Can a Small Start-Up Still Make a Splash at SXSW? Not If Jay-Z Is In Town

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Jack Plunkett / AP

Jay-Z performs a hits-filled set for a standing room-only crowd during SXSW in Austin, Texas on Monday, March 12, 2012.

I’ll never know what Jay-Z has against me or my new Internet venture. All I know is that after months (okay, weeks) of planning a SxSW launch party for our triple-awesome new journal of food, war and travel called Roads & Kingdoms, it was Jay-Z who ruled Monday night, not us. His last-minute concert had been scheduled for the same time as our party and proved too much competition. Proof came the next day when I ran into one of the media types who had RSVP’d but not shown up. He showed me his iPhone pictures: Jay-Z in concert from four feet away, seats so close you could probably smell the Blue Ivy on him.

Don’t get me wrong. I liked my party: We filled the deck of the Travis Heights home where it was held, with broad views of downtown Austin on a warm night. One of Austin’s best chefs, Paul Hargrove, made some amazing food and cocktails, and we had the flatscreens set up to show off our journal’s photography from Burma, Senegal, Cuba, Sinai.

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The only problem? We had a tight list, even turning some people away before the party, but only about half the people who RSVP’d showed. Some of the big names who had said they might come by—I’m talking about you, Tony—didn’t. Ditto with some important companies that might help us create a sustainable business model for the site.

There were a few reasons why the turnout was low–Austin during SxSW is a town without taxis–but mostly I’m content to blame Jay-Z. Among the bobbing crowd in the foreground of that Jay-Z iPhone picture, I swear I could make out the heads of all those VIPs who didn’t darken our doorway.

Parties are this way. I’ve thrown some amazing ones—most recently we roasted a whole goat in a Manhattan backyard—and I’ve thrown complete clunkers that seemed to be a searing referendum on my popularity, cooking skills, or whatever else I was neurotic about at the time. But a SxSW launch party is a rite of passage for entrepreneurs these days, and so it carries a special weight. A week after the party, in a near delirium brought on by days of eating nothing but (exquisite) leftover ceviche shooters, I have to confront the question: As SxSW grows bigger and more hyped year after year, is it even worth it to launch here?

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For one answer on this, I called my friend Seth Frader-Thompson, CEO of Energy Hub, whose launch party I went to at last year’s SxSW. He got a masters degree researching Microelectromechanical Systems, so his responses had a technical bent: The problem with SxSW now is the signal-to-noise ratio. That is, there is just too much chatter, too many companies vying for your Monday night in Austin, and only the ones who are profligate or already famous have a chance of breaking through the clutter.

Dan Rather himself did an in-depth report behind the scenes of Hashable’s launch party last year, which the startup hyped up by flying across the country to generate buzz and find the 15 top users that they eventually paid—airfare, hotel, everything—to go to SxSW and their launch. After Twitter broke out at SxSW in 2007, followed by foursquare in 2009, the dream of getting those vaunted “influencers” to your party has come with more pressure than ever.

Given the convention’s love of all things Meta, there was, naturally, a panel this year about how to launch successfully at SxSW, but it came too late to actually help us. And to be honest, the discussion was more geared toward tech companies that can make or lose fortunes based on how much buzz they can generate. Even EnergyHub, which creates clean-tech systems that reduce home energy usage, stood to actually make money at its party—they sold enough of their home energy kits to pay off the $5,000 or so they invested in renting the space and buying drinks.

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Still, their launch party was bedeviled by a bit of the same real-life problems that we had. In our case, there were just no cabs downtown to take people on the 8-minute trip across the river from downtown. Some of the hardier guests walked or commandeered a pedicab, but with so much going on downtown and every minute overscheduled, most people rightly gave up after waiting for 15 minutes for cabs that clearly weren’t coming. EnergyHub had a different problem: Their was party centrally located on 6th Street, but the bouncer at one of the two bar entrances somehow thought the party was over-capacity even when it was empty, and was turning everyone away for the first two hours. That resulted in a party that was, as Frader-Thompson put it, “useful, but not mega.”

What we wanted was perhaps more amorphous: to talk to people who we already knew and esteemed, and to meet a few new ones. We aren’t looking for investors, just readers. And that might be the biggest proof of the overhyping of SxSW: Perhaps we didn’t need a party as much as we thought we did. The whole thing cost just over $1,500. But that’s still money we could have spent on reporting.

Not that SxSW was a bust by any means. The rest of the week, when I haven’t been too deep into the leftover tequila, I’ve been listening to music, buying drinks for folks here and there, and meeting a range of smart people I’d only ever known on Twitter. Our guest list might have withered away on our big night, but every day since at SxSW has been a kind of roving launch party. Not even Jay-Z can spoil that.

Nathan Thornburgh, contributing writer and former Senior Editor at Time Magazine, launched Roads & Kingdoms—an online journal of food, war, music and travel—with writer Matt Goulding in March 2012.

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