If Austin were a browser, these would be my Favorites

A couple of weeks ago, I posted my monthly contribution to AustinStartup.com, in which I referenced work by the IC2 Institute identifying and explaining the model of a vibrant, regional technology ecosystem that the study’s authors called the “Technopolis.”

After a harsh stretch during the post-dot com years, Austin certainly seems to be undergoing a renaissance – an Austin 2.0 phenomenon, in its own way – as one of the great Technopolises in the country. Recent evidence is its designation in the July issue of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine as the “No. 1 best city for the next decade.” Personally, this feels a little bit like the video game jinx where so many players appearing on the cover of EA Sports’ Madden football have run into career-limiting (or ending) situations shortly thereafter.

But Madden-like falls from greatness notwithstanding, the Austin metro area’s recognition as a great place to work and build companies is largely girded by having such a great quality-of-life to offer.

I know from my own experience that our family considered Austin a quality-of-life move, more than 15 years ago when we came to the city. We were seeking refuge from common big-city problems, like crime, traffic, and pollution. Of course, there were trade-offs, like the higher cost of housing (as compared to elsewhere in the South), the sharper divide in racial boundaries and overall lack of ethnic diversity, and the more unchecked suburban sprawl. But, overall, Austin delivered on the quality-of-life promise for us.

And, if you haven’t kept track of the quality-of-life recognition that the city has received recently, it continues to show well. Just counting the first six months of 2010, here are some quick highlights courtesy of the Greater Austin Chamber:

  • No. 2 most innovative city in the U.S. – Forbes, May
  • No. 3 most dog-friendly city in the U.S. – DogFriendly.com, May
  • No. 1 place for young adults – Portfolio.com, March
  • No. 1 local music scene – Budget Travel, February
  • No. 2 best place to retire and row – Rower’s Almanac, January

At the macro level, scoring at the top of those lists is great for the city, but at the micro level, what are examples of some of the hundreds of enterprises and amenities contribute to securing Austin’s top finishes?

Fortunately, Austinites aren’t a shy bunch and can be quite articulate and passionate in their loyalties and favorites. Besides voting with our dollars every day, Austinites literally vote for their favorites in polls, many prominently featured in the hometown weekly, the Austin Chronicle.

In this spirit of naming names, I offer my own, personal list of favorites – in no particular order of priority – representing the on-the-ground micro-ventures that make Austin my hometown for life:

Ok, ok, ok…basically we think pretty much every Austin 6th Street / Red River venue is killer in its own way and, even though the district seems to be going through frequent bi-polar swings – from bordering on seedier, grittier, darker to hipstery, celebreality, pre- and post-yuppie – there’s still no place like it and I love it. 

The “Live Music Capital of the World” nickname may be getting dissed more frequently these days (including by our current mayor, who admits his tastes favor Salzburg and Vienna), but personally I think the 365-nights-a-year diversity, raw intensity, and volume of options is unbeatable.

A Coda to 2010 Southby: Notable Vendors

It’s been over 2 weeks since the friendly tsunami that was SxSWi 2010 rolled over the Austin Convention Center and then back out of town. Among the pleasant surprises for me, that came with the bump in crowd size, was finding for the first time in the many years that I’ve attended that the tradeshow was actually worth the time to slow-walk my way through and visit with the vendors.

I mentioned three of these vendors from Austin (two actually demo’ing on the show floor and one lurking at the parties, due to day-job commitments) in my Austin Startup post last Friday: WhoLinkeToMe, EndlessBeauty, and Austin Center for Design. I encourage you to check them out.

I also tweeted about some of the other vendors and sites that caught my attention, as I was winding down the last of my involvement at the festival, a little over a week ago. Unfortunately, it appears that the Twitter API may have routed random tweets originating from TweetDeck to a black hole. Some of them are still discoverable on Twitter in my stream, but others disappeared – I know I sent them, because in a couple of cases they were RT’d by other users.

In any event, in case you missed them, here they are:

If there was a favorite or two that you ran across at SxSW, tell us about them. And, be sure to register early for your Platinum badge for next year.

SxSWi 2010 Wrap

It was an incredible show this past week in Austin at South-by-Southwest (SxSW). 

In addition to the Interactive Festival, which is rich in its diversity of people, companies, and technologies, there is the added dimension of cross-cultural networking with the Film and Music festival artists and attendees.  The members of the music act Gwar checking in at the registration booth for the festival, are just one proof point of the diversity. 

But, my focus was on Interactive, and to that end, I enjoyed the sessions and tradeshow immensely.  In fact, in case you missed it, my Friday twitter stream from last week highlighted some of the websites and companies that caught my attention from the tradeshow floor.  But, to wrap-up impressions from SxSWi 2010, here are some final thoughts from some of the more noteworthy sessions that I attended:

Embracing Virtual Worldskey takeaway: virtual worlds are definitely on a roll and IMVU remains a bellwether to watch. IMVU has been profitable since July 2009 and is at an approximate $3 million monthly revenue run-rate, finishing out at about $30 million in revenues for 2009.

Just to give you a sense of scale, besides advertising and sponsor income, much of revenue comes from member purchases, using IMVU’x currency, for which 1000 credits is roughly $1 USD. Members can purchase from a catalog of over 3 million unique items and hundreds of thousands of music tracks (with over 12 million hours of music listened to in group experiences so far).

Their demographic is approximately 70% female, 60% at age 18 or older, with 60% in the USA. They have a formidable fan base, with over 750,000 Facebook fans (versus approximately 40,000 in the current American Idol Facebook fan base, they cite by comparison). The success of their model has helped them attract high profile music and other creative interest, with a major partnership they announced at SxSWi with Pink Floyd to license their content through IMVU.

I first wrote about IMVU and other companies in the virtual worlds 2.0 phenomenon last year in my post “Talk to the (Digital) Hand.” 

Running a Digital Serieskey takeaway: SAG (screen actors guild) contracts are crucial, with many producers operating under the “industrial” classification. That said, everything is negotiable and it sounds like agencies and talent are both getting smarter with each new production.

The key culture change item for talent is to get them to understand that digital (or web) series are different than commercials or other product endorsement activities. So, they should not expect historical product endorsement contracts or royalties. Instead, it’s wages for the work and, potentially, residuals in other forms of content use.

Brave New World of Book Publishingkey takeaway: the ideal book customer remains a woman, about 35 years old, married with kids, up early in the morning at 5am, not getting to bed until 9pm, lots of activity and responsibility through the day, family and/or work. Ergo, anything that can make reading easier for her during those quiet, free moments during the day, is seen as goodness for the publishing industry. That’s what’s driving ebooks, the introduction of video content into books (so-called “vooks”), and other innovations in publishing.

Merchandise panelkey takeaway: if you use a print on-demand provider, make sure to (a) get access to the customer lists that buy your merchandise through their sites (providers like Cafepress, Zazzle, Spreadshirt, and Printfection) and (b) take advantage of any customer service capabilities (the more full-service, the better) they have to offer, because that can be a huge, costly time-suck.

In addition to these summary notes, I had some fun doing doing 17-word reviews (an adaptation of the 5-7-5 haiku form) after the Interactive sessions I attended.  If you found them a little hard to follow, I offer in apology this haiku from my son Ben, a mechnical engineering sophomore from Case Western (he allows it’s not an original):

                Haikus are easy
But sometimes they don’t make sense
                Refrigerator

In summary, having attended or spoken at the Interactive festival for many years, I’d say this was a triumphant year for the event. Great speakers, fantastic audience, and off-the-charts networking and relationship building opportunities parties and other gatherings made Interactive a smashing success this year. Mark it on your calendar for 2011 – you won’t want to miss it!

The Monday Keynote SxSW Should Have Had

I was reading the actual print newspaper (I like the user experience) this morning and catching a sense of the audience’s bad karma from Twitter’s Evan Williams’s keynote yesterday at Southby.

Personally, I didn’t catch it because (a) I’ve heard Jack Dorsey speak a couple of times and feel like I’ve gotten the scoop already and (b) that was the only block of time that I could find to swing through the SxSW tradeshow and check out all of the groovy new social media whatsits and whoosits being displayed.

From what I gather, the hive complained (once again) about the softball questions and lack of news in the remarks. Had I been there, I wouldn’t have minded that part one bit. After all, a founder’s gotta do what a founder’s gotta do, which is to get the message out, talk about the strategy, try to freeze (or deflect) the competition, etc. Instead, if there is anything I object to, it is the lack of Q&A of any kind.

I mean, come on…guys like Evan have had to pitch and defend their deals many, many times from much tougher customers than the Southby audience. You get so much more cred from being one of the people by taking audience questions, I just can’t imagine why any speaker – keynote or otherwise – would ever allow themselves to be put on stage without having a Q&A component.

Which brings me to a suggestion about the speaker that Interactive really should have had this year: Jaron Lanier. If you’ve been around for a few years, you may have run across Jaron first in a major public way via deep involvement with and advocacy of virtual reality. He is now widely as the father of the movement. I just finished his latest book “You are Not a Gadget” and I’ll have to say that it is a mildly provocative counterweight to much of the pell-mell social media, web 2.x monetization froth has been whipping up the past week here at the conference.

Here are just a few passages I’d like to highlight that caught my attention (NOTE: page numbers are from the print, hard back edition):

  • The preface (pp. ix) – “It’s early in the twenty-first century, and that means these words will mostly be read by nonpersons – automatons or numb mobs composed of people who are no longer acting as individuals. The words will be minced into atomized search-engine keywords within industrial cloud computing facilities located in remote, often secret locations around the world. They will be copied millions of times by algorithms designed to send an advertisement to some person somewhere who happens to resonate with some fragment of what I say. They will be scanned, rehashed, and misrepresented by crowds of quick and sloppy readers into wikis and automatically aggregated wireless text message streams…”
  • The deep meaning of personhood is being reduced by illusions of bits (pp. 21) – “I can propose such a list [of ‘save-the-world’ suggestions] to the problems I’m talking about:
    • Don’t post anonymously unless you really might be in danger
    • Post a video once in a while that took you one hundred times more time to create than it takes to view
    • Write a blog that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out…”

Interested yet? I’ll add a few more passages and some closing comments tomorrow, but the thing to remember is that Jaron isn’t a Luddite…and neither am I. In fact, among the more comprehensive solutions he proposes in the book are some that would be quite grand and sophisticated – and do-able.

If you haven’t picked up “You are Not a Gadget” yet, I suggest you do so from the local library, bookstore, or whatever digital stream you prefer.

Don’t cry for me, SXSW

It’s been a couple of weeks, but I’m still smarting from the letter. Rejection is something we all have to grapple with at some point, but it’s still no fun when it’s on your home turf. Let me explain.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have spoken on panels and/or as a presenter at South-by-Southwest Interactive (written “SXSW” and spoken “Southby,” as many call it now) several times now. Interactive is part of the larger (barely contained) chaos that is the entire SXSW festival, which includes Film and Music and has been hitting Austin every Spring Break for 20 years now.

Once just a wee musical party that mostly insiders and Austin-ites knew, the strength of the SXSW idea and support of the community helped to create the juggernaut it now represents, as one of the major North American creative events for musicians, film makers, and digerati, with a global reach.

I’ve gone to all parts of the festival and experienced it every which way – as a Platinum (All Access / All Events) badge buyer to a comp’d speaker, from paying $100 cash in order to get into Morrissey’s big comeback show 3 years ago to paying $15 to see an outrageously great line-up of 6 bands over 6 hours (8pm – 2am) including a band whose singer/front-woman was Zooey Deschanel, before she was in that awful M. Night Shyamalan movie.

So, I dig SXSW, along with Hugh Forrest and the whole crew. So, when I got this e-mail a few months back after submitting my panel topic for the 2010 Interactive show on “Controlling Robots Through the Web” I was feeling pretty good. The note from the Southby team said:

This is a very cool topic… something I hope we can do more of at SXSW. I like the tight focus (the proposal doesn’t attempt to cover too much ground, which is a common issue with these proposals). I think the description and the questions are right on.”

For the record, this is what I proposed.

“Controlling robots across the web is fast approaching a mainstream moment. Soon, our iPhones could be controlling robots and biomechanical devices that will have a positive impact on agriculture, security, healthcare, and many other uses. Learn about standards, coding, design tips and techniques for websites & mobile apps, and more!”

Geek cat nip, huh?! I consider myself an honorary geek (mainly because I haven’t coded in 15 years – I don’t count minor html editing, which a man’s gotta do), and I thought it sounded cool. But, as the time came for the first panel selections to be announced last year, the SXSW team was great about communicating the evaluation process, the sequence of panels to be announced (in multiple waves), etc. – overall, lowering everyone’s expectations.

Nonetheless, when the first wave was announced and “Controlling Robots” was missing, I was a tiny bit discouraged – but not too much, because I knew that was only about the first 25% or so. Anyhow, to make a long story shorter, several more waves later, I received the following e-mail, from which I excerpt:

“…we appreciate you bearing with us on this form letter. We despise form letters as much as you do — but, sometimes they are the best way to distribute information.

The 2010 PanelPicker interface received more than 2500 submissions from new media experts from around the world. The bulk of these proposals were of an extremely high quality — and we truly wish we had room for all of these ideas. While we have expanded the total number of rooms we will be using at SXSW Interactive, physical space is still limited. Therefore we have only been able to accept about 400 total submissions. Said another way, the selection process has been extremely extremely competitive.

Unfortunately, your submission (“Controlling Robots Through the Web”) got caught in this numbers game and we regret that we are unable to accept this proposal for the 2010 event.”

Arghh! What a bummer – it would have been so fun to do. With my trusty fellow panelists, like Good Robot’s Alan Majer, we would have been the talk of the show! I had been so looking forward to pulling together much that I’ve learned the past couple of years, from exoskeleton advances to augmented reality.

But, hey, I’ll still be attending the parties and sampling the music. SXSW is the greatest two-week scene of its kind and, despite the voices saying it’s getting too big, it’s one of those experiences you really need to sample at least once. So, make sure to put it on your calendar and hope to see you there!