Michigan Startups Made Some Noise at SXSW Interactive


In the past, Michigan was well known for its automotive roots. With the turn of the century and the changing in the economy, Michigan adjusted and evolved into something I would have never guessed—a haven for software startups. More than ever, people from all over the world are seeing this change too, which was obvious at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) conference held last month in Austin, TX.

The South by Southwest festival started as a music conference in 1987 in Austin. As Austin has grown and diversified, film companies and high-tech companies have played a major role in the Austin and the Texas economies. In 1994, SXSW added a film and interactive component to accommodate these growth industries.

SXSW Interactive is focused on emerging technology, a focus that earned the festival a reputation as a breeding ground for startups and creative technologies. According to a festival organizer Louis Black, SXSW Interactive “has probably been the biggest [event] of its kind in the world” since 2007. Who can disagree when juggernaut tech startups like Foursquare and Twitter all caught fire at SXSW?

This year was my first exposure to SXSW and I specifically was interested in the interactive component. It was unbelievable! I say that for two main reasons: the energy and the networking. The energy was absolutely radiant and it connected people from all over the world to collaborate and share their ideas.

I met Ines from Australia who founded TowardTheStars.com, a social movement focused on the empowerment and well-being of girls, and Jerome from Atlanta who is involved in 3 startups AND studying undergrad biotech at Georgia Tech. I also met people from Michigan, including Jacki Halas with Digital Roots CRM from Detroit, and Caryn Shick of Incuba8 from Saginaw.

Not only was I attending SXSW as a spectator, I was there to network for my startup, SchedFull, web-based scheduling software to improve the way businesses handle canceled appointments. In addition, my Austin-native friend, Terry Likens, a BiT (Black in Technology) organizer, invited me to be a panelist and discuss the Detroit startup community. SXSW exceeded my expectations when it came to networking.

Prior to attending SXSW, you have to plan ahead and for me, I wanted to network with the right people. From my research, I scheduled my investor meetings, healthcare sessions, pitch competitions, and coding workshops around the free food bonanza that took place in downtown Austin. (Yes, I was on a budget.) My meetings with investors took place at the Capital Factory, a thriving incubator home to 102 companies, where I stopped in for coaching and mentorship.

I met Dean Drako, co-founder of Barracuda Networks and a Michigan native. He now lives in Austin and is happy to continue to support Michigan’s economy by creating 184 more high-tech and engineering position in Ann Arbor for Barracuda. The funny thing was that I didn’t even have a scheduled meeting with Dean. We met because he saw my laptop with the emblem “Imported from Detroit” and started a conversation with me. We still keep in contact today.

Now on to the good stuff. Michigan startups were well represented and I’m not only speaking about the supporting cast of attendees and exhibitors, like the University of Michigan School of Information. I’m talking about the startups that won competitions at SXSW. There were over a dozen competitions taking place at the interactive venue. Michigan startups competed against some of the biggest startups in cities like San Francisco and New York.

First, there was Phyl Hall’s Music Mogul game, an online music talent contest where fans get to be the celebrity judges. Phyl is an serial entrepreneur from Detroit and his game was chosen to participate in the NEXT program, a four-day bootcamp centered around customer discovery and creating business models. The program had an impressive list of guest instructors, including Steve Blank, Scott Case, and Bob Dorf.

Next, there was Ann Arbor’s Meritful, including Azarias Reda and Lander Garcia. With Meritful, companies can create a meaningful relationship with students that are valuable to their recruiting efforts, valuable to their brand, and valuable to their prospective students. Though this might not be good news forMichigan’s  talent retention efforts, Meritful won the Move Your Company To Austin For Free Competition at SXSW. They will have a big decision to make, but give them credit for having a standout pitch.

Lastly, and not too surprisingly, East Lansing’s TempoRun won the Student Startup Madness at SXSW. Why am I not surprised? Well, if you follow the startup community in Michigan and follow TempoRun’s Benjamin Ebert-Zavos, Josh Leider, Phil Getzen, and Adam Proschek, you know that this team isn’t new to startup competitions. They were finalists at the 13th Annual Celebration for Entrepreneurship, an elevator pitch competition; the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s LiveWorkLaunch Detroit pitch competition; and Spartan Innovations’ Greenlight business model competition, winning $5,000. As an MSU alum, I couldn’t be more proud of these guys and as a Michigander, they represent the future of startup companies that can thrive in the state.

When I spoke with another investor at the Capital Factory, which was after these competitions at SXSW, he had heard of these winning startups and was shocked they were from Michigan. I wasn’t surprised, because the support and resources we are getting in the state are unbelievable. The next Google could be right in our backyard.

Thanh Tran is a serial entrepreneur in metro Detroit. He's the founder of SchedFull, MentalNote, and DNewTech, a meetup group for the startup community in Detroit and southeast Michigan. Follow @

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