South By Southwest Interactive—The Compulsory Tech Pilgrimage

Thirty thousand people have come to Austin, TX, for “Spring Break for Geeks.” You might know it as South By Southwest Interactive. What started as a small music festival in central Texas 27 years ago is now a heaving throng of entrepreneurs, investors, gurus, and groupies—each hoping to discover, or be, the next big thing.

This year’s festival, which ends today, has had something for everyone: keynotes by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Edward Snowden (via Skype), panel discussions on wearable tech, boosting women’s entrepreneurship, or innovative cities, and pitch events where hopeful startups were given a chance to break out of the noise. Oh, and, yes, there were a lifetime’s worth of parties, scheduled each evening and night, with Fort Knox-ian RSVP lists (no plus-1’s allowed.) And then, if you still had some energy to burn between midnight at 5 a.m., you could join a group consisting of venture capitalists—such as Houston’s Mercury Fund partner, Aziz Gilani—CTOs, and entrepreneurs, among others, to play “Werewolf” all night.

Michael Dell, who helped to put Austin on the entrepreneurial map, made his SXSW debut—30 years after he founded his company in his UT dorm room, and six months after he took his embattled company private. He now calls Dell Computer the “world’s largest startup.”

For us at Xconomy, this year’s “Southby” is our first since we opened our Texas bureau last April. To try to impose some organization on the chaos, I’ve spent the last few days focused on the startup scene, which, to me, is the essence of Interactive. SXSW set up what was then called a “multimedia” portion of the conference 20 years ago. Since then Interactive has almost eclipsed the music when it comes to buzz.

Among the notable Interactive alumni are Twitter and Foursquare, which debuted here in 2007 and 2009, respectively. Since Interactive began Friday, I’ve met dozens of entrepreneurs trying to innovate across the economic spectrum, including cybersecurity, DIY biotech, and online platforms for landscapers, farms, and restaurant loyalty programs. (More on Dell and some of the more interesting startups here at SXSW in stories coming this week.)

One question people kept asking is, Is SXSW too big? And, yes, perhaps Interactive is. My role as emcee Saturday for the semi-finals at SXSW Accelerator illustrated to me the power the festival still has in bringing together entrepreneurs from around the world, from as far away as Ireland and Dubai. As a platform for entrepreneurs to showcase their ideas and road test their business plans, the festival remains a necessary pilgrimage.

Texas entrepreneurs and investors, what were your favorite technologies at Interactive? Which sectors do you think will cause, or see, the most disruption in the next year? Reach out. I’m @angelashah.

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