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7 Cool Things You've Missed at SXSW

Ideas, both fanciful and potentially instructive for your business, flowed over the weekend in Austin. Here are 7 interesting bits we observed.
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South by Southwest can sometimes feel like an echo chamber: Once an idea starts bouncing around as the "next breakout concept," it's on everyone's minds, and comes out of someone's mouth in every conversation. We may not have seen the next Twitter or Foursquare, but we've already had a few alleged "next big things" flit by during this year's conference.

First it was location-aware friend-finding app Highlight. Then the backlash to its pervasiveness and battery drain. Next, homeless people being used as mobile hot spots. Then came the expected and obvious backlash. Next? Everyone just went to a Jay-Z concert.

Still, somewhere in that echo chamber, a few very smart people whispered some very cool ideas. Here are some of the big ideas, cool trends, and business lessons we observed, and can get behind.

1. Technology should be invisible.

Amber Case, the co-founder of geolocation platform Geoloqi (she calls herself a “cyborg anthropologist”) delivered Sunday's keynote, and wowed attendees with here big ideas about using technology to help you actually stop looking at screens constantly, and lead a fulfilling life. She's studied the way humans interact with machines, and has developed a philosophy that the things we build should make communicating, and navigating our lives, simpler.

For example, say you're on an unfamiliar bus home. Rather than stare at your smartphone, watching a dot move along a map, you could have the phone could alert you when (and only when) your stop is next--then have it give you walking directions for the rest of the way, and have your home's lights turned on by the time you arrive. Neat, eh?

2. Big brands will pay a lot of money to catch your cool.

Bravo threw a to-the-nines party for peer-to-peer task-buying company TaskRabbit, complete with stars of its shows. MSN is sponsoring the Spotify house in Downtown Austin. And Microsoft plunked down a huge sum to throw a week-long party at the Foursquare lot.

Brand partnerships are big here (consider the CNN-Mashable rumor, for one), and the cool kids are the young entrepreneurs with fast-growing tech companies. Sure, we might be in a start-up bubble, but this is still the biggest gathering on the planet celebrating the allure of finding the next Facebook or Google.

3. Cute mascots go a long way--but rewarding engagement is still tough.

Some of the best marketing at SXSW is the stuff that makes you go “aww,” and the stuff that compels individuals (ostensibly of the trend-setter variety) to broadcast a brand to their social networks. Everyone has seen the massive and darling HootSuite bus. The duo behind Hipmunk has also been roaming around Austin, one of them in a Hipmunk costume.

For emerging brands, it can mean just a little exposure amidst a lot of noise, though. Room 77, a hotel deals site, for example, had men strapped into giant sumo-wrestler suits posing for photos in and around the Austin Convention Center all weekend. The hired hands would jump around, and encourage passers by to take photos to post to Twitter, labeled #SXSumo. One tweet would win a Vegas hotel room.

A few days in, however, only a few dozen people per day—out of thousands and thousands of passersby—have used that hashtag on Twitter.

4. Foursquare is still saying it can make money.

In a conversation with Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley, MG Siegler, a general partner at CrunchFund and a columnist for TechCrunch, brought up a touchy subject: How will Foursquare make money?

Foursquare has more than 15 million users and has raised more than $50 million in venture capital (at a $600 million valuation), but critics argue that revenues are slim (though precise figures have not been released) at the company.

Crowley says the company is pursuing three models. First, Crowley says, the company is targeting daily deals with local merchants--similar to Groupon, but tied to specific locations. Then, there's a revenue-sharing model with third-party APIs. Lastly, and perhaps the most interesting, is this: Say you've been to Frank's Coffee once before, and checked in. But you haven't been back in two weeks. Foursquare is considering letting local merchants pay for notifications that are intended to "resurrect" customers by shooting them notifications with special deals when the customers are in the area.

"We're thinking of ways to accelerate the relationship between merchant and customer," Crowley says.

5. Rick Perry, social media guru (not!) is still talking Twitter.

At SXSW, the technology world's leading creative minds come together in Austin to discuss cloud computing, the future of the Web, e-commerce strategy, the impact of social media, and other nerdy, brainy subjects.

So it only made sense (um, we think) to have Texas Gov. Rick Perry, in the basement of a trendy downtown Austin restaurant, talking social media with CNN's Peter Hamby.

"You tweet ... yourself?" Peter Hamby, a political reporter, asked Perry. "Pretty much," the governor responded. "But my misspellings ... well, you all remind me how often I misspell." Perry says that after a presentation on Facebook by a PR professional named Jeff Hunt, Perry began to take social media seriously as campaign tool. "We watched Obama carefully," he said. "They used it very effectively. It made sense for us to reach a younger community."

Bonus: Perry offered advice to up-and-coming politicians and public speakers. "Always remember the third thing."

6. You can build a really cool office anywhere.

In fairness, this is a little off the beaten path from SXSW, but we took a little side trip to catch up with the entrepreneurs on the StartupBus Friday—all the way to an abandoned mall in a not-so-nice area of San Antonio.

Well, it used to be an abandoned mall: Today, it's the massive, impressive, and highly function-driven office of Rackspace, the cloud-hosting company. Robert Scoble, the blogger who now works with Rackspace, said: We are honored to have you here in our Castle; our home.” (Yes, they call it The Castle.) In the past couple of years, Rackspace has built out the mall's shell into a two-tiered office with an atrium (former food court), giant event space (former Dillard's), and a really fun slide. Christine Lagorio tried it out:



7. Conferences can throw a lot of intangibles at you. Be prepared.

Here's a business tip from Howard Greenstein: Prepare for anything and everything at conferences you and your company attends. That includes the weather; this is the the rainiest weather in most people's SXSW memory. Having extra shoes, socks, and a waterproof jacket is a must. People have taken to calling the event "South By South Wet,” and are using the hashtag #SXSWet."

Also, take registration seriously. “Don't try to get your badge at noon on opening day; the line is literally two city blocks before you get to the large ballroom with corrals,” Greenstein says.  “But it may be better than trying to get your badge on opening day at 2:00 p.m., when that line had wrapped around and doubled back another block.”




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