Every spring, the population of Austin, Texas, swells by 72,000 for the world’s largest technology/music/film/eco/education festival: SXSW. It has become fashionable to gripe about the gentrification of SXSW, but my experiences at SXSWedu have been positive.

You might spend some time dodging corporate sponsors, but there are some very real and valuable connections to be made on the streets of Austin. People go to SXSWedu to talk to people they’ve only met on Twitter, to meet potential customers and even to hear from Goldie Hawn.

There is no show floor at SXSWedu, which encourages networking. Instead there are lounges, meet-ups, parties, film screenings and barbecues where teachers, entrepreneurs, investors and large tech companies have the opportunity to rub shoulders.

Here are some thoughts on how to get heard at SXSW based on the hustle of some MaRS ventures that attended in March.

  1. Be friendly on the plane. Ben Zimmer, CEO of Enable Education, chatted with his neighbours on his flights to and from Austin. It turned out they were executives from huge American edtech companies and potential buyers of his product. He has since scheduled demos with both of them.
  1. Get off campus. Social innovation startup SoJo left the conference to visit potential customers at the University of Texas. Austin is a city roughly the size of Calgary, with lots of corporate headquarters ripe for business development.
  1. Apply to pitch. Since there is no show floor at SXSW, companies need to hustle to be heard… or manage to win one of the coveted spots pitching on the main stage Chalk.com participated in the LAUNCHedu competition, which led to a lot of social media chatter and attention from investors.
Chalk.com pitching on the main stage of SXSWedu as part of the LAUNCHedu competition.
Chalk.com pitching on the main stage of SXSWedu as part of the LAUNCHedu competition
  1. Go to the parties. Sixth Street is a perfect collection of roadhouses and bars with music and is just steps from SXSW headquarters. Last year, the Learning Bird team slipped coasters underneath people’s drinks, inserting their brand into the nightlife.
  1. Get up for breakfast. You might not feel like it (see No. 4), but breakfast meetings are key. This year, MaRS hosted a breakfast with the Dallas office of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada and MindShare Learning. At least one partnership deal was drafted over croissants.
  1. Bring an iPad. Simon Gauvin, CEO of Agora Mobile, was only a swipe away from a demo of his learn-to-code platform Vizwik. Letting potential customers play with a real product is more authentic than lobbing demos at people from a trade show booth.
  1. Turn up the music. This year, MaRS hosted the Edtech Canada Meet-Up at the Hilton Austin Hotel. The only way to compete with the wide-screen TVs and hors d’oeuvres at the corporate parties was to crank the music. We got told to turn down the CanCon at least once, which is one of the official success metrics of a good party.
The Edtech Canada meet-up at SXSWedu. The mostly commonly heard phrase in regard to the music was: “I didn't know these guys were Canadian…”
The Edtech Canada Meet-Up at SXSWedu. The mostly commonly heard phrase in regard to the music was: “I didn’t know these guys were Canadian…”
  1. Buy coffee for people. My partner in hustle for the week, Aron Solomon, didn’t even go to any sessions at the conference. Instead, he held court at Houndstooth Coffee and the lobby of the Hilton, and bought coffee after coffee in a master stretch of networking.
The lobby at the Hilton in Austin is where the most important networking happens. Photo courtesy of Mindshare Learning.
The lobby at the Hilton in Austin is where the most important networking happens. Photo courtesy of MindShare Learning.

The reality of festivals like SXSW is that they are what you make of them. To be heard through the din, you need to be as creative in your networking as you are with your product.

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Joseph Wilson

Joseph was an education advisor at MaRS Discovery District. He writes on topics of science, culture and city issues for NOW Magazine, the Globe and Mail, Spacing and Yonge Street. He is the Executive Director of the Treehouse Group, dedicated to fostering innovation by hosting cross-disciplinary events. See more…