It's a warm day in Austin and people are wearing T-shirts. Some, like Drew Sechrist, CEO and founder of San Francisco-based Koozoo, wear brightly colored tees sporting the logo of their own company. This sort of plumage is standard to South by Southwest's Interactive conference — one part tribal colors, one part business-class mating call. Since the names of so many tech start-ups are often absurd to the point of meaninglessness, the shirt is an invitation to approach and ask, "Just what are you, exactly?"
It's Sechrist's first time at the interactive portion of South by Southwest. It's the day before the conference begins. A good showing here and it could be a very fruitful year.
Koozoo's de facto HQ for the day sits on the corner of Sixth and Trinity streets. The Old School Bar & Grill's open air upstairs patio, right at the center of the conference's complex drinking/eating/networking routes, is the perfect spot to showcase Koozoo's ability. Ever wanted to see how long the line was at Tartine before heading over? That's what Koozoo can do. The crowdsourced video app gives users portals into other parts of town where fellow Koozoo-ers broadcast their location feeds. Many have antiquated smart phones in their sock drawers or desks. Koozoo wants to put those to use for broadcasting. Populist CCTV, Big Brother used for brunch, it's a platform for networking everyone's pocket tech into thousands of windows onto any point in the city. Sechrist and his crew are hoping Koozoo will catch fire as South by Southwest Interactive rolls on. This conference, this crowd, is the perfect test.
SXSWi (shorthand for the Interactive portion of the conference) isn't just about passing tech fads. At its core, it's about pushing toward innovation that changes the way we live, communicate, fight revolutions, explore. As crazy as it once was to put a man on the moon, Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, wants to go to Mars. SpaceX is working to develop the first ever reusable rocket. He's one of the conference's keynote speakers. It's where the paradox is made clear: Keeping up with technology is nearly impossible, but the results are often things society can't live without.
Originally Interactive was the nerdy kid sister of the Music conference. Changing crowd sizes over the years attest to the cultural changes: The reason Interactive has outgrown its musical counterpart is because tech dominates the social sphere. Tethered to email and social networks with our head in the cloud. SXSW was once about finding the next Radiohead. Now it's about finding something as powerful. Like a certain S.F.-based micro-blogging utility.
Twitter launched in July 2006, but it was a cool eight months until the communications giant would be wakened. Twitter co-founder Evan Williams targeted South by Southwest in 2007 to try to make a splash. The thousands of Twitter early-adopters who were going to be attending the Interactive portion of the conference would prove to be the company's tipping point. During the event, Twitter usage went from 20,000 tweets per day to 60,000.
When the dust settled, Twitter won the hearts and minds of tech geeks, and SXSWi catapulted its first company to megastardom. Since that success story and a similar one in 2009 with Foursquare — SXSWi has taken the reins from Music.
Since Twitter, SXSWi has become a destination spot to launch services, schmooze, and find investors. It's the premiere place for tech start-ups to gain prominence. It's the digital showcase promised land. The hustle is on. And, naturally, every year there's a pilgrimage of Bay Area start-ups, disproportionately represented at SXSW parties and panels alike. (Not for nothing that airlines dub the Bay-Area-to-Austin flight the "Nerd Bird.")
The chance meetings that happen in the convention halls or at the company-sponsored parties can lead to business. It's hard not to network in every sense of the word. All are wearing badges with their names and pictures in plain sight. First time start-ups chat with established companies. Angel investors hold panels to talk process. Billion-dollar entities are prowling for the right idea behind those T-shirts. Everybody shares space and ideas and business cards.
The river of free alcohol probably doesn't hurt.
As Sechrist sinks into his chair on the rooftop patio he is flanked byEdward Sullivan, Koozoo's head of marketing. The pair is giddy. "We're truly excited and honored and, frankly, a little pleasantly surprised," Sechrist says. The surprise is in part that Koozoo is the only Bay Area-based company to be named a finalist at SXSW Accelerator in the social technologies category — an accomplishment they take great pride in.
SXSW Accelerator is the beauty pageant of tech: Panels of judges survey companies in six different disciplines — it's like a sneak preview of the industry's future. More than 500 companies entered.
It's not just the thought leaders of the tech industry that Koozoo hopes to make an impression on in the coming days. It also hopes to make use of the massive crowds descending into Austin. Koozoo went live a week ago and if the bugs cooperate there can be a potential crowd-sourced video-streaming explosion.
What it all comes down to, though, is a two-minute elevator pitch to the Accelerator judging panel: industry experts, venture capitalists, Angel investors, heads of other tech companies. Oh, and a live audience. There are 48 finalists in SXSW Accelerator, now in its fifth year, separated into six different technological fields: news, social, mobile, innovative web, entertainment/gaming, and health. It's 120 seconds without a net and with everything on the line. At the end of the first day the 48 are trimmed to 18. Those lucky enough to advance are rewarded with a five-minute pitch the following day and the pageant rolls on. Of the 48, 12 are from the Bay Area.
Competition is fierce. Ben Horowitz, founding partner of the Silicon Valley investment firm Andreessen Horowitz, has invested in the likes of Twitter, Foursquare, Skype, and Airbnb. At the Digital-Life-Design Conference in Munich in late January, Horowitz broke down how his firm chooses its investments. In a year, Andreessen Horowitz looks at 2,400 qualified, screened investment opportunities. When it's all said and done, Andreessen Horowitz will invest in about one percent of these — a whopping 24 companies. Getting that seed money for start-ups can further concepts, drive dreams and ultimately, keep the concept afloat. Those two minutes on stage at Accelerator get pretty weighty.