Looking to the future: 10 great ideas from SXSW 2012

The South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, is an annual magnet for business innovators and start-ups hoping to strike it big.

This year’s event, which kicked off this week, may not have been dominated by an emerging powerhouse – as it did in 2007 with Twitter – but that doesn’t mean that plenty of great ideas haven’t been discussed among the 20,000 delegates.

We’ve picked out 10 of the best lessons from SXSW 2012 that you can apply to your business.

1. Early adopters have changed

While no one single start-up has ignited SXSW this year, there has certainly been a lot of talk about Pinterest, the female-skewed social media site that has been enthusiastically taken up by small businesses looking to market themselves.

The business’ co-founder and CEO Ben Silbermann held an interesting talk at SXSW on Tuesday, encouraging other entrepreneurs not to give up by pointing out the site had just 10,000 users nine months into its life.

But it’s the concept of the early adopter that really fired by Silbermann, who claimed that they don’t really exist anymore, due to the ubiquity of technology and information. Pinterest slowly found its niche as female-focused, rather than being promoted by a few key advocates.

“The concept of the early adopter has changed,” he said. “We were building [Pinterest] for ourselves. (The goal is to) help people discover things that they didn’t know they wanted.”

2. Rely on a superstar at your peril

Silbermann also had some interesting thoughts on how businesses often rely heavily on the “superstar” they believe will make or break them.

Whether the skill you prize is sales, marketing or financial acumen, remember that other elements are needed to make a successful business. In Pinterest’s case, technical wizards are merely part of the team, rather than the stars.

“I kind of think of engineering like the chefs at a restaurant,” Silbermann said. “Nobody’s going to deny chefs are integrally important, but there’s also so many other people who contribute to a great meal.”

3. Locations matter

A key trend that emerged at SXSW is the number of businesses talking about location as a key factor to their success.

The buzz term this year was “social discovery apps” – technology that connects people to products and other people through their location or social sphere. The concept is being used by a number of up-and-coming start-ups, such as Aussie business Tapit, and is adding organisation to an area that is currently chaotic, according to the industry.

“The way that we find these people and learn about these people is, and always has been, horribly random and inefficient,” Paul Davison, CEO of location-based business Highlight, told The Huffington Post. “We don’t realise how bad it is because it’s always been that way, and we just accept it.”

4. Homeless Hotspots

Is all talked-about marketing good marketing? That is a question that has raged at SXSW this week, following a controversial stunt by an ad agency.

Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s gave 14 people from an Austin homeless shelter mobile Wi-Fi devices and t-shirts emblazoned with “I am a 4G Hotspot.”

The stunt has been attacked as exploitative, but BBH is unrepentant, claiming that the controversy has had the intended result of raising awareness of the issue of homelessness.

The company said in a blog post: “Obviously, there’s an insane amount of chatter about this, which although certainly villianises us, in many ways is very good for the homeless people we’re trying to help: Homelessness is actually a subject being discussed at SXSW and these people are no longer invisible.”

5. Creativity is a numbers game

The concept of “fail fast” is well ingrained in the US, if not Australia. A great SXSW lesson on how creativity takes time, and failure, was given this week by Matthew Diffee, a cartoonist for the New Yorker.

Talking about how to become an “ideas factory”, Diffee said: “My whole thing is quantity over quality.”

“For me, creativity is mostly a numbers game. If you want a handful of good ideas, you gotta crank out a bunch of mediocre ones.

“That’s the factory part. It’s really hard to sit down and come up with a brilliant idea, but it’s not that hard at all to sit down and come up with a hundred bad ones and in the end, it usually turns out that some of them aren’t actually that bad.”

6. The music industry is at “war”

Sean Parker’s eagerly awaited appearance at SXSW didn’t disappoint, with the Napster founder predicting that music streaming start-up Spotify – disclaimer: Parker sits on the board – will soon overtake iTunes in terms of the money it makes for record companies.

“There’s definitely some sort of dissent brewing between labels, publishing companies and artists,” he said.

“Spotify is returning a huge amount of money. We’ll overtake iTunes in terms of what we bring to the record industry in under two years.”

7. Tackling frustration is a start-up imperative

OK, so launching a business in response to a perceived market failing isn’t new. In fact, it’s probably one of the few things that every single start-up needs to bear in mind when they launch.

But the new ventures that did well at this year’s SXSW Accelerator, the annual competition for start-ups, were noticeable in their devotion to tackling consumer frustrations.

There was Condition One and Wemo Media, which both aim to provide people with an easier way to share emotional experiences online.

For those of you irritated by having to keep tabs on all your social media streams, Thirst Labs’ goal is to organise that for you. And then there’s Ginger.io and Funf Project which allow you, respectively, to check out your health and the state of your environment, via your mobile.

8. Don’t let your social media presence become too corporate

TV star Anthony Bourdain made an entertaining appearance at SXSW this week, explaining the success of his hit show No Reservations, in which Bourdain samples the everyday food of different communities around the world.

A key factor in the show’s popularity, he said, was his personal control of its social media output, wrestling it from the Travel Channel.

“It was a defensive measure, taking over the Twitter and Facebook,” he said. “We didn’t want them to suck. The No Reservations Twitter account is actually me.”

9. The middle man is dead

Want funding for your business? Need to get an expert opinion or advice on how you should go about it? Well, the days of going to a key decision maker to get these things are done are gone.

The rise of crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter has allowed the best ideas to flourish, rather than be stamped down by a single person’s own interests.

“This is the positive form of democratic creation that we aren’t yet used to,” said SXSW speaker Wiley Wiggins, creative director at US firm Karakasa Games. “This new form lets us cherry-pick from a million ideas and send them in their purest form directly into production.”

“The cultural gatekeepers and ‘experts’ will begin their slow sink into the tar pits of irrelevance, and the people who actually have ideas that they care about will bring them directly to the public.

“The death of the middle-man.”

10. We are overloaded by technology

It seems that the journalists covering SXSW aren’t the only ones overwhelmed by the endless talk of tech start-ups that promise to revolutionise/aggregate/organise our lives.

“Many of the technologies we use every day are so powerful that they do in some ways hijack our attention,” said  Avi Zev Weider, whose documentary Welcome to the Machine was screened at SXSW.

“Even though we might have a good intention, you might still find yourself at the dinner table checking your cell phone instead of talking to your kids.”

This article first appeared on StartupSmart.

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