Why bigger is better for brands at SXSW

Greetings From Austin

South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive 2015 is over and by all accounts it was bigger than ever before. This was my seventh consecutive year attending and speaking and I’ve witnessed this evolution firsthand. More so than in any prior year, my week in Austin left me with the impression that SXSW matters more than ever for brands and is currently the top “must attend” event for marketers.

Previously, many brand-side executives dismissed the notion of traveling to Austin in March, despite the allure of beer, barbecue and warm Texas weather. SXSW used to be called “spring break for geeks” – considered more of a social scene for techies than a place for brands to get business done.

This year’s festival leaned towards the regional and the niche. But with the rise of digital and convergence of culture and technology in society, the content and communities of SXSW Interactive have become increasingly relevant to a wide range of audiences.

This year, I saw three key reasons why brands should save the date for 2016:

1. Major digital trends are on display
I’ve been tracking a series of key global digital trends since the beginning of the year and have seen them reinforced at CES, Mobile World Congress and now, SXSW.

First is the evolution of natural interfaces. There were plenty on display, from startups showcasing gesture-based and augmented reality offerings, to panel discussions regarding the evolution of fabrics and wearables.

exiii Prosthetics

Another global trend is the rise of smart machines and practical application of data. General Electric, for example, held a “barbecue lab” at this year’s event to explore the science of what makes barbecue great, based on science.

Finally, the internet of things was put into action as 1,000 Bluetooth beacons were deployed throughout the city to connect attendees with each other and to provide information on the venues they were visiting.

2. Brands are building startup street cred
SXSW has always had client-side representation in attendance. However, in years past, marketers would attend individually or as part of a small team on a fact-finding mission. Now, big brands are paying big dollars to have a presence at the festival.

Samsung lounge

What really matters though is how traditional companies are reaching out and bridging the gap with startups. IBM, Visa and McDonalds all hosted startup pitch competitions during the festival. These brands are getting credit by association with new thinking, while getting a jump on disruptive innovation.

3. SXSW has become a global gathering
The attendee badge lists a person’s name, company and country. More often than not I saw non-US locations listed, including Germany, France, Korea, Japan, Sweden, the UK and beyond. SXSW has attracted a global audience that brands can connect with.

SXSW 2015 badge

In stereotypical Texas style, everything at SXSW has become big. The amount of content offered, the number of attendees in town and the range of parties and concerts available were mind-boggling. It seems likely that next year’s conference will be even bigger and brands will bring out their best to shine brighter than their competitors in the warm Austin sun.

This post was originally published in The Guardian.

Six years, $60 million, and all I got was this stupid hoodie.

Voting for SXSW 2015 sessions has started.

Austin panorama during SXSW 2014

If I get the chance to speak next year in Austin, I’d like to tell you about the last six years of my working life.

Between 2008 – 2014, I committed my time, energy, and intellect to build a startup company as the first employee into a multi-million dollar, multi-national social business advisory and big data analytics company. We received quite a bit of funding from Austin Ventures along the way. The company was ultimately acquired by Sprinklr and the only tangible reminder of my experience I have left is the classic cliched symbol of a startup company: a logo hoodie.

I could probably write a book on what I wish I knew then. (Maybe I will someday.) In the meantime I’d like to share the highlights of what I learned about startup life. The great reads out there make even more sense to me after having lived the experience.

I guess it’s only fair to disclose that I don’t intend this to be a sixty minute smack-talk session. Even without the snark, somewhere in between the trips to Las Vegas, managing people managing their personal brands, working with acquired companies under earnouts, writing a book, and creating an entirely new category of advisory called “social business,” there are some lessons worth sharing.

This would be my seventh year speaking at SXSW Interactive; if you’re interested in hearing more, I’d appreciate your vote.
Vote to see my session at SXSW 2015!

My week as an uberX driver

$30 for you, $30 for me.


I’ve been keeping an eye on the rise of the “collaborative economy.” In a nutshell, I see it as a progression of social business, where individuals use technology to harness cultural trends and change commercial market dynamics. But rather than just read and write about this new movement, I wanted to experience it for myself. After all, experiencing is believing.

uberX Austin


It started with an ad on Facebook. You know, the kind that stands out because it’s in the middle of your newsfeed and references a couple of your friends who have liked the brand’s page, but probably have no idea that their profiles are being referenced for this particular message. In this case, I kept seeing an ad for Uber related to SXSW: drivers wanted!

I’ve been using Uber as a passenger for about a year, spending $443 on rides mostly in New York. The convenience is unbeatable, especially when you need a specific type of vehicle. For example, I called my first Uber ride when I was by myself and needed a large enough vehicle to transport six boxes of workshop materials from the Meatpacking District to the office.

So I clicked on the Facebook ad and signed up to become an uberX driver during SXSW. The application consisted of a background check, a 30-minute online training session, and upload of license, registration, and proof of auto insurance. I assume that all checked out, because I was invited to an orientation session to pick up my phone and get activated as a driver.



I walked over to the first offered orientation session, which was a few blocks away from my (soon-to-be-former) office. There were two guys in a conference room, part of the activation team based out of DC. Each seat at the table had a padded envelope, paperwork, and pen; I sat down and began reviewing the driver contract. The young man next to me started photographing the pages with his iPhone. One of the Uber guys said, “hey, you can’t do that.” Young guy: “but my mom would be really disappointed if I signed this without consulting a lawyer first.” Uber guy: “don’t worry, it’s just standard legalese.” The young guy stopped taking pictures and signed.

For the most part, it was a pretty straightforward agreement making clear that the executor was 1) not becoming an Uber employee and 2) not going to discuss how the system worked, especially with the media. The contract was primarily in place to protect trade secrets, as we would be using a custom software application. Moreover, Uber and their marketing promotions partner had no intention of violating Austin’s ground transportation city ordinance, as volunteers would be paid by a third party marketing promotions firm.

I looked around while waiting to finalize my application. One guy was having trouble clarifying some issues. “But does your car have commercial license plates? If so, you can’t drive that car as an uberX.” Another guy had on a Roto-Rooter shirt; hopefully for his passengers he wasn’t going to be leaving straight from his day job to drive people around. Another woman came in and said in a breezy tone, “I saw your ad on Craigslist!”

My documents were verified pretty quickly and the discussion was direct. Did I take the online test? “Yes and I passed.” Okay, here’s your phone. Any questions? “Actually, yes.”

  • “What if I arrive to pick someone up and they want to squeeze six people in my car?” You can tell them you can only fit four.
  • “Since the service is free, what if someone wants to be driven back to their hotel in Round Rock?” You can call them to verify their destination and if it’s someplace crazy, you can decline the trip.
  • “What if someone throws up in the back of my car?” Save the receipt from the cleaning and we’ll reimburse you.
  • “Umm…” Anything else? Just call or email us.


Uber at SXSW 2014



A week later, I was set up and ready to drive. UberX service began on Thursday evening at 5 pm, the day before SXSW started. I finally got out of my house, on the road, and heading downtown at about 7. I figured I’d give a couple of rides and then stop by a few of the opening night parties that were on my calendar.

I turned on the iPhone that served as the dispatch device. After opening the driver app and taking a few minutes to register, the madness began. I started getting pickup alerts from all over the city. 24th Street. Barton Hills. Congress Avenue. I thought there was no way I could be the closest available driver for some of these requests, but later on I would be able to guess why — the demand for cars was far greater than supply of drivers.

Ride 1

I picked up my first ride outside of Civitas Learning on 5th Street. Capital Factory had organized a “startup crawl” at various startup offices around the city and a couple of venues were on the outer reaches of the downtown area. Four guys piled in my car to be taken back to headquarters. They had never used Uber before and were all part of local startups, except for the one who worked at Tocquigny. It was a quick and easy one mile, eight minute trip.

Ride 2

I picked up my second ride outside of Speakeasy, a group of three guys who were also on the startup crawl, one of whom worked at FeedMagnet. They were heading to the other startup crawl on the outer edge of the map; a hassle to walk, but a pretty quick drive. After I dropped them off, there was a minivan taxi stopped in front of me that refused to move. I got out of my car after a few minutes to talk to the taxi driver, with five cars waiting in line behind me. The driver rolled down his window and gave me a blank look and I explained that he was blocking traffic. It appeared that he was having a problem processing a credit card; without saying a word to me, he rolls up the window, the passengers close the sliding door, and as I get back in my car, he finally pulls forward and out of the way so all of us can drive past.

I should’ve stopped then as I had originally planned, but there was something energizing about the experience. It certainly wasn’t about the money. The rides were short, the service seemed useful, and the riders seemed grateful to have a free ride. Then…



Ride 3

I headed back to the center of downtown to park my car and go offline for the night. But then a ping came in that was just two blocks away…so I answered the call. I picked up my third ride at the corner of 7th & Congress right at the Roaring Fork. He had a duffel bag and was the first of many riders going to or coming from an AirBnB. As we drove over to the east side, he told me about how he worked at a social TV startup and had made the mistake of flying into Houston instead of Austin. He wasn’t a huge fan of Uber, but taxis were impossible to find. When I told him the ride was free, he was in disbelief; as someone coming from New York, he had just assumed that the service would work like it did back home. As we pulled up to the apartment complex where he was staying, he asked why I was driving, because I didn’t seem like a regular driver…”I thought you were a CEO or something when we started talking!”


Ride 4

Not being able to find a taxi became another recurring theme during SXSW. I decided to take one final trip before logging out and I had a momentary sense of regret: the rider was downtown and needed a ride to her hotel, the Westin at the Domain. It wasn’t very far away in absolute terms, as Austin is a fairly small city. However, it was certainly felt like one of those situations I asked about in orientation where someone might ask to be driven to a faraway place. I decided to pick up the rider — actually two sisters, one who worked at Google and the other at Yahoo — and make this my final ride.

They were from the Bay Area and told me that they had tried various methods of finding a car: calling taxi dispatch phone numbers, using the Hail-a-Cab app, and repeatedly calling for Ubers. While getting an uberX ride for free was nice, they both agreed that they would gladly have paid for the ride if that meant that more cars were available and in service. When you’re on the road, you don’t want to be stranded not knowing how you’ll make it back to your hotel…or waiting indefinitely for a taxi to pick you up.



Ride 5

On Friday, after getting some work done and attending a corporate brunch, I decided to go online on my way back into the city. I picked up a couple of guys on the east side of town from a small house. I asked them if they were staying at an AirBnb…yes. And coincidentally, they both worked for AirBnB. In the collaborative economy, birds of a feather flock together. I gave them a ride over to the southwestern suburbs, dropping them off at Tacodeli.



Ride 6

I was out east past the airport for personal reasons on Saturday morning and decided to go online while I drove back in. Again, a pickup from an AirBnB on the east side. I define the “east side” of Austin as east of Interstate 35 where many of the neighborhoods are in transition/early stages of gentrification. I picked up a rider from a small house located in a neighborhood that I’d never been in before…for good reason. My rider was going to the convention center and as I looped around the narrow side streets to get back on a main road, a black SUV stopped, a man jumped out of the passenger side, and ran off into the woods, under the elevated roadway near the train tracks. At first I thought he was going to relieve himself…but then he stopped and was looking for something.

We drove on and I joked with my rider, who was a strategist at ChiatDay attending her first SXSW, about how we had just seen the start of something illegal. She told me about how she had walked home from downtown the night before. It’s not a terribly long walk — only about three miles — but it’s not the nicest part of town to be walking through alone and drunk, late at night. So why did she walk? Because she couldn’t find a taxi the night before or get an available Uber…so she started walking.

Later that evening, I met someone who lived a block away from where I had picked up my rider…who told me that a few years prior, a dead body had been discovered in those woods. Yikes.



Ride 7

I was under the weather and busy with work, so I didn’t give another ride until Wednesday morning. As I was driving towards downtown, I got a ping from a neighborhood and swung by a house (another AirBnB) where three people were waiting outside. They work at Patagonia and were heading to the airport to fly home, but the taxi they had reserved the night before decided to not show up. Upon calling the company, they said the best they could do (despite the prior reservation) was to get a car there within an hour…well beyond their flight’s departure time. One of them decided to try Uber and luckily was able to secure a ride. “It’s a miracle you showed up.” Coincidentally, I had been reading a field report in the latest Patagonia catalog the day before. They expressed their gratitude by giving me a discount coupon and hopefully made it on time for the flight to Los Angeles.

Ride 8

Probably the most mellow ride of all. A group of four Brits staying at an AirBnB on the east side. They worked for Playstation and had flown over on the new British Airways nonstop 787 service from London. Today, they were heading in separate directions with two flying west to SF and two east to the UK. However, the first order of business was to stop by Magnolia Cafe for a proper Austin brunch.

Ride 9

My last ride of SXSW was my first passenger who was in town for Music, not Interactive. She was the manager of a band from North Carolina called Messenger Down and staying at a friend’s apartment. She told me that all bands are on YouTube, Facebook is a necessary evil, and Tumblr is increasingly the place for bands to be. As I dropped her off and told her about the static between Austin and Uber, she said, “don’t worry. I drive uberX in Charlotte and I know the deal.”

As I was waiting to turn at a red light heading back to my parking garage, a taxi starts honking at me. I point out the window to a sign on the traffic light that reads “NO TURN ON RED, 7 AM – 7 PM, MON – FRI.” At the next light I roll down my window and ask the taxi driver why he was honking at me. “Those rules don’t apply because it’s a special day today.” I told him to be more patient and we both drove away.



SXSW is a huge conference and attendees have solved the hotel room shortage by turning to AirBnB. But when it comes to ground transportation, there was much more rider demand than hired car supply, due in part to the city’s regulations. Taxis, the beneficiaries of from government intervention, were unreliable (e.g. not showing up when called), often unavailable, and their drivers don’t seem like the most pleasant people to ride with.

A simple market dynamic in play: with constrained supply and high demand, the equilibrium price of a ride rose and many people complained about surge pricing. Microeconomics 101. Watch for this to creep deeper into society as more businesses and buyers realize this is how free enterprise works, in online auctions, travel pricing, and coming soon to baseball seating.

All of the people who rode with me were cordial and willing to chat, most likely due to SXSW. Otherwise I’m not sure that either they or I would’ve actually enjoyed this experience. As I was waiting in traffic, I was reminded of one reason I enjoy living in Austin more than Boston: traffic.

If you haven’t yet tried Uber, here’s a referral code to that will get you $10 off your first ride: https://uber.com/invite/uberpkim

Lessons learned, phone returned, and I got what I wanted out of my uberX experience — a look into the collaborative economy from the driver’s seat.

uberX service at SXSW starts today at 5 pm

Uber ATX

As an analyst, I’ve always valued the perspective of firsthand experience. So next week I’ll be an active participant in the collaborative economy during SXSW in Austin: I’ve registered as an uberX driver.

Users get free rides, as Uber doesn’t officially operate in ATX yet. So you might call for an Uber and get me to show you around! Just don’t ask me to drive you to Driftwood or Round Rock.

Service starts at 5pm on Thu 6 Mar and ends at 3pm on Sun 16 Mar. I predict that once people hear the phrase “free rides” there will be much more rider demand than driver supply.

And of course if you need to sign up for Uber, I’d be happy to refer you to sign up: http://uber.com/invite/esu88

SXSW 2014: Capital vs. Talent

Since returning to Dachis Group earlier this year, I’ve been focusing on internal operations and consulting with a select group of clients, leaving little time for publishing thought leadership. However, one event I’ve always enjoyed participating in has been SXSW, where I’ve spoken for the past five years.

SXSW 2013 Book Signing

The 2014 SXSW PanelPicker is live and the session I’ll prepare and present is “Capital vs. Talent.” I’ve been watching the rise of social media and its impact on business for about seven years and issues of power and control are far from resolved. In fact, while social technologies may be new in the workplace, organizational dynamics are the same as they ever were.

Here’s a full description of what I’ll discuss:

The Next Battleground of Capital vs. Talent: Social Business

Since the Industrial Revolution, every business has been forced to manage a fundamental internal conflict between individuals who control the means of production and individuals who operate those means to a profit. Roger Martin outlined how this struggle originated in the 18th century and persists today in the 2003 Harvard Business Review article “Capital Versus Talent: The Battle That’s Reshaping Business.”

As we progress deeper into the 21st century, businesses are still struggling with the ever-shifting balance of power, albeit with a new dimension: the rise of social media. 72% of US online adults are social networking site users, creating indelible change in personal technology use and interpersonal relationships which inevitably impact professional operations. In the early days of corporate social media adoption, individuals like Robert Scoble gained global recognition by using emerging channels to share insider viewpoints with the world — Martin’s Talent had discovered new tools to gain advantage over Capital. Management reacted by putting policies in place, trying to quell the rise of a workforce filled with “personal brands.” These policies have now come under scrutiny, leaving employers wondering what defenses remain to mitigate the risks of an employee base that is active in social media.

The best solution for Capital in this case is counterintuitive — brands are best off by wholly embracing social business. By intimately understanding the dynamics of social engagement and leveling the conversation landscape among customers and employees, management can harness the collective efforts of seemingly self-guided individuals for corporate gain. The potential benefit: McKinsey estimates that productivity increases of 20 to 25 percent are achievable, along with $1.3 trillion in value that could be unlocked within four key industries alone. Managers would be wise to recognize the value creation opportunity inherent in social business and potentially stabilize the long-lasting tension between Capital and Talent.

If you’d be interested in hearing more about this, the session has been included in SXSW Interactive’s 2014 programing in a “core conversation” format. See you there!




SXSWi 2011: Your Turn

I’ve spent a week sharing panel proposals from Dachis Group based on our experience.

I’ll end with two final ideas for you to consider:

Now it’s your turn. What panels should we be attending next spring? Leave a comment below with a reason and a link.


SXSWi 2011: The Biz of Buzz

Kate Niederhoffer joined Dachis Group early on, having built up Nielsen Buzzmetrics, one of the most important service companies in the early social computing market. She intends to share her knowledge through the South by Southwest 2011 panel The Biz of Buzz.

Her thoughts in brief: What do we know from being in the business of buzz since the early days? What can we learn about where we are going by analyzing trends from way back when Listening was referred to as social media monitoring to today where social media is primarily a vehicle for personal brand-building and promotion? With a combined 21 years working in social media and monitoring “buzz” these panelists have learned to separate the hype from the truth and will share top trends and lessons learned from working in the trenches of emerging media.

Kate’s session will address these questions:

  1. How do social media monitoring tools/ listening platforms really differ?
  2. What are the top themes in social media that have emerged over the past 6 years?
  3. Are things like engagement and influence really possible to capture?
  4. How do you rely on social media to make business decisions?
  5. Which social media metrics are meaningful?

If that sounds interesting to you, I encourage you to give a thumbs up toThe Biz of Buzz.


SXSWi 2011: Activating Business Social Graphs

Peter Fasano is a Dachis Group engagement manager with deep experience in making social business work for big brands. Like The Coca-Cola Company.

Peter’s panel proposal is In the Hive – Activating Business Social Graphs. Let me know if this sounds familiar:

The state of now for you is a game of whack-a-mole. You are looking for a future state of scalability for you, your team and your business. Social Media Marketing, Servicing or Communications has matured through your enterprise and so must your integrated approach to becoming a socially calibrated business. Your internal band of rockstar marketers, service agents or PR teams have risen from the early days of passionate workers and social media hobbyists to the formal or informal social media leadership of your organization.

You have engaged your community on nights and weekends to meet their growing demands and growing numbers. Your social outposts have grown to include private or public communities, social networking sites, blogs and the works. Your communities are diverse and have moved from self-policed to moderated. Communities have moved beyond your “official outposts” to Twitter posts, blogs, or YouTube channels about your business – to keep up with the growing voices you have now activated Listening Services to keep track of conversation on your “owned” social outlets and then to the “outside” voices. Your efforts have earned additional resources and the attention of the Marketing or PR teams that want to push messages through status updates.

Has the organic collection of people, process and technology reached its limits?

Peter’s panel will address these questions:

  1. Does your org chart map to your knowledge chart?
  2. How to identify and map your knowledge centers?
  3. What are the incentives needed to activate your business graph?
  4. How do you optimize information flow through the enterprise?
  5. What is the business justification for this resource shift?

To learn more, give a thumbs up to In the Hive – Activating Business Social Graphs.


SXSWi 2011: Collaboration at Work

We’re spending more and more time using social tools for personal entertainment and productivity. So what about work?

Dachis Group’s head of partnerships Bryan Menell has proposed a panel for South by Southwest 2011, titled Work Should Be Social Too. Bryan works with our technology partners and a fundamental element of social business design is the belief that communication should happen as work, not for work.

Here’s what Bryan will cover: Collaborating with friends is easy with today’s public social tools. They require no training, and make the fun things in your life seamless to organize. So why is it more difficult at work? Join us for a panel consisting of executives from some of the leading collaborative tool companies, as we discuss some real corporate case studies, and the social barriers to sharing at work.

His panel will address these questions, answered by the experts:

  1. What is the business case for being more social?
  2. What other businesses have seen benefits from enterprise social tools?
  3. What social technologies have crossed over from consumer to the enterprise?
  4. How can you pitch your superiors on embracing social tools?
  5. What are the people issues surrounding social adoption at work?

If that sounds interesting to you, I encourage you to give a thumbs up to Work Should Be Social Too.


SXSWi 2011: Social Media Policy

You’re not still using a social media policy that you found on the internet and ran a find-and-replace using your company name, are you?

From our work over the past two years, I can tell you that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to social media policy. Based on our client advisory work, Ellen Reynolds and Kate Rush Sheehy are proposing a panel for South by Southwest 2011, called How Social Policies Affect Company Culture. If selected, Ellen and Kate will share their experiences with you that they’ve gained across multiple client engagements while assisting with policy creation and launch.

They will cover:

  • The importance of having a defined social media policy.
  • The non-negotiable points that all social media policies must cover.
  • How to successfully create, approve and enforce your social media policy.
  • The importance of accurately reflecting your unique company culture in your policy, and how to use your policy to encourage the right level of internal and external participation.

They’ll answer these questions from a client-side perspective:

  1. What information must my social media policy cover?
  2. Who should be involved in the creation and approval process?
  3. How can I make sure my social policy is a good fit for my company/company culture?
  4. How do I make sure that my policy is encouraging participation rather than hindering it?
  5. How often do I need to revisit my policy?

If that sounds interesting to you, I encourage you to give a thumbs up to How Social Policies Affect Company Culture.