"Where are all my fellow Canadians?" It's a question I asked myself as I wandered the trade show floor; as I collided with entrepreneurs from around the world, as I listened to a keynote by Edward Snowden, and attended a session comparing UX design to fly-fishing.
I couldn't understand why more Canadians didn't attend or speak at South by Southwest, (SXSW) arguably one of the world's most important interactive festivals.
When my partner Jim Moss, co-founder and CEO of Plasticity, announced that we would be speaking at SXSW for the third time, we received an onslaught of responses on Facebook. Many people wondered how we managed to land such an opportunity. When I asked startups why they weren't attending, the two biggest reasons were the cost of attending and the difficulty of being accepted.
I agree. SX is expensive. Flights cost a ridiculous amount and the gouging doesn't end there: festival passes and accommodations are also pricey, especially in the city core. However, booking months ahead can reduce costs, and this year, an extended shuttle service made it cheaper to get in and out of the conference. As a budget-conscious startup, we took advantage of this new mode of transport and opted to stay on the outskirts of the city.
It also isn't easy to get accepted as a speaker. In fact, it's actually incredibly difficult. You have to apply a year out and be ready to deliver a story that is impactful, innovative, thought-provoking and valuable. Oh, and you also compete against 3,600 others, with the understanding that fewer than 10 per cent of applicants will make the cut.
Here are some guiding principles I've used in the application process:
Don't talk about your product, tell a story. Would you want to go to a sales pitch? I wouldn't. And yet I still see way too many speakers who use a stage to sell their goods. SXSW has the best curators and they know what excites their audiences. Use the tradeshow for sales because the audience expects it. If you want to be a thought leader, share something thoughtful. Relay something new about your industry, trade, or personal passions and be likeable. Our title this year was Neural Hacking: Programming Happiness in the Workplace and the room was packed with attendees from various industries around the world. We mentioned Plasticity Labs only once upon introduction and yet it generated so many opportunities for our business because the talk delivered value.
Make SXSW better. Maintaining the vibe at SXSW is very important to the coordinators and festival goers so share how you would add to it. We included videos about our work culture and various smile bombs, links to articles we've appeared in, pics of our mascot (they LOVE mascots at SXSW) and other talks we've led on the subject. Vans literally built a half-pipe just for the festival. They had dogs on skateboards! So, although you don't need to go that far, it's important to demonstrate how you'll add in a cool way to the SX culture.
Make personal connections. In my first year applying, it was a huge long shot. It becomes easier to get selected after you've made the first cut. So, I reached out and connected with the curators. I tweeted them and I e-mailed and let them know how great we were going to be. We didn't make the first round, but we made the second and eventually got in. I personally believe it was directly tied to the relationships we built. Fortunately, we received fantastic audience feedback that first year, helping us to get in the next time around. If you do make it; remember to encourage people to share positive feedback. It helps to ease the submission anxiety the following year.
Use social media. Share and get people to vote on your talk. In our first year, we used whatever we could to get in and that included our social media channels. We knew we weren't from companies like Twitter or Facebook or any of the other giants in tech, we were barely anything so we promoted our name to the top of the heap and got noticed. Don't wait to be told no. Work your hardest to get a yes. To me, the effort to be the "Little Start-up That Could" speaks volumes to the character of your team and your company in general.
If you follow these principles and aren't willing to let rejection discourage you from applying the next year, then you have a good shot of eventually making the cut. And when you finally arrive, you'll realize why SXSW is the one of the most important interactive festivals in the world – despite the effort, cost, long lines and – ironically – bad WiFi you have to endure.
When I asked Ben Unsworth, fellow Canadian and founder of Globacore Interactive Technologies, why he was attending for the third time in four years, he told me, "SXSW is the global meeting place for our industry – it's important for us to be here to take the pulse on where the industry is at, learn about new technologies, connect with key clients, get inspired and maybe even have a little fun with our colleagues."
I couldn't agree more. On the day we arrived, Jim and I found ourselves in a live interview with IBM executive Sandy Carter, which led to a dinner with her and a small group of IBM partners, followed by a party.
These opportunities arose simply from being in Austin, Texas. None of them were planned, and they aren't normally available to a small company like ours. It required physically being here and making the most of our time and the opportunities that presented themselves.
As Jim and I debated our return on investment, we kept coming back to one thing that really resonated: South by Southwest inspires. So what does inspiration look like? For me, it was presenting in front of a room full of strangers, standing in awe as I witnessed products straight out of a science fiction novel, or forging lifelong friendships and watching tiny startups land their first real break.
To be an entrepreneur, you have to have a crazy sense of optimism and a determination to work crazy hours to see it through. That same confidence is needed to speak at SXSW and similar conferences – to be counted as a thought leader in an industry. Jim and I know many Canadian entrepreneurs capable of becoming leaders in the industry. So when it comes to competing in the same sandbox with Silicon Valley startups, why does the (very Canadian) 'we're not worthy' posture prevail? Some of the most innovative companies in the world are coming out of this country and fuelling a fast-growing startup culture. They should be recognized, but as a culture, we're not very good at tooting our own horn. After all, it's not polite.
They say there's a time and place for everything, and now is the time and South by Southwest is the place. It's not just a chance to learn from the most brilliant minds, connect with the best in tech to come away inspired. It's a time to show off how brave and smart and forward-thinking we are in the Canadian startup community.
This is all the ROI we needed to get ourselves on a plane to Austin for SXSW. Hopefully it's enough to get more of you to join us next year.
Jennifer Moss is the co-founder of Plasticity Labs, a mobile and web app that combines neuroscience and technology to teach employees the psychological skills of the happiest, highest performers to create highly engaged corporate cultures.