Never heard of it? Back then, Pyra Labs was a relatively new venture behind the Blogger weblog service, which boasted more than 1 million registered users by the time Google acquired it just two years later. Pyra Labs’ co-founder, Evan Williams, appeared at SXSW to discuss the company, and he would later return to the festival as the co-founder of another promising young start-up—Twitter.

2007. What was the one question heard more during SXSW this year than any other? “Are you on Twitter?” But it wasn’t just Daniel Terdiman, a senior writer at CNET, who documented the growing frenzy for the social networking firm back then. Conference organizers, who noted that attendees were “addicted” to sending tweets of up to 140 characters, bestowed Twitter with a 2007 Web Award in the blog category after the company gave a presentation about its new micro-messaging app. 

2009. The social networking site FourSquare made a splash when it debuted here in 2009, and it has gone on to rack up more than 5 billion check-ins and recently announced that it raised $35 million in Series D funding. Yet on the very same day of FourSquare’s debut, Gowalla—a location-based social network that evolved to become social travel guide—also launched at the conference. And its fate ended quite differently: Facebook acquired the company’s cofounders and other members of their team in 2011, though it didn’t seem to want anything to do with the company’s other key assets. “While Facebook isn’t acquiring the Gowalla service or technology,” a statement released to the media read, “we’re sure that the inspiration behind Gowalla will make its way into Facebook over time.”

2010. Sorry to dampen the spirits of 2014’s SXSW Accelerator finalists, but historically, fewer than 10 percent of the companies that have participated in the challenge have gone on to be acquired. Even so, past participants have garnered more than $587 million in funding, cumulatively, so far. And one of the festival’s biggest successes includes Siri, which demonstrated how voice activation could be used to send messages and place calls during the Microsoft BizSpark Accelerator at SXSW in 2010. Not only did the software program win the contest, in the innovative web technology category, but it also got eaten up by Apple in an acquisition deal reportedly worth more than $200 million. 

2012. Highlight, an app that shares another user’s profile when you approach them, was expected to become the breakout hit this year. But while its creators recently secured $4 million—a tidy sum for any emerging start-up—many say Highlight failed to gain the kind of post-SXSW traction that led FourSquare and Twitter to where they are today. 

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