How I Enjoyed SxSW 2012 Without Attending The Mega Parties

Written By: Dharmesh Shah 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! 



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