It took us just under three hours to drive from Dallas to Austin for SXSW last Friday. It took just a few minutes longer to travel from the back of the line to the front to get my badge. No shit. True story. This was a bad omen. I told one of my co-founders that this was going to get worse, and it did.
Standing in line for three hours forced me to miss the opening barbecue party (something I’m still pissed about) and the two sessions I had scheduled to attend afterwards. I was turned away from my third session because I got there 15 minutes before the start and it was already full. This would happen two more time in the coming days. The value of our investment in SXSW was quickly dwindling.
Vans running between the main hotels and the convention center were sporadic at best. Although we had driven down, we figured parking would be prohibitive, so we purchased orange arm bands that gave us access to hourly rides. Unfortunately, 10,000 other people had the same plan so we ended up getting to the convention center an hour late each morning. I wouldn’t recommend going to SXSW unless you can stay in the Hilton. Everything else is just a beat down.
This was not a well-organized conference and it was going to get worse. Couple this with the much needed, but torrential rain, and Austins “small town charm” (which required you to travel miles to another venue with few taxi’s available) and you can see the problem.
But there were some valuable experiences. For example, the Co-Founder Speed Dating meet-up. While this was set up to help founders find co-founders for new business ideas, I found it to be a great place to practice my elevator pitch. You have a minute and a half to explain your product to another individual and then hear their idea. By doing your pitch 15 times in a row in a 45 minute space you start to find subtle improvements and changes in your word choice. It forces you to optimize your message and gets you some good feedback. I would have done the session twice if I had the time.
While hanging out at the Start-Up America room I had the opportunity to sit with some industry executives in IT and finance. Nice to work on my elevator pitch some more and maybe do an iPad demo if we had the time. I managed to get a VP from IBM to text his wife our URL and wrangled an in person meeting with the VP of IT at American Airlines. Well worth the visit.
While waiting on Sunday in the Hilton lobby I spotted Shervin Pishevar briskly walking through the lobby alone. I took my chance and sidled up next to him with a business card in my extended hand. I told him I had a new start up that we had just launched in beta and would love for him to check it out. I also (shamelessly) mentioned the name of a mutual friend. They must be closer than I thought because upon hearing his name, he threw his arms around me and gave me a big bear hug. He insisted the three of us get together on my next trip out to the bay area. It could have just been friendly banter, but he will be hearing from me soon. I thanked him for his time and let him go on his way.
Now this might not seem like a big deal to most of you but when you have a new start up from a team no one has heard of, based in a city like Dallas, this is like hitting a trifecta. It’s a rare opportunity to get time with a guy at this level. I kept it brief, used all of my advantages and made a quick exit. It’s one of the best things you can achieve at SXSW for a guy in my position.
That evening we headed over to PF Chang’s with me still feeling a bit of a buzz from my encounter with Shervin earlier in the day. I looked over and who do I see? Dave McClure. Holy shit, I’m on a roll. He’s sitting with his back to the window surrounded by a dozen 500startup folk hanging on his every four-letter word. I take a sip of my Hendricks and tonic and start to work up the nerve to walk over and make my one line pitch. He seems to be relaxing and enjoying himself. I imagine walking over, handing him my card, giving him my quick pitch and walking away only to have him toss my card to the floor and make a crack to his cohorts. Dear God, am I back in high school? Is that the cool kids table? It is tonight. I decide that discretion is the better part of valor. If you have a great product and great pitch and you manage to piss the guy off for interrupting his downtime, then you gain nothing. The one thing I have in my tool bag is that Dave is a smoker. It won’t be long till the urge hits him and he will head for the door. That’s when I’ll make my move. Too much is going right today for me to not take a shot. Dave never gets up. Our check comes and we take off into the night. I’ll wait for a better opportunity.
On Monday morning I was nursing a bit of a hangover from the night before. We had bounced from party to party. From the giant Nokia igloos, to bar hoping sponsored parties on 6th Street, back to the Hilton bar for a nightcap. The amount of liquor and beer given away at SXSW is truly obscene. I missed breakfast due to more transportation issues, got shut out of my session (3rd one) and decided to cruise the showroom floor. Two hours into my walk I had made five good pitches, filled my backpack with swag for my kids back home and was starting to get dizzy from lack of food.
I spotted the Rackspace booth. Standing there in the aisle chatting with five men was none other than Robert Scoble. Loved by many, hated by some, the guy can make a new businesses take off with the speed of a single blog entry. People that don’t give a damn about him probably are not in a position to be helped by him. I, however, am not one of those people. I need and seek his approval. I make eye contact with him and nod knowingly and he nods back. I have the advantage of having a rather common face so I think he may have thought he recognized me. He wrapped up with the other group and put out his hand. This was it. How lucky could I be to get this opportunity? And after 72 hours of getting to practice and re-practice my pitch no less than 25 times. This was going to be epic. And it was.
I introduced myself and the name of my company and that’s about the time the wheels came off the wagon. I could not even get my three-word product description out of my mouth. I was tongue-tied. I had stage-fright. I was at a loss for words. I was pathetic. I was bouncing all over the damn place, not even speaking in coherent sentences. Robert mercifully (for both of us) asked if he could “just see the product”. I whipped up my iPad and showed him the app. My walk-through was only slightly better than my introduction. I fumbled through a few of the features not even putting them in the right order or importance further confusing the value proposition. Robert asked a few questions, including one about our Facebook integration, that I completely screwed up with a rambling answer when a simple “yes” would have sufficed. He seemed to be ready to end our little chat. I shook his hand, thanked him for his time and skulked off. The entire event happened in less than 3 minutes. I was numb. I was deflated.
I met my team for a long overdue lunch and shared my horror story. My guys could tell I was shell-shocked. I told them how badly I had screwed up but they were very supportive. “At least you got to pitch him” they said. I should have done the same thing I did with McClure. I should have picked a better time.
I think what disappoints me the most about this incident is how little justice I did our app when talking to Robert. I really do believe it is cool technology that can help people, and my team has worked double time to put out a good product. If I had to do it all over again I think I would have waited to get some lunch in me and made sure I felt 100% before approaching him. I was prepared as far as my pitch goes but mentally I was trashed.
So Robert, if you can find it in your heart to let me buy you a cup of coffee during my next visit to the bay, I would truly appreciate it. I’ll make sure my pitch is clear and concise and I won’t waste your time (again).
While taking a break at the Alcatel/Lucent break room Sunday I managed to win a new Nokia phone. The challenge was to tweet a Haiku about SXSW that included a reference to the Alcatel/Lucent break room. I think I must have properly channeled the anger of the moment as I read my winning Haiku before the 60 people in the room.
I just wish I could have escaped the clusterfuck in my head.
Co-Founder and President
brett (@) ensemba.com