South by Southwest, or SxSW in digital parlance, is a major annual draw for entrepreneurs, techies, music fans, and movie critics alike. The Austin conference and festival didn't start that way, however; it came from humble beginnings in 1987, when it was simply a music festival that attracted 700 people, nearly five times more attendees than the organizers' expected.

Today, however, SxSW bills itself as a festival that "celebrates the convergence of the interactive, film, and music industries" and "foster[s] creative and professional growth." In 2017, the festival reported a total attendance of more than 167,000 people. The evolution and growth of SxSW from 1987 to 2018 was no accident, and it holds some major lessons for entrepreneurs who want to grow their brands into successful businesses. Here are four lessons to keep in mind as SxSW 2018 kicks off.

1. The importance of adaptability

The first lesson of SxSW's evolution is crucial: Adaptability is absolutely essential to the success of any venture. Imagine if the organizers of SxSW had simply stuck to the original model: We are a music festival, and a music festival alone.

Luckily for SxSW, that was never the only idea; the organizers -- Roland Swenson, Louis Jay Meyers, Louis Black, and Nick Barbaro -- always had great respect for the arts and fostering new ideas. SxSW's uniting factor was music, but this passion was the bedrock of the festival.

And as a result, SxSW grew and changed over the years. Ever true to its mission to shine a light on creative communities that were largely overlooked, SxSW found new ways to accommodate more and more innovative thinkers and doers. By 1994, the festival included interactive media and film, the first true departure from the music-centric approach the founders began with.

2. Scaling with purpose

Lesson number one also sheds light on another great insight from SxSW's success: It's important to scale your enterprise with purpose. SxSW's adaptability wasn't accidental or reactive; it was a series of purposeful moves meant to unite disparate communities in a common conference.

After the addition of interactive media and film in the '90s, the internet grew by leaps and bounds. This opened new doors to SxSW, which incorporated digital communities into the conference and festival as well, even before they were part of the modern world's everyday life. The key here is that SxSW organizers saw value toward their own mission in the digital communities, and so purposefully moved to accommodate them to that end. Such a move demonstrated great foresight toward SxSW's larger purpose.

As SxSW's own website puts it: "The event has changed in many surprising and meaningful ways since 1987, but at its core, SxSW remains a tool for creative people to develop their careers by bringing together people from around the globe to meet, learn, and share ideas."

This was always the purpose, and each time SxSW grew, it was in pursuit of furthering this objective.

3. Establishing a recognizable brand

Today, SxSW is a recognizable brand, owned and managed by SxSW LLC. It isn't simply the festival and conference for which it has become renowned, but a brand that spends the entire calendar year organizing conferences, trade shows, and festivals. True to its brand, its events are a hodgepodge of entrepreneurialism, the arts, technology, and media.

SxSW's brand is derived from taking these seemingly different things and bringing them together under one roof. It emphasizes their similarities and makes connections where few (or none) existed before. As a result, it sparks new conversations and ideas and generates excitement and innovation. Each of these buzzwords is quickly associated with the SxSW brand.

4. Everything is connected

Any truly successful venture has a plan and a direction, and it was clear from the start what was SxSW's. The three aspects discussed above -- adaptability, purposeful scaling, and recognizable branding -- work in conjunction.

Adaptability allows you to recognize opportunities that arise in unexpected places. It also gives you the courage to pursue these opportunities in a measured way, even if it might seem a bit outside your wheelhouse at first.

Purposeful scaling means that adaptability won't be wanton; it reins in giddy adventurism for adventurism's sake. If a pivot or adaptation doesn't present a clear growth opportunity toward your mission -- in SxSW's case, bringing creatives together to forge new ideas and collaborations -- then it probably isn't worth your time, money, or energy.

And, finally, a recognizable brand arises out of a clear mission and message, and is then put into action by a purposeful and adaptable organization. SxSW undoubtedly succeeded in all these ways, but every business and organization can benefit from following the same path.  

Published on: Mar 9, 2018