South by Southwest (SXSW) started back in 1986 as a series of conversations about entertainment and media in the offices of The Austin Chronicle. Ronald Reagan was President of the United States, the Berlin Wall was still standing, the Eurozone didn't exist and most phones used dials, SXSW team members recall. Participants were even sworn to secrecy.
It was a different time. And SXSW is now a different conference.
In 2016, 87,971 people registered to attend The SXSW Conference and Festivals. The event, which lasts over a week, brought in $325.3 million into the local economy, which is good news for many small-business owners, but it also means that the underground feel of the conference is long gone.
In recent years, icons ranging from Mark Zuckerberg to President Barack Obama have addressed the crowds. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and legendary Silicon Valley investor Chris Sacca will speak this time around.
The secret is out.
Many attendees lament that the big names and media attention have obscured much of what initially gave SXSW its charm. So why do entrepreneurs still bother?
"The main reason I go to SXSW is to strengthen relationships with old friends and colleagues and make new friends," says Alex Taub, co-founder and CEO of SocialRank, a social media audience analytics start-up. "As someone in the NY tech scene and running a business that works with brands and agencies — you have everyone you want to meet/know in a 15 block radius for five days straight."
Taub has been going to SXSW since 2011 and has witnessed SXSW Interactive become more popular and more crowded.
"Start-ups became mainstream cool and led it to become more saturated," says Taub. "That isn't necessarily a bad thing, just, you need to spend more time figuring out what is worth going to while you are there."
"I go because SXSW is the main stage of the 'art of the experience' and the top marketers in the world surprise and delight to win the attention of the social media," says Ben Hindman, CEO and co-founder of Splash, who has been going to SXSW for eight years.
"SXSW has changed, but it is actually much more valuable for me, as the owner of a B2B business. Because in 2017, the real attraction of the event are the decision makers who head down to Austin, looking for inspiration and ideas."
The company presentations, discussions and events provide a great environment to gain exposure to new technology.
"It's like Disneyland meets Hogwarts meets some kind of World Fair," says Elliot Tomaeno, founder and CEO of Astrsk PR. "I go because it is the best place to see the future, today."
"It is the best networking event in the country," says Jennifer Sinski, co-founder of RSVPster.com, a service that RSVPs users to unofficial events. As it happens, Sinski had the idea for the company when she was attending SXSW, as she has done for the last 11 years. "I would never miss a SXSW."
Tomaeno agrees that the guest list makes the conference compelling: "It's the brains that are down there that makes SXSW so great. Some kind of collective consciousness unlike that of anything I've experienced before."
A number of conference attendees get more out of talking with other attendees than they do from official events.
"Many folks I know don't even go to the convention center or get badges," says Tomaeno. "Instead, we spend most of our time at smaller invite-only dinners, BBQ excursions, house parties on the East Side."