Visitors, Locals Reflect on Lessons at SXSW

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The We DC lounge at Crave Restaurant, across from the Austin Convention Center, was home base to a delegation of officials and leading technology professionals from Washington, D.C. taking part at South by Southwest. Photo by Edmond Ortiz

The We DC lounge at Crave Restaurant, across from the Austin Convention Center, was home base to a delegation of officials and leading technology professionals from Washington, D.C. taking part at South by Southwest. Photo by Edmond Ortiz

Another year of South by Southwest has come and gone. Music, technology, and cinema enthusiasts and journalists – along with hundreds of sponsors and attending businesses, big and small – remain in Austin, dramatically swelling the size of population, traffic, and parking challenges in and around the downtown area.

San Antonio, at least unofficially, has been well represented in this year’s South by Southwest by a handful of startups, established ventures, and other individuals involved in various local tech and cinematic fields. Local musicians from an array of genres have participated in official or unofficial South by Southwest showcases and parties.

Panel discussions and presentations involving San Antonians this year stressed themes of collaboration, foresight, critical thinking, and equipping one’s self to be a creator of technology, instead of just being a consumer.

One presentation was about Café Commerce, the unique one-stop shop at the San Antonio Public Library for entrepreneurs and small businesses, and a Café Commerce program, Break Fast and Launch, which helps boost culinary enterprises.

Café Commerce President Peter French, chatted with local technology media consultant Alan Weinkrantz. According to French, the private/public partnership, with support from LiftFund (formerly Accion Texas), is meant to aid fledgling businesses, tech-based or not.

“We want to eliminate inefficiencies for small business owners,”French said. “When you’re starting up, you’re an entrepreneur. When you own/manage a business, that’s different.”

A South by Southwest panel about San Antonio’s Break Fast and Launch, the nation’s first culinary accelerator, involved (from left) Blake Yeager of Techstars, Jody Bailey Newman of The Friendly Spot, Celina Pena of Liftfund, and Ryan Salts, the accelerator’s director. Photo by Edmond Ortiz

A South by Southwest panel about San Antonio’s Break Fast and Launch, the nation’s first culinary accelerator, involved (from left) Blake Yeager of Techstars, Jody Bailey Newman of The Friendly Spot, Celina Pena of Liftfund, and Ryan Salts, the accelerator’s director. Photo by Edmond Ortiz

French mentioned fellow local presenter Jody Bailey Newman, who mentors aspiring entrepreneurs at the 10,000-square-foot Café Commerce space at the Central Library branch and Café Commerce activities around downtown. French praised Jody and husband, Steve, for being efficient owners, operators, and partners at four successful downtown culinary businesses: The Friendly Spot, Alamo Street Eat Bar, Tuk Tuk Taproom, and B&D Ice House.

“But if you’re running out and about around town just trying to get help for your business, that’s bad. If you’re not there (personally at your business), nothing good is happening,” French added.

Jody Newman shared her tips on considering all aspects of launching a culinary business during the Break Fast and Launch panel with fellow San Antonians, program director Ryan Salts, Blake Yeager of Techstars, and Celina Pena with LiftfFund.

“The benefits and rewards are easy to dream about, but we had to have the hard conversation,” Newman said, referring to considering potential negative situations such as an employee stealing from the business, or simply losing everything in such a venture.

Melanie Mendez-Gonzales, owner/creator of the Que Means What blog, offered insight in a panel about how Latina moms are raising the next generation of coders. She acknowledged a current lack of awareness toward how technology can help parents, especially Latinos, better equip their children for the future.

“I often tell my boys you can play your video games, but pay attention because one day you could be developing and creating those games,” said Mendez-Gonzales.

Melanie Mendez-Gonzales, owner/creator of the local Que Means What blog, shared her experience of being a Latina parent teaching her children the importance of learning about technology, and related fields, at an early age. Photo by Edmond Ortiz

Melanie Mendez-Gonzales, owner/creator of the local Que Means What blog, shared her experience of being a Latina parent teaching her children the importance of learning about technology, and related fields, at an early age. Photo by Edmond Ortiz

Julie Hoshizaki, a game design professor from Northwest Vista College, echoed those sentiments while on a panel with former video game programmers from Mattel/Intellivision. She said students in one of her recent capstone series classes decided to pull an all-nighter for their final project – creating and designing a game – even though it was not a requirement. The students want to see what the real world has to offer after college.

“I want all my students to be programmers and designers,” Hoshizaki added.

Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-San Antonio) talked with Sony Pictures Television President Steve Mosko, about future ways of creating and distributing cinematic and television content. After the panel, Castro said the new media landscape offers lessons to San Antonio, within and outside of South by Southwest, for boosting both individuals and businesses involved in these industries.

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, right, (D-San Antonio) talks with Sony Pictures Television President Steve Mosko about the future of viewing at South by Southwest. Photo by Edmond Ortiz

U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro, right, (D-San Antonio) talks with Sony Pictures Television President Steve Mosko about the future of viewing at South by Southwest. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

“The growth of television and film production in Texas and in San Antonio is something to take note of, and something I want to stay atop of,” Castro said. “South by Southwest will always be in Austin, but if there can be a way San Antonio can do a concerted effort to supplement activities in Austin, during SXSW, that would benefit San Antonio.”

Other San Antonio businesses networked during the festival’s interactive portion, including The Social Being and startup Help Social. Another local startup, SpaceCadet, used the Tailgate Bistro‘s food truck to cross-market their ventures at 7th and Trinity streets.

To this end, there are always news reports, social media posts, and even snarky signs popping up around downtown Austin, featuring people’s varying feelings about the annual festival. Even among many Austinites, there are complaints in these reports – traffic congestion, lack of parking space, inflated lodging pricing, all day crowds – just as there is praising of the benefits that accompany South by Southwest.

Kriston Capps, a staff writer at CityLab, wrote a piece last week to the effect that, while large-scale popular events such as South by Southwest and Austin City Limits Festival offer inconveniences around Austin’s central core, they are relatively minor compared with the daily struggle – lack of infrastructure improvements, and zoning and transit issues that have yet to catch up with Austin’s population boom.

“For residents of a small town that’s turned big city practically overnight, the problem is that living in Austin is like dealing with Southby every day,” Capps wrote.

Still, locals feel South by Southwest is worth the trouble.

“I do wish we had a better public transportation system so that it wasn’t nearly impossible to get downtown,” Melissa Monreal commented on a BuzzFeed piece about what Austinites really think about South by Southwest. “But I get why people love it here, and want to come.”

The same sentiment – excitement for South by – even applies to official visiting delegations such as the one that Washington, D.C. sent to Austin for this year’s festival. The District of Columbia government spent $350,000 in taking over Crave Restaurant, across from the Austin Convention Center, for a few days.

Washington, D.C. has been officially represented previously at South by Southwest, but increased funding for this year’s visit with a bolstered presence involving representatives sporting “We DC” shirts, reflecting the district’s formal South by Southwest brand. Rene Dominguez, director of the San Antonio Economic Development Department said in a recent Rivard Report article that the city is planning to have an official presence at South by Southwest next year.

In the end, locals such as Chris Meeks and Andrew Willard feel the festival is worth all the trouble, even if it seems like one big, sprawling shindig.

“South by Southwest Interactive isn’t a place you come to learn about important issues in the tech industry or beyond, it’s a place you come to be marketed to,” said Meeks, creative director at the Austin startup Djed.

“Anybody who spends $1,000 on a badge and expects to learn how to be better at their jobs, even if they already care about their jobs, will be disappointed. I think it’s still outstanding for networking if you’re getting into the industry, getting your feet wet, and learning more about it. There’s probably no better conference at doing that. Anything beyond that, it just becomes a party.”

Willard has lived in Austin a few years and is a previous member of the South by Southwest volunteer staff.

“SXSW is still a showcase for all the awesome things Austin has to offer,” he said. “It brings a lot of money into the community. It provides opportunity to make money whereas such an opportunity may not exist elsewhere.”

Stephen Kreher, senior director of economic development for the Austin Chamber of Commerce, said any conversation positing that South by Southwest has become too big, sells short the strengths of Austin.

“South by has been an incredible thing for the city. It has brought so much business to Austin. I think it’s something where South by and Austin define each other,” he said.

Willard deviates slightly from Kreher in this regard.

“Austin defines South by Southwest. I don’t think it would feel the same in any other city. Austin is a large city but it still has a small town vibe.”

*Featured/top image: The We DC lounge at Crave Restaurant, across from the Austin Convention Center, was home base to a delegation of officials and leading technology professionals from Washington, D.C. taking part at South by Southwest. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

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