The most common questions I’ve gotten over the past week have been a variant of:
- Was SXSW worth it?
- Was it just one big party?
- Should I go next year?
- Why do your eyes still look so bloodshot?
(And I’ve learned a new term, I arrived home with SxSARS).
As you may know I outlined my rules for maximum impact at events / conferences before SXSW began. If you didn’t read it, it’s here.
I hold true to form and follow my own advice. I didn’t sit through any panels (other than the day where I was the emcee and judge for the BizSpark Accelerator program). I booked several high-profile meetings in advance. I had scheduled dinners every night with small groups of people. I stayed out late. Strike that. LAAATE. Every night. I focused on relationships, connections, human bond, idea generation, testing products and also I generally tried to be available for others.
SXSW was magic. I can’t imagine having been at a better event. I was listening to NPR on my drive in yesterday morning. They were talking about the music portion of the show. A band was saying, “I can’t believe that at one event you could get access to the band managers of Lady Gaga, FooFighters, etc. Every night you are just hanging out with big name bands and the teams around them that brought them to their peak.”
I couldn’t have said it any better replacing music with tech. Want to hang out with Dennis Crowley? He was there in the Pepsi pavillion playing actual FourSquare with anybody who wanted. Want meet one of his key investors, USV partner Albert Wenger? He was there, too. Just hanging out. In fact, I saw them having a drink along with COO Evan Cohen. I turned around and there was StockTwits founder (and my favorite Tweeter) Howard Lindzon. We live 100 miles from each other but always struggle to find enough time to hang out. But at SXSW? Nobody has family duties, board meetings, full schedules. We’re there to hang out. To meld.
Want to debate Naval about AngelList? Hanging. Want to become one of 500Startups? McClure was omnipresent. Gary Vee. Dropping wine knowledge in person. Dave Morin of Path? There. SimpleGeo — in da house. Want to talk Twitter integration? Ryan Sarver was there, too. Hanging out. Struggling to get time with First Round Capital? Rob Hayes / Kent Goldman there all week. Easier than getting them in San Fran!
You couldn’t help but seeing Uber Pedicabs all around town. But you also wouldn’t have struggled to share one with Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. Or how about the inventor of the Internet? No, not Al Gore. The real inventor (the creator of Ethernet) Bob Metcalf. He was there. And accessible. And a pleasure to speak to. I could go on. You get the point.
But here’s the real point. Every night there was a magic midnight mind meld.
Saturday night. Stupidly I wasn’t pacing myself — this was going to be a long week. I had come off of a Hashable party and dinner with Naval Ravikant, Farb Nivi (Grockit) & John Price (Vast). We wandered over to the 500Startups / Moonfruit party one block away. Every party seemed to be only one block away.
There I bumped into one of my favorite people to hang out with: Steve Blank (above). He’s always a pleasure to see and always sparks interesting debates. Yes, this is what I look like at 2am. As my college buddies used to say, “you could blindfold me with dental floss.” And we’re here withDan Martell, who like any great startup founder is wearing his company t-shirt for Flowtown.
Moments after that Naval, Steve & I were having a discussion, “Are we really in a bubble?”
“Maybe,” says Naval, “Certainly valuations are creepy up quickly in all stages of deals. On the other hand, 10 years ago when we all felt like this last time the total market size for any company was at maximum 100 million potential users. Now we’re in the billions of users. Facebook connections alone bring 500 million, Twitter 200 million. 10 years ago we only connected for brief periods of time when we were at our PCs. Now we’re connected to apps all the time, everywhere we go. So maybe there’s a bubble. It’s hard to say. But we’re also looking at unprecedented opportunity.”
Said so starkly it seems obvious. Yet the art of shifting your mindset is often taking a complex idea and generalizing it. Steve’s reply said it best, “Wow. Just wow. Let’s repeat that. So you’re saying that a decade ago we had 100 million addressable market connected some of the time and now we have 2+ billion connected all of the time. Wow. That’s a huge difference in opportunity.”
And so it is. And as simple as that sounds I had never put that together in my mind like that. Wow. The opportunity is really, truly, mind-boggling — bubble or not. Ok, it’s not quite a “double rainbow all the way” moment, but close.
And so as Steve is apt to do, he consolidated this midnight mind meld, added it to his linear thinking on the investment phases of tech companies and turned it into one of the most cogent pieces on the topic that I’ve seen. You should read this. It is called, “the new rules for the Internet bubble” and he just nails it.
He then left. It must have been about 2am. I was the fool who put in 2 more hours.
The next night was a repeat.
I started at a cocktail party on the top floor of the largest building in Austin with the who’s who of the local (and national) tech scene including our host John Price, CEO of Vast, Adam Dell (of Austin Ventures), and I’m told the governor of Texas. Given that I hadn’t had time to change out of my t-shirt (I had promised Jonathan Strauss I would wear to support his company), I tried to keep a low profile here [full shirt: Effing Social Media, How Does it Work? Awe.sm.]
Dinner was hosted by Joshua Baer of OtherInbox who held a great event. It was a bunch of members of the Austin Startup Factory mixed with some out-of-towners like myself. Was a great mix of people and learned much about the local Austin tech scene. Enjoyed hanging out with Noah Kagan and also Marc Smookler who founded a business that imports sake & sells it online. He gave me such a great idea. Why bring wine to friends’ houses as gift? They never remember who gave them which bottles and the probably re-gift them anyhow. If you bring a nice bottle of chilled sake they’ll always remember it was from you. I like that idea. I shall be ordering a case.
But yet again there was some midnight mind meld. This time on mysterious party bus to nowhere but situated with the CTO & Cofounder of Living Social, Aaron Batalion. The ever-bad-influence Dave McClure. Wendy Tan White, the founder of Moonfruit. And a motley crew of other interesting startup founders. Late night waffles, with fried chicken, bacon, syrup & hot sauce with Joshua Cook of Gunderson Dettmer (ok, I ate it, he didn’t). Then even later night sub sandwich with R. Phillip Stevenson who is currently a Wharton MBA (and whom I was trying to talk him into being an entrepreneur). Home. 4am. Again.
But the NEXT night was mind-meld on steroids.
After dinner with a film distributor dear friend of mine, Janet Brown (check out FilmBuff) I caught an interesting screening of a new film, Surrogate Valentine with Gary Chou of USV. I thought that was the end of the night (whew, a night’s sleep!) until a text from Dave McClure came in announcing a late-night tech discussion / round table with Gary Vaynerchuk (@GaryVee).
We assembled chairs in a circle in Gary’s living room. Dave McClure, Ryan Holmes (CEO of HootSuite), Travis Kalanik (Uber), Angelo Sotira (DeviantArt), Gary V, AJ V,Omid Ashtari (Twitter) and a host of other really interesting folks. About 15 in total. We ran from midnight until about 3.30am in the morning wherein I had to exit, stage left. I had to be on stage at 7.30am for the Startup Accelerator event. Who knows how long the others stayed?
We debated everything including, “is Apple like China?” “Is Facebook the new AOL?” “Has Twitter become useful to our moms & sisters?” “Was AOL smart to have purchased HuffPo?”
We learned about the economics of iPad apps from the founder of 955Dreams. Check out their app “the History of Jazz.” It’s super cool. And the economics / conversion rates were mind boggling.
But then Gary V introduced a topic that has been on my mind for a while. He talked about what he believes will be one of the most important products in the next 5 years. It’s a topic I’ve not only been thinking a lot about over the past year but had been planning to write about. It has to do with the future of social networking. And what I hadn’t realized was how the behavior of mainstream, young people — high schoolers — has already changed in ways that I was not even aware of.
And I’ll talk about this market and why I find it so interesting in my next post. (sorry)
But what I can tell you that it was the midnight mind meld, the coming together of people from all places and different backgrounds, the jazz-like riffs of our debate, the passion, the challenges to prove your assertions, the datapoints / facts people offered about their businesses that furthered my thinking about important topics.
If you’re not finding ways to interact with other people in one of these late-night jam sessions, if you’re not getting out and meeting people with opposing views / ideas, if you’re not getting out of the office, pounding the pavement, shaking hands & kissing babies, if you’re not forming your own points-of-view … you’re definitely missing out.
But next time I’m bringing Purell with me.
Update: Yes, a lot of name dropping in this post. It was more to try and give the reader / non-SXSW attendee a flavor of the atmosphere in Austin than to try and name drop. OK, well maybe 80/20.
Reprinted from Both Sides of the Table
Mark Suster is a 2x entrepreneur who has gone to the Dark Side of VC. He joined GRP Partners in 2007 as a General Partner after selling his company to Salesforce.com. He focuses on early-stage technology companies. Follow him at twitter.com/msuster.