South By Southwest, the entertainment and technology festival in Austin, is an annual pilgrimage of sorts for techies from around the country. This year, local attendees said the Washington region was out in force.
Entrepreneurs in the District and its surrounding suburbs have often found themselves in the shadow of more hulking technology hubs, such as Silicon Valley or New York. But as more entrepreneurs set up shop in the region, members of the tech scene say touting its merits is an important way to attract attention.
“The people that go to South By Southwest are the ambassadors to their relative markets, and I think the people from D.C. do a good job at that,” said Peter Corbett, the chief executive of iStrategyLabs. His firm’s brand-building application, GrandStand, garnered a lot of buzz at the event.
This year’s festival was a return engagement for the founders of District-based Popvox, though chief executive Marci Harris said in some ways it felt like they were attending for the first time.
Last year, the company, which provides a platform for constituents to communicate with Congress, was engrossed in a start-up business contest. The heads-down approach paid off as Popvox ultimately won its category and was featured in a Microsoft documentary about the experience called “Ctrl+Alt+Compete.”
“We didn’t really get to experience South By Southwest last year because we were just concentrated on doing the accelerator competition,” Harris said. “None of us attended any panels or parties or anything.”
What a difference a year makes. Harris sat on a panel about political parties and technology during last week’s event. Popvox, which had 4,000 users at last year’s SXSW, gained its 100,000th user during the festival.
Nathan Daschle, the co-founder of a political social network called Ruck.us, said the conference also served as a time to reflect on his firm’s trajectory. Still a small operation with about 12,000 users, the company has matured over the last year.
“Last year as a company we were little more than a Powerpoint,” said Daschle, former executive director of the Democratic Governors Association. “This year we were a full-blown company.”
Daschle said many entrepreneurs feel pressured to attend the festival — tickets for which can cost between $595 and $950 for just the technology portion — because so many entrepreneurs flock there every year.
“That probably is not a reason to go,” he said. “But if you can go and have a plan, and know how to execute that plan, it can be a valuable use of money.”
Stephen Candelmo had a plan — then decided to bag it. The founder of District-based Klaggle, a product review platform, was attending SXSW for the first time this year.
“I was a little concerned because it seemed overwhelming with all of the events,” he said. “I actually took a step back and tried to take a more relaxed view on it where I hit maybe one or two events, and then said, ‘Let’s see what happens in terms of the people I meet in the hallways’.”
Candelmo didn’t even make it to the hallway before his first “moment of serendipity.” He met two other attendees while waiting in line for a rental car at the airport — one of whom could be a business contact down the road.
“Everyone is there to meet others and as a result you are talking to people you would never image talking to,” he said.
The buses that rolled into Austin as part of the StartupBus competition hailed from 11 different locations, but the entrepreneurs on board had a common goal: Create a new company during the journey and have it declared the most promising start-up.
In the end, two Washington upstarts made the list of 18 semifinalists: Givingline, a pay-it-forward network where people can ask and receive help from others; and CuriousCity, an event finder for those with alternative sexual and social interests.
“D.C. was actually pretty well represented given that there were less than two teams per region” in the semi-finals, said Derina Man, who organized the D.C. bus. “Both teams pitched very, very well.”
The companies were winnowed down to eight finalists, and only D.C.’s CuriousCity made that cut. But in the end, the crowning glory went to ... Silicon Valley’s Cerealize, a Web site that sells custom-order cereal.