Tag: sxsw

SXSW Interactivist

I’m a serious booster for SXSW Interactive. You might say, my booster-ism makes me a SXSW Interactive-ist (or “Interactivist” for short).

The reason is because, in my opinion, SXSW Interactive is one of the handful of institutions that deserves credit for helping to make Austin the thriving success that it is today.

sxsw-people saying

Of course, it’s success was never a guarantee. And, if it wasn’t for the “grind it out” persistence of Director Hugh Forrest and the willingness by ownership to take the long view, then it wouldn’t be what it is today…perhaps wouldn’t *be* at all!

Hugh writes about this history and others of his lessons learned as a startup event entrepreneur in the Director’s Cut edition of Naturally Caffeinated. His reflections alone are reason enough to buy a copy of the book!

Over the years, I’ve been involved in as many ways as possible with the festival itself including, as: speaker, panel moderator, exhibitor, sponsor, venue host, award honoree (for the Deweys), registration volunteer, programming committee member, housing provider, and – last but definitely not least – an audience member / festival-goer at the panels, music, films, and parties.

sxsw-cool memories

As a SXSW Interactivist, I try to respond to every survey, feedback form, and request for input as possible, as my small part to help constantly improve the event and keep it great! As a result, my digital footprints are in a number of places on the website…

sxsw-session recommends

For 2016, I plan to participate across the spectrum – as a Platinum badger – for the first time in many years, checking out the music, film, parties and as much of the 24×7 scene as possible.

sxsw-speaker listing

See you there, among the SXSW Interactivist ranks!

Pick a Title for My Entrepreneurship Ebook

coffe-stain-typographyI’m working on the draft of a new Ebook.

It’s a quick, easy read of lessons learned from my years as an entrepreneur…the reading length will likely be less than 100 pages.

Most people that know me a bit, know I enjoy coffee.

So, with that as a personal thematic backdrop, I’m narrowing in on titles that link back to coffee. Here are the top three candidates for the Ebook’s title:

  1. “Naturally Caffeinated: When You’re Addicted to Entrepreneurship”
  2. “I Like My Startup Like My Coffee: in the Black”
  3. “5 AM Clarity: Reflections from the Day’s 1st Cup of Coffee”

Consider this request to be a lot like the SXSW panelpicker, if you’ve ever participated in that polling.

Your choice will comprise about 1/3 of the decision making process, with another 1/3 being close advisors/sponsors, and a final 1/3 being my own judgment call. So, your vote definitely matters!

Just drop it into the comments below, tweet it to me, or email me using the Contact page form. Clever themes and variations, as well as wholly new suggestions, are welcome.

Thanks! And, I’ll let you know when it’s available…should be sometime in June.

MoMA’s Curator Talks About the Future

I’ve been so busy, I’ve not yet had time to share any reflections on the 2015 SXSW Interactive sessions.

Among my favorites was Paolo Antonelli, curator of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

Her keynote, entitled “Curious Bridges: How Designers Grow the Future” was, in my opinion, this year’s example of why I always plan to return to SXSW the next year.

If you wish, you can watch the entire, delightful and borderline provocative keynote, courtesy of the good people at Southby.


Much of her presentation revolved on the notion of “designing for the ‘in between’.” While I may be slightly off in my interpretation of her intent, this phrase seemed to be Paola’s way of referencing the essential role designers play connecting the imagined to the real.

Among the examples that she shared (and there were many) during her remarks, I was especially drawn to the ones that had bio- and nanotech references. This is largely due to one of the Powershift Group projects I’ve been supervising for the past six months, called Nano Global Corp.

Nano Global is focused on nanotechnology-based products into direct everyday consumer uses. These include skin protection, surface cleaning, safe food preparation, water and air purification, and many other practical applications.

Nanotech-based consumer products have the potential to improve the lives of tens of millions around the world. This is an especially urgent need, in the post-antibiotic age we’ve entered, where superbugs and fast-mutating germs are resistant to conventional treatments.

design - 1Back to Antonelli’s Southby keynote, there were several designer-inspired ideas that I found fascinating.

One was the pointy, polygon-shaped structure in the picture that almost looks like a building-sized virus itself.

But, far from being a virus, the structure is coated with nanoparticles that were meant to neutralize pollutants in the air.

In other words, it’s a giant air filter, sucking bad stuff out of the air.

Paola spent a significant portion of her time describing ways that science, design and architecture can work together. Artists want to share their art with the world; scientists want to make their science more useful.

Architecture provides a fascinating third way for these other two to come together in a way that is both pragmatic and beautiful.

design - 3Another more playful example that Antonelli mentioned was Moyasimon’s Tales of Agriculture.

This is a manga story about a boy who passionate about agriculture. In the story, the boy can see and talk to bacteria.

It’s a lovely way to represent what designers are actually thinking about, in terms of harnessing bacteria as worker bees that enable us to build a better future.

design - 2Taking it beyond bacteria, Antonelli closed with examples of the design of living beings.

One example she showed was Autodesk’s design of its own virus, in-vitro.

Another example she showed was MoMA’s latest acquisitions from the Wyss Institute, called organs-on-chip.

design - 4Organs-on-chip are designed to simulate how certain organs work, down to and including the interaction of nanoparticles and the body’s chemistry.

The point of these designs is very real: it is to create new, validated means of speeding new pharmaceuticals through their trials, to get life-saving and other beneficial drugs to market rapidly.

All-in-all, I found it a riveting SXSW keynote that will have me thinking about the possibilities of design, at least until SXSW 2016!

A DIET for New Ventures

diet - hand holdingLast month, I had the pleasure of speaking on a SXSW panel about “Impact Investing.”

In preparation for that panel, I framed out some notes to use for my remarks. In advance, to help promote the panel, I also write a post entitled “DIET and Exercise” based on the notes.

However, I recently realized that I never elaborated on what my meaning was behind the words Demand, Idea, Excellence, and Team that make up the acronym DIET in the title. I discussed them during the Southby panel, but forgot to write it up for the blog.

So, here’s the meaning behind the words. Remember: the context is these words were meant to provide easy-to-remember guidance for social venture founders on the attributes that impact investors seek.

DEMAND

Working backwards – most known to least, you might say – the first question is understand if there is demand for the product or service? In lean startup methodology, this is “product/market fit” – have you built a product that anyone wants to use and/or will pay for?

My Austin colleague Josh Baer likes to say that proven “customer traction trumps all.” If you can show a meaningful number of customers using your product or service, then that makes a decision about investing in you the easiest of all.

IDEA

Continuing to work backwards, if the product or service is still in development, then the next best thing investors will want to know is details about the idea. In lean terms, this is “problem/solution fit” – do you have a problem worth solving and what can you can offer about your product or solution that makes it novel, compelling, and important?

Investors will want to understand your knowledge of the market, your competitors, why you think certain features of your solution produce valuable benefits. They will want to know how well you know your customers and any evidence you can provide that your idea has merit with them.

EXCELLENCE

Short of a minimally viable product or evidence that supports your idea, the next thing investors can look towards is excellence in what I call the small things: these are both tangible and intangible. On the tangible side, how much have you thought about the design values that matter to your idea? What should the experience be like for your users and why? Have you created rough sketches to show UIs, flows, ecosystem interactions, etc.?

On the intangible side, I find it instructive to observe how founding teams communicate, prepare, follow-up and other aspects of their personal style.

  • Do they arrive on-time or are they always late?
  • If late, do they let you know in advance?
  • Do they take notes in meetings?
  • How quickly do they follow-up with you on the notes?
  • What’s their eye contact and how do they show you that they are listening?
  • How do they interact with each other? etc., etc., etc.

Sports analyst and former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson used to get asked why he required his players to hold hands in the huddle. The reason, he said, was because he believed that the “little things” were good indications for how the “bigger things” would turn out.

In the case of his players’ huddles, having them hold hands – even if only each other’s pinky fingers – was a little way of reinforcing the big theme of “team over individuals” before each and every play. The same “little things” thinking goes for startup founders, in my book.

TEAM

Lastly, if the investor has nothing else to go on – no product, no research results, no track record of interaction with the founders – then they are left only with the team. Some would say (and I’m one of them) that, taking all other things into consideration, the most important element of a startup is the team.

There are two dimensions I’d offer for evaluating the team, especially the founders.

The first is a more experience-based evaluation that I’d call the “it” factor. As an investor, after you’ve met with hundreds of startup founders and prospective entrepreneurs, you begin to get a sense of what you’re looking for in the person across the table from you and if they have “it” – the “it” being the total sum of what it takes to go through the startup process and emerge with a product or service that has the potential to be truly meaningful (which usually means: profitable at scale).

diet - connerThe second dimension for evaluating team members comes from the work of a change expert named Daryl Conner and the research his firm ODR did a couple of decades ago. Conner and ODR observed hundreds of successful people and documented a set of attributes shared among them:

  • positive,
  • proactive,
  • focused,
  • flexible, and
  • organized

Taken together, Conner referred to the people who possessed these attributes as “resilient.” To the ODR list, I’ve personally added a sixth attribute of a moral code. Besides the main reason that working with people who have a moral code matters to me, it also helps me to remember the attributes together as a single exaggerated acronym: PPOOFF!

Which, in my mind, is mental noise that is made in your head if the team lacks the potential to stand up to these attributes. If they don’t, well then “ppooff” …there goes your chances of the venture being a success, as far as the investor is concerned.

So there you have it. That’s my meaning for the words composing the DIET acronym.

A SXSW Easter Blessing

DigbyAsh - 3For the past two years, we have hosted visitors to Austin during SXSW. Our kids are grown, so we have the extra room and thought it would be fun.

We take time to get to know our visitors when they first contact us, so that we can make sure that they will be a good fit.

This is mainly because we have a busy schedule and we keep multiple guests at a time, so it’s important that our visitors are self-sufficient and come from a tradition of caring for a host’s home like they would care for their own.

So, when Digby, who hails from Sydney Australia, contacted me with a note to say he and his girlfriend Ashleigh were interested in staying with us, we immediately checked him out online.

His reviews were stellar and he sounded like a pleasant fellow in email, so we said “sure” and set aside a room for him. Little did we know what would happen next.

Digby and Ashleigh arrived on a Tuesday night – him from Australia and her indirectly from Africa, where she had been touring, as part of a year-round, worldwide journey. After reuniting to spend the evening together for the first time in 3 months, they were ready to journey downtown to get their SXSW Music badges Wednesday afternoon.

DigbyAsh - 1Like most of our guests, they stayed in downtown ATX for the balance of the day, returning to our house later that night after we’d gone to bed.

The next day, Digby let us know that Ashleigh had taken ill the previous evening, so they were going to take it easy that morning to let her condition improve.

But it didn’t; it got worse. By that night, they called a health service referred to them by their traveler’s insurance program, which assigned them a physician and trafficked a paramedic to visit our house to see Ashleigh.

(NOTE to self: on the next big international trip, *definitely* invest in a traveler’s insurance policy to supplement regular health insurance!)

By Friday noon, things were still getting worse, so the doctor advised Ashleigh to be taken into the hospital. We did, where they quickly diagnosed her with a severe bacterial infection. In fairness to Ashleigh and respect for her privacy, I’ll leave out the details of her diagnosis and hospitalization. The great news is it appears she recovered fully.

And, that is the SXSW Easter Blessing we experienced. Because almost two weeks after we had originally expected to wave goodbye to them after the end of SXSW, we celebrated a lovely Easter Sunday brunch with Digby and Ashleigh at Manuel’s downtown.

During that two week period, we had the opportunity to get to know two young people who truly became our unofficial, adopted Australian children.

Through many mornings of kitchen table conversation, evening meals together, drives to and from the hospital to check on Ashleigh where she remained under care for nearly a week, and finally a short celebratory weekend when we had a little time to show them both a handful of Austin sights once Ashleigh had been discharged, we became deeply acquainted with two young people, who had grown up halfway around the world and somehow had landed at our door.

DigbyAsh - 4Caring, principled, good-humored, intelligent, curious, open, ethical…I could go on. As we might say in Texas, “their folks done brung ‘em up right!”

We treasure the time we had with Ashleigh and Digby; it was hard to say goodbye when the time finally came for them to continue their journey.

With Ashleigh receiving the “thumbs up” from both her doctors and the insurance company to continue their journeys, she and Digby charted the continuation of their travels across the US – New Orleans, New York, Chicago, the West coast and more!

After dropping them off at the bus stop, we returned to a home a little quieter and less active, but much enriched by memories we’ll have for a lifetime.

Yet, no doubt, ours was just one more, tiny vignette among the thousands that SXSW and our city’s other great events bring to town as a part of the festival economy that has become so vital to Austin. An Easter blessing indeed!

Good Impact Investing Requires DIET and Exercise

BSG logo - smallI moved to Austin in the mid-1990s as part of an expansion of BSG Corporation, a company for which I was a co-founder. In 1996, two things happened that shaped my engagement in community and social ventures for the next 20 years to present day.

First, BSG was acquired by another large services company for several hundred million dollars. Second, I was accepted into the 1996-97 class of Leadership Austin.

Up until then, my only community activity had been supporting my church and the schools my young children attended. Outside of those activities, all of my energy was poured into helping BSG grow and succeed. Consequently, while I traveled around the country to our offices in locations like New York, Atlanta, Chicago, and Seattle, I didn’t even know the names of the streets on the adjacent blocks around my new home in Austin.

So, when we sold BSG, I had a hunger to get to know my community better and was blessed with the means to take the time to do it. After some discernment, mightily enabled by my Leadership Austin experience, I thought that lending my services as a non-profit leader could be a worthwhile way to get engaged in a high impact way.

easter-seals - 75 yearsLong-story short, I interviewed for and won the CEO position (equivalent to Executive Director for many non-profits) at Easter Seals – Central Texas. This is the “Exercise” part of good impact investing, per this post’s title.

Being the CEO of a major regional non-profit (we had a $multi-million annual budget with a 22-county Hill Country territory) gave me the opportunity to see the social services sector from the inside, for which I’m grateful.

The experience was critical for learning the importance of exercising head and heart in different ways. It also enabled me to see how business practices I had learned and considered second nature were under-valued, under-represented, or completely absent in social services.

At the end of my one-year tenure as CEO, performing the real-life exercise as a hands-on social venture leader also helped shape the opinions that I carry today about the strengths and weaknesses of the sector.

Since so much of the non-profit sector competes for social venture dollars, I’ve learned to guide my criteria for judging an organization’s ability to succeed by criteria that are not unlike those of any other new venture I evaluate — non-profit or for-profit.

In fact, I don’t really think in terms of non-profit or for-profit. I think of high-margin, low-margin and no-margin ventures…to me, the financial side of evaluating a venture is all about growth and sustainability.

But, even before the financial sustainability question and its corresponding element, the business model, the four most important issues that I look for can be summed up with the acronym DIET, standing for : Demand, Idea, Excellence, and Team. (Yes, this is where the “DIET” part of the DIET and Exercise title comes from.)

Having been a both social venture leader and in the business of launching new ventures, as I have for years as a principal with Powershift Group, I’m looking forward to going deeper on the DIET and Exercise concepts, sharing my perspective as an impact investor, during our SXSW panel, Sunday, March 15. I hope you can join us and I look forward to your questions and comments!

wannabe_1024pxPS: If you have a moment, and are an educator, a student, or the parent of a high schooler, please take a look at one of Powershift Group’s most recent social venture projects: the Wannabe mobile app. You can download it (free) for all iOS devices, from the iTunes AppStore.

Three Icebreakers for SXSW Networking

sxsw icebreakersSo you are standing in a line at SXSW or waiting at the bar and someone you don’t know has just made eye contact with you.

That awkward moment strikes.

Your internal voice shrieks “you should say something.”

And then, the first thing that comes to mind is “sooo… amazing weather, huh?” leaving you filled with self-loathing for the world’s most unoriginal, impersonal icebreaker.

Later, by the way, to be followed by the second most unoriginal (but necessary) question: “what do you do, Steve?”

Here are three alternatives to checking the weather that I like:

  1. “where are you from?” quickly followed, if you discover you live in the same city, with “oh yeah? what part of town?”
  2. “what’s the gossip?” which half the time gets an immediate reply of “what do you mean?” to which you can define however you want, e.g., gossip about “the best party” “worst speaker” “most famous celebrity who snuck into town” etc.
  3. “how’s the network?” that (admittedly) is a geeky version of the weather icebreaker, but eminently more useful at SXSW, where you never know exactly how the wifi and 4g are going to respond

So, have fun out there at #SXSW2015 and don’t ask about the weather…because, ya know, in Austin it changes every 24 hours in the spring anyhow!