Start-ups jostle for attention at packed SXSW

Start-ups attempting to stand out at the increasingly crowded South by Southwest Festival in the US have been advised to use tactics such as interactive platforms, appealing to early adopters, and having people on the ground.

According to Chi-Hua Chien, a partner at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, it has become challenging to break out at SXSW.

“There’s so many great start-ups competing for the attention of thought leaders here,” he said.

Meanwhile, Google Ventures partner Joe Kraus said he advises start-ups “not to use it as a launching ground because it’s so crowded as a place for launches”.

Their comments are a far cry from 2007, when micro-blogging service Twitter drew widespread attention at SXSW after using giant TV screens to flash tweets to attendees.

Since SXSW, Twitter has become one of the most successful social media platforms in the world. Just today, it acquired US mobile blogging start-up Posterous for an undisclosed sum.

Twitter isn’t the only SXSW success story. Location-based social networking site Foursquare launched at the festival back in 2009 and now has more than 15 million users.

This year, the most talked-about company at the festival is Highlight, an iPhone application that alerts users if somebody they know – or a friend of a friend they may want to know – is nearby.

Highlight co-founder and chief executive Paul Davison said he has been thrilled by the reaction to the app at SXSW.

However, he also knows SXSW creates an artificial environment, so it’s unclear whether the product will remain popular beyond the few days of the festival.

“My hope is people go back to their hometowns and start telling more and more people about it,” he said.

For today’s SXSW start-ups, social media has certainly made it easier to reach early adopters who may spread the word about a company’s products or services outside of any specific event.

The use of interactive platforms can help to achieve this. For example, online rewards company Kiip and social-giving platform Giftiki held a SXSW dance party in a bid to promote themselves.

However, many companies are no longer using SXSW as a place to win customers, but as a place to connect with potential partners.

“The top consumer companies all have people here. It’s ideal for relationship-building,” said Cotter Cunningham, chief executive of online coupon company WhaleShark.

Cunningham’s company, which is backed by the likes of Institutional Venture Partners and Google Ventures, owns well-known sites such as RetailMeNot.

Meanwhile, three Australian entrepreneurs have built a start-up whilst travelling on the Startup Bus, which is making its way to SXSW.

Bart Jellema, Scott Cowley and Ivan Vanderbyl have named their start-up Year In Print, which aims to help social network users preserve their digital lives.

This article was first published in StartupSmart.

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