Hoping to break out as the life of tech's biggest annual party, aspiring Steel City tech titans are going Lone Star.
Deeplocal in the Strip District, BirdBrain Technologies in Squirrel Hill and EyeSee360 in Green Tree are just a trio of the regional companies expected to swarm Austin, Texas, for the South By Southwest Music, Film and Interactive Festival that starts this weekend.
Now in its 17th year, South By Southwest (SXSW) has become known as the launching pad where companies such as Twitter and Foursquare rocketed into the international limelight. After starting with around 700 attendees in 1987, this year's SXSW festival is expected to draw 72,000 registered guests and artists to the capital city of Texas.
With a four-day interactive festival featuring speeches from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and NSA spying whistle-blower Edward Snowden, a five-day music festival headlined by Lady Gaga and an eight-day film festival featuring conversations with Nicolas Cage and Robert Duvall, staying focused on the task at hand could be almost as difficult for starry-eyed startup founders as standing out among the crowd.
"There is a ton of noise at SXSW. Everywhere you go, someone is trying to give you something or ask for your attention," said Heather Estes, Deep-local director of marketing. "Know why you're going, prepare for the event and capitalize on your time there. We don't go to Austin for the parties."
In the company's third year as a festival participant, Ms. Estes said Deeplocal has long since adopted a formula designed to make sure its voice is heard above the background chatter.
The innovation company known for projects such as the Nike Chalkbot -- a chalk-spraying robot that wrote inspirational messages for Lance Armstrong's LiveStrong Foundation at the 2009 Tour De France -- has hosted a panel or solo discussion each year it has attended. Last year's panel hosted by Deeplocal CEO Nathan Martin drew a standing-room-only crowd featuring executives from Ray Ban and Loews.
This year's panel discussion, "Glassholes: The Cultural Dissonance of Technology," has already captured the attention of tech journalists from across the globe and made Mashable magazine's list of "38 Panels You Can't Miss."
Despite being part of an exclusive list of companies invited to host a panel -- which includes the perk of avoiding paying festival badge fees ranging between $1,295 for interactive events and $1,695 for access to all festival events -- Ms. Estes said Deeplocal sets a schedule that maximizes networking and minimizes costs.
Hotel stays are paid for with points and rewards earned throughout the year. Meetings with potential partners are scheduled in advance and word spread about their panel discussions, so by the time they touch ground in Austin they're ready for the first round of meetings.
"For Deeplocal, SXSW is worth attending because many of our clients and partners go. We attend some sessions but use the majority of our time in Austin to meet with people that we may not see often," Ms. Estes said in an email. "Every company needs to evaluate whether attending SXSW is worth the investment, against their own goals, considering the industry that they're in."
For emerging companies such as BirdBrain Technologies, it's fine to attend the festival in spirit only since their products have a physical presence. The company's Hummingbird Robotics Kit and The Finch, a computer science educational robot, will both be on display at Carnegie Mellon University's trade show booth even though company founder Tom Lauwers won't be there.
With the university absorbing the cost of a booth -- costs range from $2,880 for a 10 foot by 10 foot pipe-and-drape booth to $40,000 for a 20 foot by 50 foot island-shaped booth -- Mr. Lauwers said he's thankful his alma mater even thought of including BirdBrain. Savings aside, he said having university representatives guide hands-on interactions of his robotics building kits in front of an artsy, crafty Austin crowd will increase his user base beyond regional teachers.
"At South by Southwest -- especially with the Hummingbird Kit, which is aimed at artistic, creative approach to teaching robotics -- this is an opportunity to show it to a crowd where, hopefully, some more artistic types will be interested in it even if they're not formal educators," Mr. Lauwers said.
Even if a product already has made attention-grabbing debuts at other trade shows, South By Southwest spreads awareness to tech-savvy audiences that can elevate a brand to the next level, said Amey Kanade, product manager for EyeSee360.
The company debuted its panoramic video camera 360Fly at last year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, securing attention from tech media and face-time with potential vendors and buyers prior to its anticipated launch this summer. The product is expected to retail for around $449.
With 360Fly's latest prototype on display at Carnegie Mellon's booth this year, Mr. Kanade says the company has a chance to secure the types of users that can make the product a must-have. Early requests from Austin-bound bands seeking to film panoramic music videos helped solidify those hopes.
"At South by Southwest, the kind of people who attend as compared to CES are more music focused, film focused ... many of them are just the sort of people we want to make 360 videos and short films in 360 to help bring it to the mainstream," he said.
By Thursday, Mr. Kanade still wasn't sure if he would make an appearance in Austin.
Whether he shows up or the product is the only company representative, Ms. Estes advised that he -- and any other exhibitors -- must still work to draw attention to the CMU booth and 360Fly to keep them from getting lost in the shuffle.
"SXSW is like any other conference -- you need to do more than just show up," she said.
Deborah M. Todd: email@example.com or 412-263-1652.
Deborah M. Todd: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1652.