Surviving SXSW: A Veteran's Perspective

Lakai Newman, Communications Manager, SoDA


Each year, tens of thousands of attendees descend upon Austin, Texas from around the world for SXSW. Whether you come for the sessions, working lunches, networking, or a mix of all the above – SXSW is a festival designed for industry leaders, emerging creatives and everyone in between to meet, share ideas and leave inspired. From the standing-room only panel discussions to impromptu coffeeshop meetings, the beer to the barbeque, SXSW can be overwhelming for both the first-time goer and festival veteran; yet, it all comes down to a few simple things: how you manage your time and your appetite.

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For this quick-chat interview, I spoke with SoDA members and SXSW veterans Andrew Howlett, Founding Partner and Chief Digital Officer at RAIN, Joe Olsen, SVP of Growth at MediaMonks and Sandy Fleischer, Managing Partner at Pound & Grain. SoDA's Executive Director, Tom Beck also shared his take. Here's what they had to say: 

How many years have you attended SXSW? What are some useful tips that you've learned to help get the most from the festival?

AH: I have attended SXSW for nine years. I have seen a lot of change and growth with the festival. In order to get the most out of the festival and to completely enjoy the city of Austin, you really have to plan and research. It can be very difficult to find good sessions without proper planning. I have had years where I have failed to plan ahead and my experience directly corresponded. The same goes with the city. Plan out the spots you want to hit and be ready for things to change based on weather, traffic and other variables. I have a couple of things I always want to do or see when I'm in town, so I prioritize them and then let the others happen, if possible. 

JO: I’ve been going to SXSW for 10 years and you've got to know how to be most effective. It takes a lot of advance preparation for booking places to meet, eat and drink – collecting info on everyone you want to connect with is the most important. When you arrive, you’ll learn that it’s quite a bit of a texting/messaging game as people are moving around and schedules are constantly changing. Going with the flow and staying ahead is a must while in Austin.

SF: I've been more years than not since 2008. My personal tip is to strike up as many conversations with people you don't know as is possible. There are so many fascinating people there, its hard to believe. You never know what rabbit hole you will go down. I always tell team members who are attending SXSW for the first time that its a marathon, not a sprint. And also to be prepared because FOMO is inevitable. If you are at SXSW, just enjoy where you are at or move on to somewhere new. It's that simple. 

TB: I’ve been attending SxSW off and on (mostly on) for 8 years and here’s a few things that have worked for me (caveat emptor):

  1. Don’t attend the obvious, topical industry sessions, they are the less interesting than you’d hope.
  2. Let serendipity rule. I once wandered into a session on poetry, technology and drones... it was incredible.
  3. Get as far away from the convention center as you can... at least for part of the time.
  4. Avoid margaritas, whiskey and martinis before noon. But do have brisket for breakfast.
  5. Power up at Jo’s every morning and your head will be right as rain.  

As a SXSW veteran, what are some things you most look forward to being involved in? How do you plan your time? 

SF: One thing that blows me away about SXSW is the interesting people and amazing talent that gathers there for a few days every year. I'm always able to reconnect with old industry friends, and make new ones. I leave feeling tired, but very passionate about the business and culture of digital.

AH: Having attended SXSW now for going on 10 years, I am most interested in the people. Many of the same people are regulars like myself and while the festival is important, the conversations with the attendees, and friends, oftentimes helps me to better understand the macro trends from one year to the next as well as the micro moments of this particular year. I try to not over-program my time because a lot of amazing conversations happen that I'd miss if I was running from one thing to the next. 

JO: As always, I’m looking most forward to meeting up with colleagues and customers. SXSW is one of those annual events that puts everyone in one place and makes connecting pretty easy. Content wise, the event is always filled with interesting speakers and presenters – but the environment for doing business at scale is what I most look forward to.

TB: In Austin, time tends to disappear (almost without notice), like any one of the many mobile app ideas (now AI-driven) launched at SxSW each year. For me, SxSW is all about connecting with SoDA members, colleagues, partners and friends. While much of the spectacle has lost its allure for me, there is no other event in the world (with the exception of Cannes, perhaps) where I can catch up with so many awesome people in 2-3 days.

It varies every year, but what are some key trends that emerged this year? Is there anything you've come across that was surprising?

AH: Clearly Artificial Intelligence continues to be the topic that is creeping into every discussion and topic. While voice platforms continue to dominate the consumer experiences most visible, you see more and more areas where consumers and brands are finding value in AI. If there is anything surprising to me, it's that there isn't even more focus on the ways that artificial intelligence will dramatically reshape our industry and lives in the coming years.

TB: I didn’t have any “wow” moments this year. In fact, I thought the streets seemed eerily quiet and empty compared to previous years. I wonder if attendance was down? Austin is an incredible town and SxSW is a great experience. But nothing (except the universe, maybe) expands forever.

SF: I think the conversation seems to have shifted from a utopian view of what social media is capable of to a discussion on how we can make it better. While some of the major industry players seem to be more prepared to deal with this than others, most were comfortable talking about the issues, and that's a good first step.

What would you say to someone considering SXSW for the first time? What keeps you coming back every year? 

JO: I would describe SXSW as one of those events where if you aren’t there, it’s weird. However, for reinforcing business relationships and creating new connections, it’s one of those networking events that is a can’t miss. This is especially true if you are in business development roles.

SF: There's no doubt that the festival receives so much coverage that one can follow along at home. But all the learnings, discussions, and people - and all in the great city of Austin - still make it a special event for me. But maybe next year, I'll skip out on a party or two...

AH: SXSW does a fantastic job of attracting a very diverse crowd from around the world from agencies, technology platforms and consumer brands. The focus on brand-to-consumer experiences differentiates it from many of the other conferences throughout the year. What this really means is the content is wide-ranging like the attendees. And its these attendees that keep me coming back each year. It's the chance to reconnect with friends and colleagues to discuss our industries, trends, opportunities and such. Just last year one of these very discussions in Austin led to a new business venture.

TB: SxSW is a like a donut at Gourdough’s...  so damn tantalizing and tasty. But if you want more than just a fleeting sugar buzz, you’ll need to add a couple strips of bacon on top.


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Joe Olsen: Joe Olsen is the SVP of Growth at MediaMonks. Additionally, he serves on the board for Goodwill Omaha, the Omaha Sports Commission, the Business Ethics Alliance and the Omaha Creative Institute. Joe co-founded Omaha Creative Week and founded the Heartland Developers Conference (HDC), the region’s longest running annual conference for software designers and developers.

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Andrew Howlett: As Founding Partner of RAIN, Andrew Howlett has helped bring products to market in an evolving digital landscape for over 14 years. Uniting teams of engineers and creative strategists, Howlett has led RAIN's evolution into a digital consultancy that specializes in designing and implementing digital ecosystems, engaging new audiences, and bringing new technologies to market. Most recently Howlett and RAIN have been recognized for pioneering work in conversational-driven technologies and experiences.

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Sandy Fleischer: Sandy Fleischer is a 20-year veteran of the digital marketing space and currently serves as Managing Partner at Pound & Grain, a digital creative agency. Sandy sits on the board of DigiBC, a non-profit organization with a mission to promote, support and accelerate the growth, competitiveness and sustainability of British Columbia’s digital media and wireless industry. In another life, Sandy is known as DJ Pescatore and on a good day can juggle four tennis balls.

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Tom Beck: Tom Beck serves as the Executive Director and is charged with leading and executing the organization’s strategic vision. He works closely with the Board of Directors, operations team, membership and partners to ensure the health and success of SoDA as an indispensable community for digital business leaders, creative visionaries and technology disruptors. 

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Lakai Newman: Lakai joined the SoDA Operations team as Communications Manager in March 2014. In his role, Lakai combines his expertise as a brand storyteller and innovative marketer to lead the development and execution of marketing and communication strategies to evolve, promote and protect the SoDA brand and reputation. A graduate of Emory University, Lakai considers himself a natural “creative” that is passionate about global travel and culture, cooking, and all things digital.