If you don’t know, now you know: A beginners guide to SXSW

March 18th, 2015 - Posted by: in Culture

Let me start by saying I am writing this from a fifth floor pool deck overlooking downtown Austin, Texas. Sounds great right? Well it is all that and more, but for all the greatness that is SXSW there can be equal tribulation and frustration if not planned properly, or at all.

SXSW 2015

In this brief article I am going to go over a few points that might help the SXSW Interactive newbie get through these five days of utter chaos and equal awesomeness. Mind you this is not, nor do I believe there is any foolproof plan for attacking SXSW. There is such an immense amount of things going on here that the experience will vary greatly from person to person. But here are just a few tips I think can apply to most:

The Tools

First and foremost, don’t forget your badge

While this may seem like a duh moment let me tell you that you will be busy, you will run late, and sometimes you will even be early, you may be tired, hungover, or even in a bbq coma. With all there is to absorb, learn, see, do, anticipate, and experience it is very easy to forget that all powerful lanyard back at the house three miles up seventh street. My own personal experience involved waking up extra early (like the responsible planned person I am, wink wink) and leaving the house two hours before my first session with plans on getting a jump on this blog post. Well two blocks from the ACC, sitting at a red light, it hit me… where’s my pass. Doh!

Battery packs

I would say this was my best thought out utility over the course of the past four days. Had it not been for this battery pack I would have been stranded, misguided, and on the edge of a panic attack at least three times a day. You will be on your device more than you ever have been, whether you are checking mail, social media, texting coworkers, calling family, or in my case spending hours in the SXSW app adjusting and re-adjusting your schedule. Things are constantly moving and changing, sessions will be full, some canceled, some may even be nothing like what you thought they were going to be. All this this time spent on your device is going to put your battery through an endurance marathon. A portable, reliable form of powering your arsenal of devices is essential!

Transportation

I was going to originally title this bicycle, however, I understand that riding a bike in a city crowded with 50,000+ people is not everyone’s cup of tea. So have a plan in place for getting from your front door to the city, session to session, or better yet party to party. Cabs are nearly useless once you enter center city as most of the streets are shut down, and if you do happen to find one it’s going to move slower than molasses through hoards of SXSW attendees. A good alternative to riding a bike yourself is to have someone else ride it for you! There are copious amounts of pedi-bikes in Austin, seriously they’re everywhere.

Hydration

It is a hot hot city here in Austin, and whether you’re riding, walking, and sometimes even running from session to session you’ve got to stay hydrated. Oh you had one too many jack & cokes last night? Your head’s pounding while you’re hauling butt in sixth gear down fourth street for your twelve o clock? Another duh moment, but water is essential to survival, and while you’re probably more worried about your schedule for the day and making it places on time you can easily fry yourself out if you don’t remember to drink lots of h2o.

Bookbag

So we’ve gone over just a few essentials, naturally you’re going to need somewhere to put all this stuff. Whatever your choice of item containment, it should be large enough to fit all that and more. On a typical day I left the house with this stuff in my bookbag:

  1. Business cards (and business cards you’ll get while networking with the thousands of equal minded people)
  2. Rain pouch (better safe than sorry)
  3. Sweatshirt (yes I know I said it was hot here but it can get chilly at night)
  4. Battery pack
  5. Electronics cables
  6. Water bottle (and maybe some snacks)
  7. Laptop
  8. Notebook

These are just a few, everyone has their own choice of must haves and I’ve learned it’s better having them on me than having to ride all the way back to the house between sessions just to grab an SD card.

On a more exciting note – take into account all the free stuff you’re going to attain over the course of your time here. Everyone and anyone is trying to hand/give you something. Juan will tell you from experience you can acquire a wardrobe for a month in the course of a day. All of those t-shirts have to go somewhere!

SXSW Tips

A few things to remember when attacking SXSW Interactive, and yes some of this may be common sense, but in my own experience common sense sometimes was drowned out by the excitement of the day.

  1. Wake up early – SXSW has a lot to offer, not only in the networking and educational world but also in tons of fun, social events also. This is not a vacation, and while a third of the events listed on the SXSW app may be parties, get togethers, and open bars, remember why you’re here. Be responsible, wake up early, get a jump on the day. Things move very fast when you’re having fun and the experience as a whole is very enjoyable. However, it is extremely easy to loose your whole morning to waking up at 9:30 am, riding into town, and searching for free coffee.
  2. Plan plan plan (and have backup plans) – Anyone who has looked through the SXSW app or website schedule can tell you, there is a lot, a whole lot to choose from. Don’t be picky, favorite anything and everything you find interesting or think may be advantageous to you. You won’t be able to get into every session you wish to, some will be packed, some may get canceled. Backup plans are key, as with an event this size things change constantly. Maybe your last session ran longer than you expected and you only have ten minutes to make it to the next one halfway across town. You won’t make it, trust me, and even if you do by the time you get there the line will likely be long enough to make anyone exhale with disappointment. For me personally, alternative options came into play on a daily basis.
  3. Get to sessions/meet-ups early – One would think for as many things as there are to choose from at SXSW Interactive the lines would not be horrendous. Well folks, they are. There are a lot of equal minded people here, chances are if the event intrigued you than it probably was of interest to a couple hundred other people. To reiterate my last point, you won’t get into every session, there are still fire codes and rules in place as to how many people they are allowed to pack into one room. If any particular sessions really peak your interest make a point to have enough time for travel to get there early.
  4. Free food? Yes please – Who doesn’t like free stuff? Even better who doesn’t like free food?! So you paid upwards of $1400 for your badge, and god only knows how much for your plane tickets and hotel stay. Wouldn’t it be nice to save money when you can once you get here? Whether it’s free coffee and breakfast at the IBM lounge, or free snacks at any one of the ongoing meet-ups and parties, there is free food to be had everywhere! I’ve personally paid for food maybe once a day the past four days. Do research, ask around, and explore. It’s almost a guarantee you can make it through most of the day without having to drop a dime on the fuel you need. Numerous sponsored lounges and hangouts offer beverages, snacks, and sometimes full blown meals. I have personally spent most morning in the McDonald’s tent (I know, don’t judge me) for their free coffee and breakfast sandwiches.
  5. Party animals beware – Party animal or not, SXSW will tempt even the most timid individuals to “get up off that thang, and dance till you feel better”. But try to remember what you’re here for, and plan extracurricular activities accordingly. You won’t get to every party, live band performance, and open bar. One simply cannot be in two places at once, nor can your body handle walking/riding from sun up to midnight for five straight days. So the sooner you accept you’re going to miss some things, the sooner that anxiety will dissipate.
  6. Document everything – Personally I am a not a good note taker. I simply cannot focus, and simultaneously write or type fast enough to keep up. If you can, more power to you, it is a skill I didn’t do well with in school and haven’t managed to grasp in my twenties either. My alternative for documentation was recording audio and shooting photos, while taking simple high level notes. Websites, names, twitter handles, and one liners make up the few notes I took on the spot. The upside of recording audio is that even if I missed or forget any key points I have everything documented and can go back and listen to it as many times as I like at a later date and really focus on key takeaways. Possibly equally beneficial, I can bring this information back to work and share it with my peers.

 All good things must come to an end

Mi Digitsl Agency SXSW 2015As my time at SXSW wraps up I’m finding more of these brief moments to finally stop and collect my thoughts. Wrapping up this post sitting on the floor of the hotel hallway with my headphones on, watching hundreds of people buzzing by, it’s all beginning to really sink in.

Day two I felt frustrated, overwhelmed, and quite upset that I knew I wasn’t going to be able to literally do EVERYTHING. Now, I’m already anticipating SXSW 2016. I am satisfied with my experience as a whole, satisfied with this convention, this collection of like minded individuals. If I can guarantee you one thing, it’s that you will, without a doubt, leave this place feeling fulfilled. You will be excited about the digital community, and the leaps and bounds of progression made every day.

This has been one of the all time best experiences of my life, and I invite, no I insist, regardless of your profession or interest, coming to SXSW at least once in your lifetime. In the very least, it will really put into perspective how huge the digital community is, and how many amazing people doing astonishing things are out there.

To sum it all up would sound something like:

Never stop moving, exploring, learning, and most of all never stop progressing. There are no limits on what you can do.

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