How to Do SXSW (or any conference) The Right Way

This may have been the longest posting hiatus I’ve ever had here at Location 180 – but I swear it was for a good reason.

If you read my last post, The Longest Car Ride of My Life, you know that a couple friends and I spent this past week down in Austin, Texas for our first SXSW conference.

To say it exceeded any and all expectations would be an understatement.

Drive from Austin, Texas to Las Vegas, Nevada

The beginning of a long trek from Texas to Vegas

You really have no idea what SXSW is like until you can experience it for yourself. Every single day I was surrounded by some of the smartest people around, and found myself continually inspired to do more with my life, and help others in the process.

Many (most?) of the people down there had South by Southwest Interactive passes.  Essentially this means that they can go to the talks, panels, and the big sponsored parties.  A pass is $400 at it’s cheapest, so for most, the decision to buy isn’t made without a little bit of thought.

Personally, I didn’t have a pass, so you need to take the following advice with a grain of salt.  But I truly believe that I did SXSW the right way.

Here’s what I didn’t do:

  • I didn’t sit in talks from the likes of Tim Ferris, Guy Kawasaki and Gary Vaynerchuk.
  • I didn’t spend all of my time trying to meet as many people as I could.
  • I didn’t lust after big names and do everything in my power to find them.

I feel like a lot of people show up at conferences with these goals in mind.  While there’s certainly value to be had from the discussions and panels, most people that I talked to seemed pretty ambivalent about the sessions they attended.

I didn’t hear a single person rave about any particular talk.

Others go to panels and parties and their sole goal is to collect as many business cards as possible.  Sure, there’s something to be said for that for that as well.  If you have hundreds of contacts, you can try and retroactively form a solid relationship through email, but it’s going to be an uphill battle.

Then you have the celebrity whores.  Just like a teenage girl trying to meet a Backstreet Boy (or whatever the equivalent band is these days), these are the people who go down there to have the opportunity to shake hands or say hi in passing with the big boys.

Every once in awhile you may get a meaningful conversation with one of these people, but usually, you’ll share a few pleasantries, and they’ll move on to the next person.

While everyone has their goals at SXSW (and other conferences) these were the ones that weren’t for me.

That said, if I wasn’t searching out big stars or attending sessions all day, then what did I do?

I drank. A lot. But that’s besides the point.

No in all seriousness, I met new people and did everything I could to form meaningful relationships with a smaller number of people (and it just so happened that involved a lot of food and drink).

Sure there were plenty of 10 minute conversations with people I may or may not see again, but more importantly I spent hours hanging out with people that I know will help to change my life over the next year and beyond.

I formed friendships that I never would have expected, and saw the same group of 20 or so people almost every night.

That’s how you do SXSW the right way.

Sure everyone will have their opinions, and there will be people who disagree with me on this one. But I’m already starting to see the positive effects take place. By seeing the same people on more than one occasion and spending considerable time with them you have the chance to actually get to know them as a person – beyond whatever it is “they do“.

One night I was at a dinner organized by Markus and Nick, and was amazed at the stories the people sitting there could tell. Every single person was doing something awesome. You just don’t get that in normal circumstances, and if I hadn’t made the effort to get to know each one of those people on a more meaningful basis it wouldn’t have been nearly as fulfilling.

Ok, I’ll hop off my soapbox now, but I just want you guys to think about that.  If you’re heading to a big event any time soon, take the time to form quality over quantity.

I also learned another lesson on this trip.  Planning a back to back trip to Austin and Las Vegas is probably not a good idea.  While I had an absolute blast with Ryan, Jenna, and Jenny – I’m beyond exhausted.  I’ve spent a grand total of about 72 hours in a car over the last 10 days and the blizzard, lack of gas stations, and lack of sleep were definitely getting to me by about 3am this morning.

While I’m glad to be home, this is an experience that I won’t soon forget.  I want to give an extra special thanks to everyone who made my SxSW experience so incredible.  I’d also recommend you check out the free SxSW Pokes ebook from Amber Rae and the Domino Project to get inspired by those willing to take initiative.

Yes, it was a good week, but now it’s time to get back to work and start making big things happen. I’d like to leave you with just one thought:

If anyone offers you a $5 “liquor pitcher” it’s probably best not to accept it…


I knew there would be other people doing SxSW follow up posts, so I didn’t spend a ton of time talking about all the individual people I met.  Therefore, you should check out these posts for that roundup:

If you enjoyed this post, be sure to hit up the Facebook Page and Twitter stream as well.  You will also love my free ecourse over there in the sidebar 🙂

Jenna March 21, 2011 at 10:04 am

I think we should bring $5 liquor pitchers to PDX! Just saying…

Andy Hayes March 21, 2011 at 10:26 am

Was great meeting you this year, Sean. Hope to see you in Austin next year (if not before that). 🙂

Jenny Blake March 21, 2011 at 12:28 pm

Agree with you 100% that the way to do SXSW is exactly how we all did it – hanging out with a group of awesome people and forming relationships that will carry us and provide support far beyond the conference itself.

I still never got my tour! But hey – something to look forward to for next year 😀

Benny March 22, 2011 at 1:47 am

$5 Liquor pitchers just sounds like asking for trouble!

It’s great to be around awesome people because it’ll inspire you to feed off their passion and creativity.

Your experience at SXSW sounds like most others I have read. Meeting great people and drinking lots. 🙂

Matt Hixson March 22, 2011 at 8:56 am

It was great to meet you last week. Kinda funny that we have to go to Austin to finally meet. Glad to hear you had a great time. It is an exhausting week but my favorite week of the year.

Cherie @Technomadia March 22, 2011 at 8:59 am

Yup.. totally concur. We ‘unattended’ SXSW last year and it was awesome.. and were given badges this year for presenting on ‘Technomadism’ (ahem.. and people were raving out ours *smile* ). But the highlights for us happened out side badged events. It happened with the frequent meetups, dinners, party crashing and crossing with the same people over and over again.

I’m very happy that our paths crossed finally, it was great to meet you.

James St. James April 2, 2011 at 11:16 am

I agree Sean, though part of me likes running around like a hamster seeking consecutive cheese pieces from the big name keynotes. I have had the opportunity to become close with a best-selling author, the leading expert in my field, a well known DJ, and a significant government official.

I was explaining the simple secret to my wife today as we strolled (literally, with a stroller) along our main street this morning:

Treat big-shots like peers, like equals.

They’re just not used to it, their guard comes down, and they can open up, share their insecurities, goals, etc. I recently had a 4 hour conversation with a leader who is trying to recruit me to work with him. I decided to be myself, and simply meeting for a coffee became an unforgettable experience for both of us. The best complement he gave me afterward was that I challenged him to be a better leader.

This is not the approach the teen girl with the backstreet boys would employ, its counter-intuitive, and that’s why it works in creating lasting relationships.

Sounds like an awesome conference, I’ve been watching TED talks for the last year just wanting to be part of something like it.

Thanks for sharing your wisdom Sean.

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