Small-business owners are gearing up for the South by Southwest festival (better known as SXSW), a 10-day conference—taking place March 9 through 18—in Austin, Texas, that celebrates film, music and interactive technologies. The conference brings in the best and brightest from all three industries for a rockin’ good time, making the city is abuzz with excitement 24 hours a day.
If you are headed down there, expect all-night parties, panel discussions about cutting edge technology, performances from the world’s best known bands and new film releases.
With attendance numbers around 286,000 last year alone, how can small business stand out amongst the noise? We spoke with three SXSW-bound small-business owners to learn of their plans.
Offer perks for on-the-spot buyers
Musicians are focused on their music and not always on the business side of their profession. This is where Artist Growth, a Nashville, Tenn.-based startup, comes in. On Jan. 17, musicians Jonathan Sexton (pictured, left) and Matt Urmy (pictured, center right) launched an app that helps musicians manage things like booking, upcoming projects, financing and record keeping.
This will be the company’s first year at the conference and Sexton has major plans for buzz-generation. First, they will offer a one-year subscription to anyone who signs up for the service while at the conference. Next, they will have a mobile photo booth available at select showcases throughout the week. “The photos will have our logo at the bottom; it’s just for fun,” Sexton says.
Artist Growth will also have a mobile film crew filming interviews with managers and artists. “We have a video mentoring program and this will help build that system and give us more visibility with the music community,” he says.
And last, Sexton and his team have partnered up with American Songwriter magazine to publish a full-page advertisement for Artist Growth on the back cover and feature artists who’ve signed up as early adopters of the app. “It will show our support of the artists that we have as customers; we will have their showcases printed on the magazine’s back cover,” he says.
Launch a new product or service
Zaarly is a San Francisco-based company that was literally raised out of SXSW. Last year while at the conference, co-founders Bo Fishback and Ian Hunter and Eric Koester had an idea, hunkered down in an RV outside the Austin Convention Center and then released a rough version of the product to gauge interest. The product is a local community-based marketplace designed for individuals looking for a specific service. For example: Want an ice cream delivered to your desk? The interface allows you to ask someone to bring it to you, for a fee. Want an in-home massage for under $100? Post it on the site and therapists can respond.
The reception at last year’s conference was tremendous. “About $10,000 went through our system within a six-block area of Austin,” says Fishback.
Founders took feedback from early adopters, went home and launched the first official version of the product in June 2011. What are their plans for SXSW this year?
The company will release its second version the day before the conference starts and will guarantee specific things if asked for. “We are creating a ‘best of Austin’ guide that will include things you can ask for and get on Zaarly, like an ice cream delivered to wherever you are; we will hand out the guide all over Austin and at the airport as people arrive,” Fishback says.
Next, Zaarly will pepper SXSW with professional line standers. These people will stand in line for hot shows and parties. Anyone who wants to trade them a spot in line will be able to log onto the Zaarly interface to initiate the transaction, for a fee. “It will demonstrate the power of hyper local,” he says.
Lastly, the company will host a party with Startup Weekend and Twilio on March 9. Tickets are free and Fishback says there are 5,000 people already on the list.
Demo your product
BizeeBee is a software product that helps membership-based small businesses (think yoga studios) manage members and sales. The company launched in 2010 with entrepreneur Poornima Vijayashanker at its helm in Palo Alto, Calif. This will be Vijayashanker’s third time at SXSW. “The first time it was just me, the second time I was meeting investors and this year I will demo the product; I’m really excited,” she says.
Vijayashanker plans to hold product demos during the event and host a party with a few other startups on March 10. She will also focus on interviewing potential clients on video and posting those videos on her site. She will also work on connecting with influential bloggers.
What's right for your business?
How can your small business build buzz at SXSW?
Sexton suggests: Beware of shiny balls. SXSW can be over saturating; there are tons of cool new things to try and a lot of distractions. You have to make decisions based on what is best for your company, culture and business goals. Don’t be distracted by hype. Do what you do, and do it your way. Create situations where you are interacting with everyone. Be malleable and try different things.
Fishback's advice: Embrace the Texas state of mind. Stop, and talk to people. Have one-on-one conversations; those can give you a meaningful way to evangelize your brand. Sit down and indentify your influencer list, the people you want to get in front of. Do research on this up front and contact them beforehand to see if you can grab coffee. More often than not, they will say yes.
Vijayashanker's tip: Post a Meetup using Meetup. During a previous year at the conference, I invited a group of 10 to 15 new contacts to a dinner, and it turned out really well. It was very spontaneous, which is very SXSW.
(Follow our live coverage of SXSW starting Friday, Mar. 9.)
Photo credit: Christopher Howard