A first timer’s thoughts on SXSW

3 min read

IMG_2834Imagine a room filled with 6,000 founders, CEOs, tech professionals going totally quiet for 10 minutes. No cell phones out, no one on their laptop, no one talking.

Sounds unreal?

It is unreal and it captures the spirit of what I experienced at SXSW 2016 better than anything else. South By as the veterans call it will always surprise, serve up unexpected experiences and capture your mind.

At first I really did not want to go. Packing for the 9 day trip, I told my wife that I would be happy if I had an urgent call to go and meet our VC or do something else instead of flying 16 hours to Austin, TX. Now, after I returned, I wished that SXSW would have lasted another 2 weeks.
I was expecting one of these typical conferences, where all the speakers would solely promote their companies and products, where the parties where glorified sales meetings and the audience would be tired and looking forward to go home again right after the opening speech.

What I got instead was a Tibetan Monk talking about Happiness and meditating with 6,000 people.


An inspiring human behavioral researcher Brené Brown speaking about Vulnerability and Daring Greatly as well as iconic tech founders like Ryan Hoover (Product Hunt), Max Levchin (Founder of PayPal) or Steve Chen (Founder of YouTube) speak about their ideas, visions and the future of technology as they see it. You can read about these sessions and watch many of them on http://www.sxsw.com/live but what you will only experience live is the extrem openness and friendliness of the other visitors. I would make a point to speak to the people sitting next to me or waiting in one of the many lines to get into the next talk. People going to Austin seem to be in a very relaxed state, unlike folks at other conferences I have been to.
The other unique Austin even are the many house parties. My favorite one was organized by fellow Germans at the German Folks House and featured the most amazing live concert by Dimi – a semi finalist at The Voice of Germany. Dimi was comfortably seated around a small couch table jamming away with other musicians and the host Til Kästner joining in with various instruments. To me, evenings like this make SXSW so special.
For any other first time SXSW visitors in 2016 make sure to follow these suggestions, which I wish I would have known about:

SXSW – top 5 things for newcomers

5 things I wish I would have known about when I first went to SXSW

Book sessions really early

Book sessions as soon as they appear on the SXSW website. Many of the really cool sessions are hands on workshops or 1:1 coaching sessions and require you to RSVP ahead of time to book a time slot. I missed most of the good ones.

There is free parking close to SXSW

Book a hotel room or AirBnb as early as you can. They fill up super quick and are really expensive. I ended up booking a hotel far South of SXSW and rented the smallest car available. Parking around SX was really not an issue. Most days we found free parking at the bottom of Rainey street (if you come before 8.30 a.m) or paid $20 for all day parking next to the convention center. In sum, that was much cheaper than renting close to the show. Make sure to pick up a really really small car and increase your chance of finding free parking by a big margin.

Free Coffee

Get your coffee for free at the McDonalds lounge instead of standing in line and paying $5. McDonalds did not only serve awesome coffee (note that I am a coffee fanatic and if I call a coffee awesome it has to be mighty good), they also had plenty of fresh fruit and (real) fruit flavored water all day. Totally off brand for McD but a great place to hang out in the main conference center.

Experience the unknown

Walk into sessions without knowing who is speaking. I caught many good sessions by just walking into something. No one will hate you if you leave early if the topic is not for you. Many times will you learn something totally new and expand your horizon.

Get ready to stand in line for ever or don’t 🙂

Long lines do not mean great sessions. Many times some of the best stuff had no lines or super short lines. The wisdom of crowds does not always apply. Check out this great video from National Geographic called “Monkey see monkey do” about how to get people to line up for no reason at all.

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