SXSW Startup Success Means Building Buzz Beforehand, Says Highlight Founder

You don’t have to be in Silicon Valley to launch a startup. SXSW has provided a great alternative to those who want to introduce promising tech inventions that could be future breakthroughs. For one, startups have a variety of users to target at SXSW. And secondly, attendees go this annual Austin event to party, mingle and discover. For most social and mobile neophytes, word of (social media) mouth could be a big advantage for a company looking to gain recognition at SXSW.

The track record has already been set by Twitter and Foursquare, but times have since changed.  With attendance doubling in the last two years to reach over 30k people in the city of Austin, it’s a seemingly insurmountable task to cut through the noise of startups hoping to be the next big thing at SXSW.

Back in the day

Thinking back on the glory days, when SXSW was a collection of early adopters sidelining an annual music fest, Twitter founder Evan Williams recalls, “This is something they’d never done before, but we didn’t want a booth on the trade show floor, because we knew hallways is where the action was. We paid $11K for this and set up the TVs ourselves. (This was about the only money Twitter’s ever spent on marketing).”

But that is not just the only gimmick Williams and his team employed five years ago. They created a SXSW-tailored feature wherein people are allowed to join Twitter by simply texting “join sxsw” to their 40404 SMS shortcode. People who did that were displayed on big screens surrounding the event. These early Twitter ambassadors amassed a number of followers within the walls of SXSW, helping to establish the trend for creative alternatives to marketing during the event.

Williams added, “I don’t know what was the most important factor, but networks are all about critical mass, so doubling down on the momentum seemed like a good idea. And something clicked.”

The Secret Recipe turned to check-ins

Unlike Twitter, Foursquare arrived at SXSW when it was booming, with Interactive attendees surpassing that of music and movies. Co-founder Dennis Cowley recollects how before the actual festival, they are coding at the airport, on the tarmac and runway. But what kept them pushing forward was the viral word-of-mouth buzz. Months before SXSW, they had soft-launched the product and had already started telling friends and strangers about the app. They also used Twitter as a platform to answer questions and address requests of early users by using keyword search. The guys behind the location-based social network also made sure that while they are doing business at SXSW, with someone at the home office monitoring their progress and concentrating on the customer experience. Since then, Foursquare’s never looked back.

Prepare for SXSW

The evolution for startup solutions at SXSW has come a long way in just a few years, battling the crowds and each other for attention.  Things have gotten so crazy that the question of whether or not it’s a worthwhile effort to launch at SXSW has come up this year.  But like anything else, a little prep goes a long way.

“I think the most important thing is to get your product out before SXSW,” says Paul Davison, founder of ambient discovery app Highlight.  As the darling of this year’s conference, Highlight benefitted from building buzz prior to arriving in Austin.

“We launched six weeks before SXSW and people got excited about it.  And by the time you get to SXSW people have heard of Highlight, and they’ll go back to their hometown and talk about it…we tried to focus entirely on the product and get it right before SXSW.”

SXSW is also doing its part to showcase fresh ideas, centralizing notable startups for investors and the press.  The StartUp Village, located at the Downtown Austin Hilton 4th floor, became a launch pad for a series of events dedicated for the industry’s newbies.  There you found the SXSW Accelerator, startup-related panels, meet ups, lounges, pitch events and mentoring and coaching sessions.  Check out this Forbes article for more ideas on launching a startup at SXSW.

Contributors: Cherr Aira