It started as a joke. My iPhone screen had been cracked for months, and a couple of loud, seemingly intoxicated men in the line for a party at SXSW on Saturday night were wearing shirts that said “iCracked.” My companion, Fast Company events editor Kim Last, makes a living spotting synergies, and she was quick to make the suggestion: Could they fix my phone?
The more sober of the pair turned out to be a “Certified iTech” who works at iCracked. Part of iCracked’s business is making house calls to repair broken phones. He is one of the people who makes them. He bravely agreed to replace my screen. I bravely agreed to have a drunk stranger fix my phone at a party.
Inside the annual bash hosted by Ashton Kutcher, he pulled from his backpack what looked like several tackle boxes full of small tools. Only after he had removed a couple of tiny screws from my phone and cracked it open did he comment that this was probably a bad idea (at the time he did not know I was a reporter, which would have likely made him feel it was an even worse idea). Only then did I understand that experiment that claims to have found we “love” our phones in some sense. Here was my connection to my work and universe, with its guts exposed, in the hands of some dude who until recently thought he was just going to an open bar. Sensing this tension, Kim naturally pulled out her phone and started a Meerkat livestream.
“We have 12 viewers,” she said.
“I don’t feel good about this at all,” I said.
He poked at my phone’s insides, and the music thumped on.
I doubted him right up until the moment when he handed my phone, lit up and seemingly functioning, back to me, along with his card in case I have any problems later.
And that’s how I was won over by iCracked.
SXSW is known as a launching pad for new products. Most famously, Twitter took off at SXSW 2007, and Foursquare launched at SXSW 2009. Meerkat was the darling of 2015. Because of precedents like these, startups have flocked to the event ever since, searching for their big break. They dress people in weird costumes and hand out flyers. They bus influencers to Austin barbecue restaurants and send invitations to parties attached to full-size bottles of vodka.
Meanwhile, global brands with enormous marketing budgets have brought a new level of spectacle to the event. This year, for instance, there was a 3M concert at which the DJ used a Bluetooth stethoscope (she incorporated her heartbeat in the set), a McDonald’s food truck, and a complete museum-like exhibit about barbecue hosted by GE. What were once parties have turned into events with their own signage, set design, and headliners. Ashton Kutcher’s party promised an appearance by Lil Wayne.
What aspiring entrepreneurs and established brands alike seem to forget through all this over-stimulation is that Twitter did not take off by hiring the most famous person for its party, or even by giving away free beer. It paid to put its stream in the hallways, and people used it. Foursquare could show off how it worked to keep track of friends at SXSW because there were so many people there who were willing to give it a try. When you signed on to the service, you could see people you knew going to places that you could go.
Ashton Kutcher’s Lil Wayne party was designed to promote something (although I don’t remember what it was). What I do remember is the guy from iCracked fixing my phone, and that people were using Meerkat everywhere I went. This aspect of authentic discovery is what people are missing when they lament the loss of the original conference’s spirit, saying now “it’s about marketers marketing their marketing efforts to other marketers” and that it proves “Hacker culture, which was once rooted in Silicon Valley’s countercultural history, is now being used by Fortune 500 corporations to sell stuff to people.”
Of course, authenticity has its downsides.
It took me two days to actually try to call someone with my newly unbroken phone. That’s when I realized that I could no longer hear voice calls on my phone. iCracked, which can’t really be faulted for being put on the spot, has offered to send someone to fix it when I’m back in New York.
So to recap: Organic connections at SXSW are way better to experience than expensive marketing circuses, but also, asking someone to fix your phone at a Lil Wayne concert is probably always a bad idea.