Every spring, Austin, Texas busts at the seams with an influx of the weird and wonderful, congregating to learn more about film interactive, music, and comedy. It has been so successful, the city is literally running out of buildings to expand the festival to. To say it's a "must-do" conference for those in interactive and start-ups is the understatement of the century, and with good cause (Twitter, Foursquare and many other sites you visit every day got their starts in Texas' capital).
But then a curious thing happened. Demand for conference content specifically with regards to start-ups began to outstrip the supply. It seemed that this sub category of interactive was having its moment in the sun.
Enter South by Southwest V2V. A conference outside of Austin (in Las Vegas) specifically for the start-up community. Out of the gate, it featured a keynote by local hero Tony Hseih, and went on to make headlines. I recently spoke to V2V's organizers, and Christine Auten gave me a behind the scenes view of what it takes to get a start-up for start-ups off the ground.
Karen: SXSW has been successful for over 20 years, and is a large company, in a sense, on its own. You're well known in the start up community, but now you're out as your own start up. Was that hard to transition to?
Christine: The transition into SXSW V2V from the larger event was actually fairly smooth. SXSW, itself, was a bootstrap, and the company culture really values the ideas and principals that are at the heart of all startups. We are passionate, creative people who love to bring brilliant people together. In its history, SXSW has branched out many times. SXSW V2V is actually the third smaller SXSW event to take off in the last few years, following SXSWedu and SXSW Eco.
Karen: What was the rationale behind having a dedicated start-up focused festival instead of breaking it off from the interactive section of SXSW?
Christine: The Interactive Festival does have its own startup focused event-within-the-event called Startup Village. Located in the Downtown Austin Hilton, right next to the Austin Convention Center, Startup Village programming includes a pitch event called Accelerator, panels, speakers, mentor session, etc. Over the past few years, Startup Village has become increasingly popular, out-stretching the space we have available for it during the Interactive Festival in March. That popularity was one of the deciding factors in focusing our Las Vegas event on startups and entrepreneurs. Outside of V2V, Startup Village will continue to be a huge part of SXSW Interactive in Austin. In fact, we felt that the startup and entrepreneurial programming at SXSW was strong enough to support two separate events.
Karen: Starting over in a new city with a new focus must be challenging. What have been the biggest stumbling blocks you've encountered?
Christine: SXSW is synonymous with the city in which it occurs. For many attendees, SXSW is Austin, TX. The biggest challenge for SXSW V2V was producing an "Austin" event in Las Vegas. How do you transplant the city-centric culture that SXSW is so known for into a city that itself has a strong identity? The answer...you don't. SXSW V2V had to be Las Vegas. We made a huge effort to connect with the Vegas community, and bring, as much as possible, that culture into what we do with SXSW. The result is a distinctly SXSW event that is fully entrenched in the Las Vegas tech and startup culture.
Karen: Tell us your favourite SXSW success story.
Christine: If I look at SXSW as a whole, my favourite success stories are always about the connections that people make at the event -- to a future business partner, to an Internet friend that they've never met in person, to a mentor or a hero, and, occasionally, to their future spouse.
Karen: Why do you think start-ups need their own hyper-focused conference?
Christine: We have seen a huge increase in our community's the interest in startup, entrepreneur, and business programming across all the SXSW events. Now SXSW Interactive, Music, Film, Edu and Eco all have their own startup-focused components. V2V offers us the chance to take elements form all our SXSW events and focus, not only on the business and finance side of the startup equation, but also on the creative aspects.
Karen: What's different about the start up community now vs four years ago?
Christine: The startup community is much stronger than it was four years ago. We've seen it grow through our events. Economic changes, mobile ubiquity and development, easy of production, changes in large company structure, changes in employee culture, changes in city and national government: all these things have paved the way for a new crop of entrepreneurs. Cities all over the world are also starting to see the benefits and advantages of having a strong tech and entrepreneur centre.
Karen: What learnings have you applied to V2V from your experiences (and data, feedback, etc) from SXSW?
Christine: One of the things that SXSW does well is foster one-on-one connections. We have seen from our attendee feedback, that these connections are at the core of the SXSW experience. As the event in Austin each March grows, maintaining the perfect environment to continue to foster those connections becomes more of a challenge -- one that we take very seriously. We've created smaller "campuses" within the larger event as a means to create more of those connection opportunities.
For V2V, we have placed a lot of emphasis on creating as many points of connection as possible, by expanding our mentor program, offering investor "office hours" for startups, providing a full day of one-on-one coaching for the companies competing in the pitch competition, and providing networking lunches, happy hours, receptions and coffees that encourage people to stay together and communicate during the breaks.
Karen: How do you see V2V evolving in the next few years?
Christine: I do expect SXSW V2V to grow over the next few years. We will take the lessons we learn from each year's event and apply them to the next. For 2013, we learned that we need to look at providing even more opportunities for structured networking. Again, fostering those connections!
Karen: It seems like playing in the start-up support space is very hot for conferences and service providers. Do you see this trend continuing?
Christine: I do see the startup support trend continuing, at least for the next few years. I think that we are seeing a mainstream shift toward the independent business. Once that shift gets on solid ground, who knows where it will go.
Karen: What's been the biggest surprise to you so far?
Christine: Even though you work pointedly and diligently to achieve a certain outcome (in the case of V2V, the fostering of lasting connections) I think that it is always a little surprising when something turns out the way you had hoped. The main feedback we have received from V2V so far is how about many great connections were made over the course of the event. So...it worked!
Karen: What's the thing you're looking forward to most next year at V2V?
Christine: In putting together this first year, there were so many great ideas that we didn't dare try in an unproven space. Now that we have one event under our belts, and have a better idea of the playing field, we can try out some of those more experimental ideas in year two.