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5 Lessons from SXSWi

South by Southwest Interactive festival is one of the largest technology events of the year. Over 6500 registrants meet to discuss web technologies and the communities those technologies are meant to support. The registrants are a mix of technologists, bloggers, podcasters, social media marketers, PR folks, designers and developers, all of whom descend upon Austin, Texas, for five days. 

SXSW Bag Pickup
SXSW Bag Pick-Up

The festival offers many lessons, tips and tricks, best practices and predictions for the future.
Below are 5 Lessons I Learned at SXSWi.

1. Have good shoes. is "Powered by Service." sees extraordinary customer as its norm. CEO Tony Hsieh understands that to succeed online, Zappos has to compete with the offline retail environment where customers try shoes on. As a result, Zappos offers free shipping and free return shipping for all its products.

In Tony Hsieh's opening remarks, he reveals how good deeds such as free shipping can help you leverage the power of your audience to massively extend your brand.
Listen to a podcast of Tony Hsieh's opening remarks at SXSWi.

2. Libre is different than gratis. Chris Anderson gives it away.

Guy Kawasaki's interview with Chris Anderson helps set the record straight on some of the notions in Anderson's upcoming book FREE. One of the basic premises is that free as in "gratis–no price" is different than free as in "libre–freedom."

For example, many of today's business models are crippled by the wrong notions of free. Free as in "no price" can position your product as free as in "no value." If you have an audience who is used to paying for something, then giving that something away for free raises suspicion.

If, however, you can give fans the freedom to easily recommend your products or services, then you're making information free. You are giving your audience freedom to promote your stuff.
You can read a transcription of Kawasaki and Anderson's discussion on ScribbleLive, a live blogging platform.

3. Don’t make a better X, make better use of X. Kathy Sierra says there's a time for breakthroughs and a time for making incremental changes.

When companies get stuck, they typically enter an arms race, meaning that they focus on incremental changes instead of breakthroughs. Incremental changes happen when we compete on features or marketing aplomb instead of on helping our users make breakthroughs in how they use our products and services.

Kathy Sierra uses the example of the program mode on high-end SLR cameras. Most of us still have the camera in default mode not because we don't know how to change the settings but because we don't know why we'd want to go beyond default mode. Breakthroughs happen when companies help their audience understand, not how to improve, but why they want to improve.

In this portion of the presentation, Kathy Sierra invites Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine Library to articulate how he went beyond the default conversations of wine and how he makes his audience kick ass.

4. Always go for lunch. Designing for the wisdom of crowds is more than just curation or allowing for user-content creation. 

Derek Powazek's session "Design for the Wisdom of Crowds" looks at ways that reputation, ratings and relevance are displayed online.
"Always go for lunch" is my summation of Powazek's presentation. It's a reminder that web design for big groups is never the same as design intended to serve small groups.

Small groups foster easier interaction. For example, going for lunch with a couple of friends is more engaging than going for lunch with everyone in the room. If you're lunching with everyone in the room, how do you have a satisfactory experience? How do you dial down or up the noise? How do you decide who you want to pay attention to and for how long?

Powazek suggests that bringing the wisdom of crowds online requires a focus on small, simple tasks, an understanding of the dynamics of large diverse groups, a design that allows for the appropriate amount of selfishness, and a way to aggregate results in the most rewarding manner for the community.
Derek Powazek's presentation slides are available on his website.

5. Choose your opponent wisely. Obama's opponent wasn't McCain, it was the status quo.

Obama's Tech Team outlines the successes of the presidential campaign and what startups can learn from Barack Obama and Howard Dean. The panelists were Clay Johnson, Jake Brewer, Michael Bassik, and Mary Katharine Ham.

Johnson's resounding point was that your company or movement should have an opponent–something to destroy–but that you need to chose that opponent wisely. Obama's opponent was the status quo, not McCain, and this allowed for greater mobilization of supporters. summarizes the main discussion points in this article.
The full podcast is available on the SXSWi website.

What will next year's SXSWi lessons be? We'll only know by attending. 

SXSWi is a luxury. It's a time commitment and a financial commitment. Given the economic crisis, fuel and environmental costs, and the uncertainty of the future, it's easy to disparage the conference costs and to opt for the free podcasts and summaries via Twitter and RSS.
The biggest lesson I learned at SXSWi is that it is worth attending in person.

SXSWi is a marketplace of ideas for our community. Sure, there is extensive blog coverage, session recaps, podcasts and blow-by-blow twitter streams of the content, but when your community grows to be so large and the volume of content becomes difficult to distill, it is better to meet in person. The real-life connections are what truly binds us to the bloggers we read, the masters we follow, and the people we teach. 
As science-fiction author and industry pundit Bruce Sterling warns, "don't forfeit the benefits of being the audience."
I, for one, will be at SXSWi in 2010.


  1. Mohamed Abdulle
    Mohamed Abdulle March 23, 2009

    Those are some great takeaways, Monique. Especially number 3. I’ve had many of our clients ask me to help them build the next Facebook and my response is always “instead of building a new social network why don’t we figure out how to open the doors between your website and social networks like Facebook and MySpace.”
    I really appreciate your insight. Glad I found this article 🙂

  2. johnnie Konstantas
    johnnie Konstantas March 25, 2009

    A very insightful write up. Having missed the show, I especially appreciate the links.

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