The road has beckoned, and I’m publishing off cycle a bit in order to attend a series of events. Today concludes my time at SXSW in Austin. It was for me another productive year at this ever more massive festival of technology, film and music. I clocked over 15,000 steps Saturday, and nearly that much most other days. I felt pretty good about my stamina when I noticed two 20-something men next to me hunched over sound asleep at one session I attended. If they had started snoring, I might have intervened. They didn’t look like party types, so I presume they were worn out from brain exertion.
This year I was wearing my TechSquare Labs venture fund hat and looking mainly to create or enhance relationships with follow-own investors for our seed and early stage companies. All have appropriate runways at the moment, so this was more of a long-view exercise. I came upon about a half dozen Atlanta deals, one of which was in our wheelhouse but already known to us. I was also stirring up interest in our May 8 Atlanta Startup Battle.
Holding to any sort of plan at a gathering of this scale is nearly impossible. Scheduling one-on-one meetings is difficult and often not the best use of time. Signing up for a physical booth in the exhibit hall is not an advisable use of time or funds; why tether your team in one spot and hope the right people happen to walk by? The exhibit hall seemed to have a preponderance of economic development and innovation entities from across the globe, and for them I suppose it makes sense to have an anchor location for tech entrepreneurs who want to learn how to do business in their countries.
Getting great value from SXSW is a two-step process (unrelated to the Texas Two-Step). As I often write, whether you are raising money or looking for customers or looking for deals, you must first make yourself known. I invested exactly seven years in Austin and was an enthusiastic participant in the SXSW Accelerator program and many UT activities for a number of those years. I became part of the fabric of the Austin tech community. I did not do so with any long-term plan of being rewarded, I just followed my normal habit of trying to contribute what I can to any community of interest that will have me. I advise you to make a similar investment, which you can easily do with respect to SXSW whether you live in Austin or not. Showing up and passively attending panel sessions or keynotes may expose you to some star power, but, if that’s all you do, it’s little more than couch surfing. My best fit is the Accelerator program, and I continue my relationship there as a backup judge for the stage if there is a no-show. This year no judge dropped dead, so I was never called up but did spend the majority of the weekend watching the Accelerator pitches, which are grouped by categories. That is for me the best place to see evolving trends, to meet and talk with investors and entrepreneurs, and to end up sitting next to people with interests similar to mine. Good things start to happen when you self-select into a group like that and have earned some recognition and legitimacy. From there, one starts getting invited to all the right side parties which are even more narrowly selective and are filled with high-value conversations. SXSW is far more navigable from the inside that from the outside.
All of that is step one: putting yourself in the right circumstances for meaningful things to happen.
Step two is where you surrender your plans to serendipity. Opportunities will literally appear when someone recognizes you in the middle of crossing a street, or by chance someone picks you out at a reception, or you end up eating your party food at a tiny stand-up table with just the person you want to know, or somebody goes out of his or her way to introduce you to someone you ought to be talking with. You yourself do the same for others. I’ve written many times, maybe too many, about the huge deals in my career that I have accomplished through serendipity, but there’s always the backstory about how I got to those magic moments. I don’t equate serendipity with blind luck. Of course luck can be a wonderful thing in any career; it is in fact a necessary component of success, whether admitted or not. For the purposes of this essay, I’m trying to make the point that you cause things to happen by allowing nature to take its course once you’ve earned your spot in the startup landscape.
Keep in mind that the Two-Step isn’t over after the second step. The parade keeps on moving around the dance floor. How do you keep your dance going? Diligence in follow-up is the answer to that question. If you get back to your office, hang another conference badge on the wall, and idly add to your already deep pile of business cards from people you might or might not remember well, you’re stopping the music. The closure that results in real action comes from the very next contact you make by phone or email, by a visit you schedule, or by agreeing to bring others on your respective teams to the discussion to get more specific about the possibilities and to assign resources who can make things happen. You’ve invested a great deal in acquiring those connections, in money, time, and energy. You may be worn out after days of nothing but cocktail party foods, nights with too little sleep, and perhaps too much alcohol. You have to decide to muster a second wind and make sure than any sparks lit in person are given an immediate chance to flare up. The odds of action following an initial meeting decrease by the square of the number of days that pass before a second engagement is initiated. That’s nobody’s law, but it’s nonetheless a good one to heed. It can be your law.
Lots of deals do get consummated at an event by SXSW, but they’re the ones already on the verge and backed by plenty of advance work. They’re signed in Austin because all the parties have multiple reasons to be at SXSW and can easily arrange a face-to-face closing ceremony. The attendees like being at such an invigorating event and will get themselves there from all over the planet. It’s convenience, and it’s a major party.
That’s all great, but that’s not the theme of this essay. Venues like SXSW provide fertile ground to allow serendipity to bless those who have by their actions qualified themselves to be in the right place at the right time. If you choose to attend any such event, whether a small and tightly focused industry gathering in your niche or a heavily attended extravaganza for a very broad audience like SXSW, the fundamental principles are the same. Get out there, stay out there, and come home with something to show for it.