How I Enjoyed SxSW 2012 Without Attending The Mega Parties

By Dharmesh Shah on March 14, 2012

Late last night I got back from a few days at SxSW 2012. This was my second time going to the event/conference/festival or whatever the right term is.

I don't usually write “diary-style” blog posts, but making an exception in this case, because it feels like the right format. I'm writing this as much for myself as I am you. I'll sneak in some insights and such as well.sxsw 2012 logo

Lesson 1: SxSW is about the people — not necessarily about the parties. If you like mega parties, that's awesome — you should go to them. You'll meet some fun people. If you don't like mega parties, that's fine too. You can go to the sessions, hang out in the bars/lounges or try to get included in some of the smaller gatherings.


Due to some scheduling snafus, got in to Austin a little later than I had planned, so had to cancel an earlier meeting. But, was able to have a nice, quiet dinner at the Driskill Grill with Clara Shih (CEO of Hearsay Labs and now a board member at Starbucks). Clara is awesome. Smart, personable and super-successful. And, the quietness of the Driskill Grill was a nice, stark contrast to the craziness of the Driskill Bar right outside (once you're in the restaurant, you don't hear the noise at all — they did a good job with the design of the restaurant and acoustics). And, they had a fantastic 2005 Tempranillo by the glass that Clara was good enough to spot.


I had a panel that was part of the Lean Startup track at SxSW. The topic of my segment was “Startup Metrics: Measuring Success”. The title (which I suspect Dave McClure wrote) was “Check yo self before you wreck yo self”. The room was completely and totally at capacity (about 500 people) and rumor has it there were another 100 people in line trying to get in. I can attest to this, because I was in that line trying to get in for an earlier session. I couldn't get in. I think my talk went pretty well — though I find it much much harder to do a 10 minute presentation than a 45 or 60 minute presentation. (Which is why I rarely accept invites to short speaking opps — but I'm friendly with Eric Ries and Dave McClure).

That afternoon, on the same stage, I had the opportunity to hear the just appointed CTO of the United States, Todd Park. He was an amazing speaker. We need more passionate, entrepreneurial people like him in the government. Simply amazing.

I also had a chance to see the live session with Scott Cook (Intuit founder) interviewed by Eric Ries. A few notes from that particular talk:

* Scott pitched Intuit (personal accounting software) to 25 venture firms. They all turned him down.

* The consumer product (Quicken) became a $100 revenue business. But, the follow-on (QuickBooks) is now over a billion in revenue. (Lesson: The product that ends up being super-successful may not be the one you started with).

* Great discussion on how to drive innovation inside a big company. Scott's advice: Ask yourself, how soon after a new employee joins the company can they run a real, meaningful experiment? (Try and reduce that time). To really succeed, you have to pick smart, passionate people to pursue new ideas and put them on an “island of freedom” so that they can attack big, meaningful problems.

* The battering average of managers when it comes to picking ideas is pretty bad. It's much like VCs — one idea out of 10 will be good, a couple will be mediocre and the rest will fail. The difference is tat VCs know that their batting average is low. They try to create a portfolio based on that. Managers in companies trying to pick ideas don't do this — they think all of the ideas they pick are good and will generate a return. That's a mistake.

* Put “experiments on tap”. This is something we do reasonably well at HubSpot. [Note to self: Write about how HubSpot experiments work at HubSpot]

OnStartups Tech Founders Dinner

That evening, similar to what I did at SxSW 2010, I organized a small dinner for some fellow tech entrepreneurs. I try to do a variation of this for every conference that I go to — and it's one of my favorite kinds of activities.

Attendees this time:

1. Drew Houston Founder/CEO, Dropbox

2. Aaron Batlion, Founder/CTO LivingSocial

3. Chad Dickerson, CEO Etsy

4. Ryan Holmes, Founder/CEO HootSuite

5. Daniel Ha, Founder/CEO Disqus

6. Ade Olonoh, Founder/CEO FormSpring

7. Adam Smith, (ex founder/CEO, Xobni)

It was once again, an awesome group and one of the highlights of the SxSW trip for me. By convention and pinky-swear, the conversation is under a “cone of silence”. I always learn more from these few hours, over a meal and some nice wine (in this case a 2005 Brunello) than I do from any other activity. It's why I go to Sx.

But, one thing I can share, based on this and other dinners. In a startup, just about all of your issues are eventually going to be people issues.

Tip: Whenever possible, get a round table for discussions like this. Also, solve for environment and acoustics (not popularity). People are there for the conversation. It makes for a much better discussion. Everyone can see everyone else, and it's easier to keep a single thread of discussion going. It's the reason I picked the same restaurant this year as I did for the last OnStartups dinner at SxSW.

Sunday Night

Invited to the Wiley Author party, and had planned to go — but ended up missing it. I had dinner over FaceTime with baby Sohan (this is the first time I've been away from home) and he was thankful to at least “virtually” have me there.

Was invited to the Capital Factory VIP dinner by Joshua Baer — who is totally plugged in to the vibrant Austin startup scene and an accomplished entrepreneur himself. Got a chance to sit next to Stephen Wolfram at dinner (yep, the guy that created Mathematica). He's unsurprisingly brilliant and knowledgeable (which I had expected). What I hadn't expected was that he's also super-clueful on business issues. In retrospect, I shouldn't be that surprised, he's built a company with 700 employees that has been profitable for over 24 years.

A pleasant surprise guest at dinner was Naval Ravikant (AngelList). I'm an advisor to AngelList and a big, big fan. Most of the startup investments I do now come through AngelList. It was awesome to hear Naval and Stephen Wolfram chat about data analysis. Can't share any of that stuff. Some of the things the AngelList team is working on are super awesome.

The really rare part of the dinner was the after dinner conversation. I watched in awe as my friend (and founder/CEO of WPEngine), Jason Cohen had what seemed like a pretty deep debate on physics with Stephen Wolfram. (Turns out, Jason's not just a great entrepreneur, but an amateur physicist — who knew?) There was talk of cellular automatons, string theory, Feynman's work and a bunch of other things that were way over my head. This was then followed by a discussion on startups, how to execute on a portfolio of ideas and build innovation teams (I was able to add some value to this particular discussion). Also gave me the chance to spend some time with my friend from Boston, Sim Simeonov, co-founder of Swoop. It's sad that I don't see my Boston friends as often as I should.

So, about 5 hours later, I finally went back to my hotel room (was almost 1am). But, I was wired and not quite ready to call it a night yet. So, pinged my buddy Drew (Dropbox) who was kind enough to invite me to join a small group of tech friends/celebrities (people and companies you'd recognize) at a private party. Hung out with those nice folks until 5am. Didn't quite enjoy the night walk back to my hotel — it was quiet out and a weird fog had settled into Austin. Made it kind of creep. To add to the suspense, my phone (which I rely on to get me places) was on low battery. Uneventful walk home though. Got to bed a little after 6am. Fun day!


Got up at noon for some meetings. Visited the offices to see my friend Jason Cohen (@asmartbear). Exchanged a dozen emails with Eric Ries to try and meet-up (both of our schedules were crazy). Finally ended up having what I will loosely call lunch at the Austin airport. He's always fun to talk to and I learn a lot.

Some Advice and Notes For My Future Self for SxSW 2013:

1. The introvert in you is going to want to skip SxSW next year (you'll come up with all manner of lame excuses). Don't skip it. You'll have a good time. You don't have to go to any of the mega-parties.

2. Setup some small group dinners in advance. Gives you something to look forward to, and it's easier to get on people's calendars before they get caught up in the madness.

3. The Driskill is not a bad place to stay. The WiFi was reasonably reliable and it's a popular hangout for people. Only downside is that it's a few blocks from the convention center.

4. Figure out what it takes to get a “featured speaker” slot and do a solo session. Panels are not your thing.

5. Make a list, like you did in 2010, of people you want to meet-up with. It helps.

6. The sessions are a mixed bag. It's hard to “sample” the really popular sessions, because it's hard to get in. Make sure laptop battery is fully charged and just do email if you get stuck in a bad session. Don't try to extract value from a bad session by live tweeting it or taking notes. If it's not good, it's not good.

7. Figure out who is launching their book at the event (particularly first-time authors). Support them. They really appreciate it.

8. Wear your favorite HubSpot t-shirt (the gray one with the logo in the center). It worked out great. Random customers/fans will come up and say “hi”. Will make your day.

9. Try and stay through Monday night.  Seems there's still a lot going on, and the marginal cost of the extra day is not that high.

Until next year. Cheers! 



Topics: conference
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8 Ways Writing a Book Is Like Starting a Company

By Jason L. Baptiste on March 13, 2012

the ultralight startup resized 600If you've wondered why I haven't been blogging so much, it's because I have been been writing a full length book for Portfolio called the Ultralight Startup , from the same folks that brought you "Art of the Start" and all of Seth Godin's books. It's basically the book I wish I had when I started out as an entrepreneur five years ago and knew no one or nothing. While writing the book, I realized that it's a process very similar to creating a company and have even applied a lot of the lessons learned back to Onswipe. Both writing a book and building a web app are the same exact thing - creation.

Build Something You Wish Existed

I wrote the book as a way to give the world something I wish existed five years ago when I first got started as an entrepreneur. The book I wanted to read wasn't there, so like any entrepreneur, I set out to create exactly that. I looked at the book very much like a time capsule. When creating a product on the web, you want to create something that not only other people want, but you yourself want to see in the world. When you have a desire to see something become a reality, that will push you through the long nights.

It Will Take Constant Iteration

The total length of my book is close to 55,000 words, but after multiple revisions, I cranked out closer to 80,000 words. The same will happen with what you're coding. Code will get refactored and made better over time. Writing my book took just as much time to perfect the writing as it did to write the first iteration of the book. You need to set specific deadlines as an entrepreneur, but you should give yourself enough breathing room to iterate on the product before shipping it to the world. As a writer, I had a very tight deadline of less than 10 months to take the book from first word to being due to the publisher. This is the equivalent of having code locked for a product release. From there, the time and process of the publishing industry to shop takes a fair amount more time than launching a product on the web. When I finally turned the book in I felt completely satisfied and that I had created the best product possible after constant iteration. Since then I've strived to feel the same with each and every product release at Onswipe.

Getting Signed is a Lot Like Fundraising

I'm very fortunate that I was approached to write a book. Getting signed as an author is a lot like getting funded as an entrepreneur doing a consumer web startup - very very hard. The key is to start out getting traction on a smaller level. I was signed as an author due to my blogging on my personal site and here at Onstartups. Onswipe received funding due to starting on a smaller level as a simple side project that eventually gained project. Never start out looking for money or seeming desperate. If you create something on a smaller scale that people want, the money will come to you to turn that into something bigger.

Launching Is Just Another Step

Everyone thinks launching your product is the final step, when it is really just yet another step in the grand scheme of things. My book launches on April 12, but there is going to be constant promotion beyond that. Once your product is out there in the wild you have to think of how to constantly bring it to another level. Launching your product is the lift off, but you have to have gas to continue on through the trip. You will also want to start promoting the launch of your product well before it's out into the public. My publisher suggested waiting only a month before the launch to start promoting, whereas with a web app, you should be soliciting press/feedback/interest as soon as possible.

Managing Writing Is Just Like Managing Projects

Products get built in multiple steps and should have specs, a timeline, and more to it. If you don't organize how you're going to build the product scope creep kicks in and you never ship anything. I applied a lot of the basic project management skills from Onswipe to writing the book to get it "shipped" to the publisher on time. To get the book complete, I took the following steps: 1 - Outlined the main chapters and topics, which were the equivalent of writing a technical spec 2 - Put a date and time schedule to each chapter that I wanted to write, which is the equivalent of putting timelines to a technical spec 3 - Completed each part of the book piece by piece depending on what I was inspired by. 4 - Redid many chapter multiple times, which is like refactoring code 5 - Sent the book to my editor, who made suggested changes and found problems. This was a lot like bug fixing. 6 - The book finally went for cover design review and asked for blurbs (including one from Dharmesh!). This is a lot like getting marketing, ui, and ux ready.

Going from Blogging to Writing a Book is a Lot Like Going from a Side Project to Full Time

Blogging is tons of fun and I love it to death. That's why I'm writing this post. I've never made a single dime from blogging, but I've learned a lot and met some pretty damn cool people. The same is true with side projects. They are usually done for fun and some of the time result in profit, but not often. It's when that kernel of an idea from the side project can become something bigger that things start to matter. The feeling of going from blogging to writing a book is a lot like how it felt to go from Onswipe being a side project to a funded 25 person company. There was a lot more polish, work put into it, and also a larger audience to reach.

Nail Down Your Elevator Pitch

Explaining your book is a lot like explaining your product. You should be able to do it in one quick main sentence and then a few supporting sentences. At Onswipe, we have a very simple elevator pitch of "We make it insanely easy for a publisher of any size to make their content look great on tablet web browsers in under 3 minutes." With my book, I did the same of "The book I wish I had 5 years ago when I started as an entrepreneur and knew nothing or no one." The supporting information was: "The Ultralight Startup is a comprehensive, easy-to-follow guide that will prepare any entrepreneur for success. Learn how to raise money, launch a product, get covered on TechCrunch, and the secrets behind companies like Onswipe, Foursquare, Twitter, Dropbox, Mint, and more."Many books are published every month, just like there are many web apps launched every month. You have to come up with a very simple way to explain what your product does and why it matters to people.

Authors Help Each Other Like Startups Help Each Other

The most amazing thing I've found throughout the process is that writing a book is a lot like a startup when it comes to the community. When I was first negotiating my book deal as a naive blogger, Josh Kaufman introduced me to his agent. Dharmesh and authors like Seth Godin kindly wrote me very nice blurbs. Brad Feld wrote a very early review. Just like startups are a pay it forward industry, so is the publishing industry. We are creators in both industries and we have all been just starting out. My hope is that as an author, I can now pay it forward with advice to other future authors, just like I have been able to with other entrepreneurs.

Not everyone who blogs, wants to become an author and dealing with the publishing world can be a pretty cumbersome process. My hope is that some of the insights shown here bring clarity to you, the entrepreneur, who will be spared the process of writing a full length book :). If you're so inclined to read The Ultralight Startup, you can check it out here.
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