SXSW Interactive 2012

First thing to know about South by Southwest: it’s a long way from my home on Tamborine Mountain to the home of SouthBy in Austin, Texas. After twenty-seven hours in transit, it’s safe to say one arrives looking and feeling pretty rugged. As it turns out, this was a case of ‘start as you mean to go on’, but at the time I just wanted to be put into a medically-induced coma and woken up when mind and body were once again on speaking terms.

That’s not an Instagram effect. That’s my eyesight.

Fortunately, I had the next best thing to hospital treatment. I’d booked my accommodation through Airbnb and Lady Luck oversaw this process of digital roulette. My kind, friendly and prodigiously talented host was photographer Ben Sklar. He met me at the baggage carousel in Austin, and in doing so set the tenor of all my SXSW encounters: the nicest people who are also extremely clever. There was one exception, but more on that in the next instalment.

Back at the home of Ben and his partner Maria, after weaving around with exhaustion for a while, I set my alarm for the next day and lapsed into unconsciousness. Jet lag is a cruel mistress, so naturally I woke prematurely and at an ungodly hour. Austin chose to further add to my woes and turned on freezing rain and high winds. I staggered out, wearing every item of clothing I’d brought. I felt like Kenny from South Park. As luck would have it, the dress code for SxSW is Scruffy Casual, so I looked ace.

Second thing to know about South by Southwest: register early on day one of SxSWi. Registration opened at 9.00am on Friday; I arrived at 9.10 and harrumphed under my breath as I waited in line for fifteen whole minutes to collect my pass. By lunchtime, delegates were in a queue that stretched around half the interior of the Austin Convention Center, waiting for over three hours (the Convention Center is four floors, covering six city blocks). I dodged a bullet. Thank you, Jet Lag, for the early morning call.

So I had my program, which is bigger than my local phone book. In fact, the number of people at the conference is around six times the population of my home town. The enormity of the task ahead of me – I’ll be honest – left me hesitant and overwhelmed. Exhaustion left me ashen-faced and slow-moving. The Convention Center seemed the size of a planet. And this was just one of the fifteen venues for Interactive, accessed via dedicated shuttle buses on four separate routes around Austin. Frankly, the whole thing seemed untenable and I contemplated finding a café where I could hide for the duration and follow the whole thing via hashtags on Twitter. At least I’d be warm; I could then strip off a few layers and regain the full range of movement of my limbs.

But Australians are a doughty mob, so I perused the program to select the day’s first panel. In taking these first tentative steps, however, I encountered the next Inescapable Truth about SxSW: There Will be Cool Stuff that you have to Forego, in Order to See Other Stuff that you Hope will be Equally Cool. Or Cooler.

Guiding my priorities at SxSW is my goal of developing great social content, developing a strong, flexible and sustainable business and creating content in partnerships with brands. Thus I had an Organising Principle for planning my days, but even then I wrestled with option paralysis. It was like trying to chose which of your kids is your favourite and then getting in a bus to go across town, thereby leaving the unchosen one behind, alone. Well, I imagine that what it’s like. We don’t have a system of public transport on Tamborine Mountain, so if I abandoned my kids it would be in a private vehicle. Don’t think I haven’t been tempted.

So Day One sessions resolved themselves thusly: Making a Grand Entrance: How to Launch a Product; We Made This, and It’s Not an Ad; and finally – The Lean Startup: The Science of Entrepreneurship. And what did I learn on this day of fiery baptism?

From the Ladies who Launch, I learnt that your product needs a clear message and also needs a clear category of product. They proposed that if you launch in beta, be focused about what it is you want to learn from the beta stage. They suggested that you know what your current “experience” is (i.e. product) and who it’s right for (like, whose your market) – and target your launch marketing to them. So yep, all pretty straightforward, no Nobel Prize there. But that was ok. It was a ‘no sudden moves, no loud noises’ start to the day that I needed in my enfeebled state.

Robbie Whiting ran a solo panel for We Made This and It’s Not an Ad – and it was a sold-out show full of wit, insight and the word “fucking” used (mainly) adjectivally. His key point was that ad agencies need to “go from making people want things, to making things people want.” He proposed that agencies are good at making ads, but consumers don’t value ads – so the challenge is for agencies to learn how to make things that consumers value. His argument was for rethinking practice in-house at the agencies, but also for energy and drive towards new collaborations *sue waves hi*. It was a great presentation and I now have copious examples of great work by creative people that I want to spend time going over. Drop me a line if you’d like to see my notes of Robbie’s list.

Going into the five pm session, I was getting firmly and repeatedly slapped by fatigue, but I was determined to crash or crash through. So onwards and upwards, and back in a shuttle across town for the Lean Startup keynote presented by entrepreneurial wunderkind, Eric Ries. If you’re a fan of Eric Ries and have read his book, now might be the time to sit back, close your eyes and imagine being in a room with him and 2000 other people, listening to the man himself go through the main points of his treatise on Lean Startups. Then check back with me in three paragraphs.

If you haven’t heard of Eric Ries, he’s the author of the book called (you’ll never guess) Lean Startups and chief torch-bearer of a movement that has not only captured the imagination of the tech community, but it that is also now making headway into government and the broader business community. I’m really interested in how you can apply the ideas of the lean startup to the creative sector because I’m creating a project that continues to go through an iterative process – and indeed has pretty much followed the Lean principles. So I’m condensing this in a way that would make Readers’ Digest blush, but broadly the principles of ‘Lean’ are to Build, Measure and Learn. This means:

  1. Create a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to release to the market
  2. In line with customer response, continue to iterate the product in small increments as quickly and as cheaply as possible.
  3. Be prepared to ‘pivot or persevere’. Put simply, your product may suck as far as your customers are concerned, so you may have to change your strategy (although not necessarily your ‘vision’).

The most excellent Ogilvy Notes’ summation of Eric Ries’ talk. Click on the image for other 2012 SXSW presentations.

The core of the Lean philosophy is that all of these steps are done as cheaply and as quickly as possible, thus (one hopes) avoiding protracted and costly business failures. If you’re going to fail, better to find out sooner rather than later, with as little invested as possible. All the better for dusting yourself off, reflecting on the lessons of the experience and applying this newfound knowledge to your next great idea.

I find these notions incredibly useful for creative products – and whether it’s called “lean” or something else. The key difference in the creative sector is that you test with your audience – not the distributors, investors, publishers etc as your marketplace. And these ways of developing and creating story are being discussed and embraced in film and transmedia circles. I’ll return to this, one of my pet topics, in a forthcoming post. But for the Australian industry in particular which agonizes over the ‘under-developed-ness’ of our feature film scripts, it seems to offer itself up as a new paradigm to solve a problem and help create stronger work which connects deeply to an audience.

So back to Austin Convention Center – Eric Ries is a great speaker and I stayed awake and happy for the duration of his talk – FTW! Once it was game over, however, my life force began to ebb away and no amount of caffeinated beverages consumed during the day (ok, one emergency latte) could keep the mounting delirium at bay.

There were parties to go to. I didn’t. There was free beer to be drunk. I couldn’t. Instead, I took my multi-layered garments and my cold, haggard (and now mentally over-stimulated) self back to my haven and, after manfully opening the program book to the following day, flaked out in royal, dishevelled fashion.

 

Coming soon: Iterative Storytelling, wherein I listen to one of my heroes…