Why Launching Your Startup At SXSW Is A Bad Idea

VC Mark Suster is a huge proponent of SXSW–just not of launching a company there. Here’s why he thinks it’s a waste of resources, and advice for more wisely spending your time there.

Why Launching Your Startup At SXSW Is A Bad Idea

It’s February now. That means a slew of companies will be preparing to launch their new products or announcing their companies at the annual SXSW conference in Austin, Texas.


I get asked often how to best launch at SXSW. What strategies to use, how to get attention, how to become “hot.” I get asked many PR questions, which is why I started this stream of posts on PR at startups.

So this post is about how to best craft a strategy to launch at SXSW–but you could substitute most major conferences like CES if you want.

Exec Summary

Don’t bother.


The Details

To be clear. I’m not advocating that you shouldn’t present at tech startup events like Launch, TechCrunch 50, DEMO, or similar. These are tech launch events designed to see new startups unveiled. I’m talking about big, garden-variety, industry-wide schmooze fests.

SXSW is where Twitter broke out in 2007. It’s where Foursquare first broke out. And ever since then, every year we are subjected to the tech press corps writing the annual, “What will the hot company at SXSW be?” followed by the compulsory post-show “Who won at SXSW?”

Trust me, these articles are coming. Why? Because to write stories every journalist needs an “angle,” meaning a storyline or narrative that they form their story around. The most obvious narrative leading into an event that launched two smashing tech darlings is, “What will be the next big thing?”


And then subsequently many well-intentioned but young, naive, and impressionable startups will blow thousands of dollars wastefully trying to recreate the magic. They will fail.

To be clear, I’m not saying don’t attend SXSW. Just don’t blow your marketing budget trying to stand out. In fact, I’m a very big proponent of SXSW, as I wrote about here.

Why It’s a Waste

There will be tens of thousands of people there. They will be there mostly to network, go to parties, and hang out. They are not there to “discover the next cool SXSW app.” You are a shitty little startup. You have $10,000 to spend. Actually, you don’t. But you’re planning to do so anyways.


Your great idea–suggested by your PR firm–is to book out some dive bar and invite guests, rent a room at the Four Seasons and throw a party, take over a grilled cheese stand across from the main venue. None of this matters. Don’t do it.

Your crappy $10,000 will pale in comparison to the budgets of the big tech and media companies. So anything you do will feel small in comparison. Your efforts to corral your tight-knit tech followers will work for 5 minutes but even they will feel the pull to be at the really cool tech party where “everybody will be” that starts at midnight.

In short, there’s too much noise, no signal. You can’t stand out. You’re shouting in a crowd. It is the peak moment of ADD for everybody in the tech industry and the tech press. It is “Spring Break for Geeks.”


So go. Be a part of the fun. Attend the cocktail parties. Meet your favorite tech entrepreneurs, bloggers, VCs, or whoever will be hanging out and talking to randoms at 3 a.m. at a taco stand. or more likely a fried chicken and waffle stand. Network. Be loose. Save your time, energy, and budget for building relationships with people with whom you can follow up later. If you’re trying to launch your company or your next new product you won’t achieve any of these things.

Why Twitter & Foursquare Succeeded

Okay, Suster. You think you know it all? Then why did Twitter and Foursquare break out? Surely we should try to emulate their spectacular rise.

No, you shouldn’t.


Twitter was launched in “a moment.” Prior to Twitter there was no easy, public way to ask which party was the best at SXSW or where were your friends. Before Twitter there was no easy way to “conference brag” or “travel brag” or share food porn. So it filled a gap. A need. A moment in time. The iPhone was still fairly new and smartphones were just coming to the fore.

So SXSW needed Twitter. And Twitter needed SXSW. And all of the attendees needed the validation that they were the cool kids at the cool party and to tell the world of non-SXSW people that they were missing out.

And in the wake of that spectacular success Foursquare repeated the magic. How? Because by the next year Twitter had gotten really noisy. The masses were now on. It wasn’t an efficient tool for telling people which bar you were at or where you were eating lunch. And Foursquare was. It was the first “check-in app” that allowed you to know exact location. And it was purpose built for that so it wasn’t mixed up with random other messages/tweets.


But public broadcasting and location activation are done.

And so, too, is that SXSW moment.

If you were at TechCrunch 40 in the early days and you won–Mint, Yammer, RedBeacon–you were an instant darling. I challenge you to tell me who won the last three years. TechCrunch 25/40/50 was a moment, too.


How to Best do SXSW

So how should you take advantage of this wonderful show? How should you get the most bang for the buck?

I wrote this in a post so my best suggestion is just to read How to Get the Most out of SXSW, which is really about how to get the most out of any major event. For those not interested in linking through, here are the summary titles without the details of that post.

1. Be very targeted in which events you attend
2. Do the leg work before the event
3. If you sit on a panel, make sure you don’t suck
4. Focus more on networking at events than attending presentations
5. Stay out late, sleep in
6. Schedule dinners
7. Don’t get too wasted
8. Don’t assume people remember you
9. Have a “wing man”
10. Follow up with people right after the event


–Reprinted with permission from Both Sides of the Table.

[Image: Flickr user Courtney]


About the author

I grew up in Northern California and was fortunate enough to have computers around my house and school from a young age. In fact, in high school in the mid-eighties I sold computer software and taught advanced computers