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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.
When asked how long Sechrist and Sullivan have been crafting some of Koozoo's most important minutes as a company, the CEO is quick to offer a joke. "We're not going to be partying much," Sechrist says. The past month has been prep work for them. "We're going to be practicing this presentation for the next couple of days." Taking time off for the company party on Saturday, of course.
Before embarking on the start-up game, Sechrist was a vice president for 10 years at Salesforce.com, whose use of cloud computing disrupted an industry. But now, many businesses couldn't survive without it. Sechrist thinks Koozoo could be just as disruptive. "It's fair to say we have a really big idea," he says. "[Koozoo] make it possible for all of us to see what's going on in our neighborhoods, across the cities or across the planet in a way mankind has never experienced before."
The team of eight at Koozoo has the diversity of backgrounds not uncommon in the mercenary world of tech. Ian Thomson, head of business development, is a veteran of two wars and a former lead associate at Booz Allen Hamilton. Oggy Shami, chief technology officer, started his career doing low-level telecom engineering. The varying backgrounds are all guided by the shared vision. "What we're doing is interesting and controversial, frankly, [by] opening these windows into new worlds and different places," Shami says.
Koozoo is doing something right. It has already raised a little over $2.5 million in funding, anchored by NEA, a big time VC, and Tugboat Ventures, a boutique investment firm which only takes on a few projects a year. The execs are humbled their company is a finalist at SXSW Accelerator, but they aren't looking to finish second. To jump-start the company's presence at the conference, they're deploying street teams — friends in Koozoo gear running around the city, setting up tripods and cameras, live-feeding the conference to itself.
It's buzzing inside the Austin Convention Center on Interactive's first day. People are heading in every direction. The registration line is long but moves swiftly. It becomes quickly apparent that electric outlets and tables are the most valuable real estate. Those not fighting for table-space sit Indian style on the floor. Littered around them are laptops, tablets, charging phones, messenger bags, empty water bottles, food wrappers, conference schedules, and anything else needed to keep the crowd satiated and plugged in.
At 11 a.m. the beverage selection begins to vary. Coffees are slowly replaced by Shiner Bocks and Jack-and-Cokes. People hug in passing, the common greeting being an assurance of mutual following on Twitter. Impromptu meetings happen over a grilled cheese sandwich. Everybody who should be here is. Even with the number of festival volunteers the conference has on hand, it still looks short-staffed. Whispers between Interactive veterans note just how much bigger it is this year.
"I can't even find a place to plug in, man," says one.
It's the first day of the conference and the programming is light, considering. The line for Bre Pettis' opening remarks in Exhibit Hall 5 is long, and tweets with the hashtag "#3dprinting" begin to pop up.
Groggy and in a hoodie, Anthemos Georgiades, CEO of Zumper, saunters down Congress Avenue as the day's drizzle begins to dissipate. He's tired. His flight out of SFO was delayed two hours. He managed to sneak in a bit of shut-eye, but not enough. A not-atypical start to someone's first time at Interactive. "Just checked into my AirBnb," he says. "It was super sketch." In a charming apartment right next to the freeway with a matching "sketchy" diner, Georgiades and three other principals in his company will be sharing the one-bedroom place throughout the conference. They booked six months in advance.
He puts a bit of cream in his coffee in an effort to gather himself. His hair is uncombed and if it wasn't for this interview he would no doubt be lying down somewhere. When asked how much work he's put into his SXSW Accelerator pitch the past few weeks he grins, saying, "The honest answer, nothing so far." It's not that he's negligent. There just aren't enough hours in the day.
Just this past September his company launched on the TechCrunch Disrupt S.F. stage and a few weeks later revealed it had a million-dollar seed round from venture capital heavyweights like Andreessen Horowitz, Greylock, Kleiner Perkins, and others.
As far as innovation responding to a need, Zumper's goal will resonate with a San Francisco audience. Zumper's mission is to create a more efficient and transparent apartment rental market. Georgiades is building from the ground up. He's getting out there and cultivating the relationships with property owners, real estate brokers, and mom and pop landlords so that Zumper's listings are the most accurate and up-to-date. Zumper launched in San Francisco in September of 2012 (getting overloaded almost shortly after going live), followed by New York, and, as of last month, Chicago. It's no wonder he hasn't prepped for his pitch.
When entering new markets, Georgiades says, "It's a pure hustle." The name of the game is accurate data, and Zumper hopes to build listings where all of the information the user is looking at is up-to-the-second at all times. Goodbye crappy, text heavy, inaccurate listings. Where Padmapper succeeded was laying out rentals on a map. The problem: It scraped all its listings from Craigslist. Zumper has the map element, but all the listings are ones it has secured. So if an apartment is listed on the Zumper map, it's an actual rentable apartment. Not something that's been gone for a week.
For the British expat and former consultant for the Boston Consulting Group, the start-up culture is a new one to maneuver through, but one thing he has realized is that there is no time for waiting around. "One thing I have learned while [launching a start-up] is that you have to force serendipity. ... There is no time to wait for it," he says.
And he's adapted fast. As the conversation continues it becomes harder and harder to picture Georgiades' past life in a suit and tie. Let alone as a speechwriter/economic strategist for a conservative party in the British 2010 election. "I just knew I wouldn't last forever in a suit and tie," he says. At 31 years old he's shed his corporate uniform. The comfort of the hoodie suits him. Georgiades is looking forward to SXSWi's opening party at the Palmer Events Center in the evening. He and his team don't get much down-time at home. They are always flooded with work. It's good to be busy. They're definitely looking forward to some drinks.
Just as soon as he gets some rest.
On Saturday, it's wet out but manageable. The Koozoo street team got rained on a bit the day before, but it didn't prevent them from getting around. The Zumper crew, meanwhile, made great use of the free beer and booze at last night's opening party. After sneaking in a bit of a nap and some dinner, Georgiades was re-energized. He and his team were all smiles as they raised their drinks, cheersing to downtime.
It's a little past 10 a.m. and Ryan Singel, founder and CEO of Contextly, apologizes for being tardy. "The bike ride was a bit further than I thought," he says. Another bike commuter. Singel, former co-founding editor of Wired.com's award-winning Threat Level blog, is used to being the one asking the questions — not fielding them. Yet another first-timer to the Austin conference, he's got 40 or so company T-shirts in tow. They showed up the night before he flew out. "Do I just give them out to people who ask?" he says. It's a foreign concept, but his smile indicates he is looking forward to handing out that first one later on in the day.
Singel's journalistic ideals spawned Contextly when he got fed up with the difficulty he had linking his previous stories. The app is a way to provide publishers with tools that will increase retention by providing more relevant related-links content. As a plug-in for Wordpress, Contextly will give users the ability to set the content they link to using analytics to monitor which stories are most popular with the publisher's audience. Continuity in news is key, and giving readers better options will be a way to strengthen readership and limit drive-by visitors. Singel knows that Contextly won't catch fire here at the conference. That was never his intention.
The Atlanta native is here because Jennifer 8. Lee, New York Times alum and co-founder of Plympton, a digital literary studio, encouraged Singel to enter SXSW Accelerator. He had originally inquired about possibly being a sponsor at Lee's "Awesomest Journalism Party. Ever. III," which is exactly what it sounds like, but the costs were too high. Unless he wanted to work the door, which is something Singel hasn't done since his earliest days in journalism.
That initial interest snowballed into applying for Accelerator last October and now, here he is. "It turns out, this start-up competition is a lot bigger than I thought it was," he says. He just wanted to sponsor a party at Interactive for some visibility. But now he'll have two uninterrupted minutes with an audience that can boost his company probably better than any other group of seated people on the planet.
Contextly has been well-received by Singel's peers; journalists appreciate the platform because it was created by one of their own. The support has been strong, but when asking certain supporters to implement his platform on their sites, the dynamic changes; there's a fee attached to the plug-in. It's not a bad thing, it's just business. He takes solace in the fact that most writers and publishers who have demo'd Contextly celebrate its function. Whether they decide to use it or not is a different matter, but their positive reactions give Singel validation that his concept is a sound one.
One thing he hopes his platform can bring more of is what he calls that "Wikipedia moment." It's when readers find their initial subject and dive down the rabbit hole of related information within their query. "Any good publication should let you do that too," he says. All stories have a starting point and readers should be able to navigate that content, following a common thread to unexpected places.
Many sites use services like Taboola to populate their related-contents links. The problem is they are automated and often have nothing to do with the subject matter of the story. They home in on keywords within the story and try to give the reader similar content. Except it's hardly ever relevant. A mention of brown hair in a crime story can lead to five easy steps to dye hair brown. The unrelated links hurt retention. Contextly aims to keep readers on the page, offering up content they may actually want to read.
Over a croissant and latte, Singel gets animated when talking about his past at Wired.com. He notes the great pedigree of his former comrades and what they have gone on to do since leaving their posts. He's proud of where he cut his teeth. Now he's into new territory, and Singel knows that come Monday it's time to do some hustling.
In the weeks leading up to SXSW, Singel has been working with a coach to hone his timing and message. "I would love to win, but I will be disappointed if we don't make it to the second stage," he says. The bar is set high and rightly so. He believes in Contextly and in a mere few hours he'll be telling a room full of people about his brainchild. Because he, too, has a party to throw.
Upstairs at the Old School Bar & Grill, members of the Koozoo team are having a few Lone Stars. At the top of the stairs, greeters hand out Koozoo kazoos and other swag. People who download the app can get free Lone Stars by showing the bartender their phones. There are enough cases in here to give every conference attendee a beer.
Sechrist is outside chatting up a couple of locals. He says last night he stayed in to work on his Accelerator pitch. Other members of the team are either going to get some sleep before investors' parties later in the evening or going out to get a bite. Sechrist and Sullivan, however, are taking it all in. Sechrist is making plans with an old colleague from his days at Salesforce.com to go to a party later on. He's happy.
As Sullivan surveys the crowd, it hits him. "The beauty of South by Southwest is the coincidence and chance meetings," he says. "You really can't overplan or else you might miss out on some unseen opportunity." The party, though small, brims with excitement. It's their first company party in Austin. It's not Monday yet. They will all drink to that.
Meanwhile, a couple of blocks away from the Austin Convention Center, The Palm Door is packed. It's 6:36 p.m. at "The Awesomest Journalism Party. Ever. III" and is has already run out of white wine. Plates are loaded with brisket sliders, veggies, and salad. Drink tickets are being redeemed for Shiner Bocks and Amstel Lights. People who saved room for dessert are eating mint chip waffles with marshmallow sauce. The supply is rapidly dwindling though.
The photo booth in the center of the room is generating some traffic while the various other news-oriented tech start-ups have installations of their own. At a cocktail table sit those T-shirts Singel had been trying to figure out how to hand out. Now, he's surrounded. One person after another approaches. Handshakes, hugs, and business cards all coming at him. Wonder how many new Twitter followers Contextly has gained?
People are thrilled for Singel and his platform. They ask questions about Contextly and get answers which sound like what he might say during his two minutes onstage at Accelerator on Monday -- when the tech beauty pageant begins, and after which a quarter of the contestants will take the Nerd Bird back to the Bay Area, win or lose, with game-changing opportunities or a return to the drawing board. Right now, for Singel, the beer-bottle presentation is working. Even to the inebriated, Singel is able to field a drunken line of questioning with grace.
His journalistic background has given him credibility in this room. His platform is geared to the profession he left behind. To have legacy media switch over to Contextly would be a dream. Their rich archives are a gold mine of information. If it could only be harnessed, society would be a better place — where one can easily find relevant stories, available apartments, or an eatery without a damn wait.
As the party winds down, Singel has handed out almost all his shirts. Now grazers are coming by to snatch up any free swag they can get their hands on. Before closing up shop, though, he gets another person asking about his platform. She's from The Wall Street Journal.