By SUSAN LAHEY
Reporter with Silicon Hills News
He’s told the story numerous times but it never makes it into print: Hugh Forrest became director of South by Southwest Interactive—possibly the largest entrepreneurial conference in the world—because he owned a computer.
When he got the gig, in 1988, SXSW was a brand-new music festival, Forrest was a newspaper publisher and the digital revolution wasn’t even a glint in anyone’s eye. Forrest, an Austin native and English major from Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, had started an alternative newspaper in town, The Austin Challenger.
“The most alternative thing about it was the publishing schedule,” he quips.
He’d started the paper several years before, burning through borrowed money when his father—his primary investor—convinced him that his typesetting costs were killing him and he needed to get a computer. Forrest bought a MacPlus, a LaserWriter Plus and Pagemaker 1.0 and managed to keep the paper alive, despite competition from its friendly rival, The Austin Chronicle.
Then in 1988, Nick Barbaro of The Chronicle decided that with nearly a thousand SXSW registrants, the event needed a computer. And Forrest had one.
“I originally got hired because I had a computer and they didn’t,” Forrest said. “So I was the tech person. And seven years later when they launched multimedia (Interactive) everybody said ‘He knows computers because he has one. So he should head up this thing.’ “
And that’s how Hugh Forrest became director of a conference that has grown like some geek teenager on steroids. What was once the red-haired stepchild of SXSW Music and Film has outpaced both, fueled by the digital revolution. It covers 15 campuses, about a thousand panels and tens of thousands of attendees. Not to mention the parties.
Forrest—who has a liberal arts background–always envisioned the event as a place where a diverse community of creative people from various disciplines could cross-pollinate and birth new ideas, solutions, inventions and relationships. It wasn’t about how a specific technology worked or the latest computer language. He wanted a big-ass salon where geeks and philanthropists, entrepreneurs and artists, social media experts and musicians could create the tools and systems that solve our problems and fuel our dreams in the future. And where they could meet and build meaningful relationships, a community. Like TED, only less expensive, so the technorati who have yet to be discovered could afford to attend.
“That was one of the original weaknesses of the event,” he recalled. “People would say ‘What are you?’” And his response was “We’re a little bit of everything.”
But, as the event outgrew first the Convention Center then other venues, it became tougher to sustain that vision. More and more campuses were added to accommodate the crowds and people tended to hunker down in one spot with their tribes: tech people with tech people, non-profits with non-profits and so forth. That put the kibosh on the cross pollination and forging of relationships across industries. Also as the attendance grew, the number of panels swelled and some people complained the quality dropped…a lot. At the same time, various interest groups started imposing their own agendas on the event. Investors sought the next Facebook, startups hoped to get discovered, companies hoped to launch the next Twitter.
Some veterans of the event complain that it has gotten too big, that the panels suck, that it costs too much or that it should cost more to restrict the size. They complain it’s more of a networking event than a learning experience, that all the good stuff happens in the side events where you don’t need a badge to get in, that the side events are a parasite on the main event and—a common refrain in Austin —that it’s not as good as it used to be.
Victim of Its Own Success
Forrest is familiar with all the criticism and issues surrounding the event. He has watched the number of panels swell and wants to bring the number down for 2013 with the emphasis on quality, not quantity. A few years ago, he introduced the Panel Picker model in which people can propose sessions and SXSW participants vote on which ones they would like to attend. The problem is, many people canvass their friends to vote for them, making the Panel Picker process more a popularity contest than a pitch for interesting ideas. But he’d also like to get to the place where the conference organizers can work with panelists beforehand to ensure a top notch presentation.
“One event I would compare this to is TED. The bottom line for the two events is very similar: They draw people who are very smart, very creative and interested in different ideas. Ours tends to be very open source and particularly with the Panel Picker model, once you’ve been accepted to speak much of the onus falls on the person who has proposed the panel in the first place. What TED does really well is to curate a lot of their content and really work with their speakers…each one gets 40 hours of training. We don’t have that kind of bandwidth. So some presentations are really, really great and some that seem like they’ll be great don’t put the time in beforehand.”
But another reason people might find panels disappointing, Forrest said, is that they only go to presentations within their own campuses and disciplines. Instead of being exposed to new ideas from all different disciplines, they’re only learning what the brightest minds in their own arenas have to say—insights they probably already knew about.
Forrest tries to get people to mix it up a little panel-wise. “I tend to encourage people to go to sessions they don’t know anything about,” Forrest says. “If you’re a social media expert, go to the panels on transforming the health industry, or sessions on government and technology, something slightly out of your wheel house. “
Susan Davenport, Senior Vice President of Global Technology Strategies for the Chamber of Commerce pointed out that, among people making SXSW Interactive a priority event are thought leaders, investors and companies doing new releases (hoping to be the next Twitter or Foursquare) as well as federal officials and health care executives. Their interests are multi-dimensional and often cross from one sector to another.
“The lines are blurring,” she said. “For example people are studying technologies to move healthcare forward, how will sensor technology impact life sciences? It’s where biology meets technology. Then there’s clean tech and gaming and various pieces of that find their way into many different sectors.”
But, Forrest points out, human nature is such that people tend to respond to such a giant event by sticking with their friends and their industry. If all your friends are checking into one event on Foursquare, that may be where you head, instead of to another event where you might meet new people in an unfamiliar industry. Individuals have to make a decision to step out of their comfort zones to get the most from the event.
“I think (Forrest) is doing really a great job of managing SXSW, but in a way, it’s a victim of its own success” said Josh Baer, founder of the Capital Factory. “You have to do things to break it up and make it manageable but you do lose the cross pollination….
Things in life are either getting bigger or they’re getting smaller; getting better or getting worse. What you can’t do is keep everything exactly the same. Then it would stagnate and that wouldn’t be good either.”
Still, Forrest hopes to keep on top of the growth and make the event more navigable. With so many people and sessions, he said, it can be difficult to find the people you want to meet and make a meaningful one-on-one connection.
“Whether that person becomes a friend or you end up making business with them or they’re just someone you can call up and they’ll tell you the best restaurant to go to …those one-on-one relationships are one of the most important things to come out of SXSW. A lot of people come to the event and say, ‘Hey, I met this person and they were directly responsible for me getting this new job or they inspired me or changed my viewpoint on this issue….
Another aspect of human nature that Forrest and his team of 20 must contend with is our attraction to things that glitter. He does a poor job of masking his frustration with the fact that startups threaten to swallow the event.
Last year’s introduction of Start-Up Village, on the fourth floor of the Hyatt Hotel was enormously successful. So successful, Baer points out, that if it hadn’t been at SXSW, it would have been its own huge event. And that’s what Forrest worries about. “What happens if the startup economy completely craters? I’m not saying that will happen but we don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket. We want many different things going on.”
Managing Crazy Growth
On the other hand, one of the many different things that go on include extra-SXSW events that piggyback off the success of the conference. One of the hot political issues of SXSW is dealing with the parties and meetings staged around the event that don’t require badges. Forrest said he would prefer to pull all of those into the main event. But they are a natural byproduct of an event as large as SXSW. And however many are pulled in, more are likely to spring up.
“One of our biggest challenges is to create a structure that continues to foster the kind of growth we want to see as we move forward,” Forrest said.
“Just by seeing the kinds of ideas in the Panel Picker serves as barometers where the industry is,” he said. “The biggest single category is entrepreneurialism and business. There’s so much interest excitement, momentum in the startup space and that’s good. By comparison, one thing we added this year to the Panel Picker was science and space exploration. … A lot of the entries in that category are very, very exciting. There’s lots of stuff about space exploration, big data, mobile, gamefication….”
Some people have argued that, with the conference’s success, they have the clout to invite CEOs from huge tech companies to speak. But that defeats an idea that Forrest loves that—as one attendee commented—SXSW is where he goes to see what will be big two years from now. It’s the birthplace of new ideas, not the celebration of institutions.
While he is passionate about that idea, he has also struggled to learn to delegate to his growing team, Forrest said.
“I don’t want to just be representative of the tech companies. I want to create an ideal world within SXSW where you don’t have to necessarily agree with everyone. The more different ideas you can bring into the event the stronger it becomes. We have to talk all these things out. ‘Hey, here’s the Blank Blank who wants to talk this year. ‘We have to decide, would that push us too much in one direction?”
“We’re not the stars of the show,” he said, referring to himself and his staff. “The stars of the show are the creative people who come to Austin in March and the creativity of the community that makes the event what it is. The organizers try to pull the pieces together. In some places we’ve done a great job and in other cases we didn’t make the right moves.”
On the other hand, the team has created a huge success, for an English major with a computer.
“I always had this idea that I would never do any job for more than four years,” he said. “I thought it was important to move on and test myself. Having done this approximately 20 years, some days I think I would like to challenge myself in other ways; go back to writing more. I do think that when I do step down, hopefully it will survive and thrive and prosper. It’s the community that pushes this thing. There are so many people in the community who care so passionately about this event.”
Editor’s note: WeAreAustinTech.com recently featured an interview with Hugh Forrest in its weekly series of video releases on Austin-area technology visionaries. With their permission, I’ve posted the video below.