Austin is the kind of place where, when you get into your taxi, the driver tells you about his tech startup that he works on during the day, while his evening job as an Uber cabbie covers the bills.
It is a city that is often described as a progressive and an intellectual hub – and I wanted to understand what that really meant. First stop: the stereotype. Being the average media-influenced foreigner, when I hear Texas, I think of Dallas and cowboys, of football, warm welcomes and hot grills. Where does Austin fit into all this?
The city’s reputation as a technology giant is partly thanks to the University of Texas’s science and tech departments, the birthplace of Dell in the mid ’80s. It’s also (according to The Wall Street Journal) one of the leading green cities of the nation – an eco-friendly city with plentiful lakes and parks that are as much a part of Austin’s culture as traffic-buzzing 6th street, centre of the city’s nightlife. To test out its bike-friendly reputation I hired two wheels for the week and headed down the hike and bike trial that runs alongside the river, exploring a very different side to the city alongside bikers, joggers and canoers for a long, sunny afternoon.
The Texan music scene needs little introduction – and Austin is at its heart. The city gained a reputation as a place where struggling musicians could find receptive audiences at informal live venues and inject new life into their careers. Renowned artists who had their breakthrough in Austin include The Strokes, The White Stripes and Amy Winehouse – and it has remained a vital part of the touring circuit for many others. You can see countless signs of music’s influence on the city’s downtown bars and street corners, and in the blend of students, techies, hippies, musicians and entrepreneurs all blended into the Austin lifestyle. It’s a place with deep artistic roots, and everything has an unconventional twist to it. No wonder a recent promotional drive used the tagline “Keep Austin Weird”.
From a culinary perspective, there’s a lot to stick your fork into. The Mexican influence is very strong and I found it easy to track down convincingly authentic Tex-Mex. There are plenty of food trucks, providing everything from Korean BBQ Tacos and Tofu Burritos to Kimchi fries and chicken waffles. For sophisticated options, you could head to the Driskill Hotel, a tasting serving of local delicacies including giant cinnamon buns or Chorizo waffles with agave maple syrup and preserved fruits – the breakfast of Southern champions. Or if your tastes are more reckless, tackle the Bacon Bloody Marys that you will find in bars all around the city (allegedly a great hangover preventative).
Considering the social and historical fabric of Austin, the yearly SXSW festival is a fitting summary. It brings together creative types – interactive, music and film – and continues to deliver a consistently impressive calibre of content and speakers.
This year, the Film Festival segment offered up the likes of Ryan Gosling and Mexican film director Guillermo del Toro as speakers – and at the Interactive sessions, I caught sessions with Astro Teller, the scientist and captain of Google’s “Moonshot Factory”; Saudi Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud; Paola Antonelli, from the Museum of Modern Art; Tim Ferriss of The 4-hour Work Week fame; and Steve Case, co-founder of AOL.
Once these daytime sessions were over, Austin’s nightlife kicked in – with, unsurprisingly, a feeding-frenzy of networking. Whether it’s being introduced to up and coming VIPs, pitching your idea to VCs, re-connecting with old friends and colleagues or slyly negotiating a raise with your unusually relaxed boss, the SXSW night-time scene presents a variety of opportunities for the sharp of wit. Evening events are often scheduled with networking in mind, offering you the chance to rub shoulders with influential people – but chances are, you’re going to bump into someone interesting at some point. Just being there is often enough.
So how do you tackle this marathon of information? Fittingly, Tim Ferriss’s session on the first day included the unofficial guide to surviving SXSW. In compellingly 4-Hour Work Week style, he outlined strategies for attendees wanting to make the most of their time whilst coping with the copious amounts of free booze and round-the-clock sleep deprivation (no laughing matter when you’re there to do business).
As anyone familiar with his career is aware of, Ferriss knows a thing or two about pitching a business and priming it for success. Alongside his general advice for SXSW first-timers, he talked about how to take advantage of the potential life changing opportunities the festival can present – drawing deeply from his own experience.
His main recommendation was to be patient enough to invest in long-term relationships – they’re far more rewarding than the short term, time consuming, transactional ones. It’s all about deep human connections. Walking around, pitching to people en-masse, is not the answer – you could probably do that more effectively over email. Sparking up a conversation in person and making that kind of connection is how you become memorable. At SXSW, small talk is everything.
And, Ferriss went on, you have no idea which connection is the one that will set your world on fire. The person in the queue next to you could be more influential than you’ll ever be. Open your mind and stay humble and friendly.
I rarely need help making small talk when the craft beers start flowing, and since I never really know who or where the VIPs are, it all seems to work out nicely for me. Guided by that attitude, I went with the flow and ended up at the Mashable MashBash party, live-streamed for the benefit of non-attendees by Pete Cashmore using Meerkat, a hot topic at SXSW. Then I explored the MRY Manor for the Youthnation parties that featured rather epic sessions with Busta Rhymes and rapper Nas performing live. Over some Tacos and beers, I ignored the pressure to be everywhere, focused on kindling friendships old and new, and saw the things I most wanted to see. And the rest? Well, that’s for next year.
Like many other SXSW first-timers, I left a piece of my virtual heart in Texas, somewhere between the moonshots and margaritas. Thank you, South by Southwest, and thank you, Austin. Stay weird.