BY SUSAN LAHEY
Reporter with Silicon Hills News
Chris Valentine seems to be everywhere at once in SXSW Startup Village, watching, analyzing, conferencing, counting. One minute he’s in the Hilton’s Grand Ballroom gauging the crowd and seemingly an instant later he’s transported to the Austin Chamber offices (which actually can only be reached by an escalator, an outside door and an elevator).
This is his baby. The Startup Village, which last year was the darling of SXSW Interactive, was an idea he brought to Interactive director Hugh Forrest three years ago. Last year, he introduced Startup Austin—a series of events within the event– to showcase all the reasons Austin is a great city to build to transplant a startup. Ultimately, he’d love for Startup Village to consume an entire block of buildings…like an actual village.
There is a palpable energy in Startup Village. Everyone is hopped up on the possibilities of the new technologies, new companies, new investments. And Valentine shares in all of it.
“I’m so excited by all of it,” he said. “There are so many incredible things happening with technology and I get to work with some of the most amazing, smartest people alive. I was fortunate to find something I am passionate about. I love what I do, I am good at what I do and I’m respected for what I do. ‘Before, I did events but I didn’t specialize. I didn’t have a passion. Now I love to focus on technology.”
He says this despite the fact that managing the Accelerator and Startup Village is fraught with potential failure.
“Because it’s such a large event you don’t get to do what you do at other events, like rehearsals,” Valentine said. “And it’s fluid, things are constantly changing. At other events it’s considered rude if you walk out but because at SXSW it’s actually okay…. The deal with startups—there were 56 at the accelerator this year– is there’s a lot of volatility. We’ve had startups that got acquired, like, two weeks out. Some people run out of money. Some are in acquisition mode and their buyers say ‘We don’t want you to market.’”
Add to that the staffing reality that Valentine works with two professionals, Michelle Murdough—Accelerator assistant– and Maria Alonso—Startup Village assistant—but everyone else on his staff of 50-60 people are volunteers.
And yet, Mudough said, “Perfection is his starting point.” Murdough has worked with Valentine six years on various events including SXSW. She noted his focus on detail, down to making sure each pen on the judge’s table works.
“The smallest thing is something he would obsess over, more than….” she gestures a big picture. “And I’ve been like: Are you kidding me? You really want me to sit and check on every pen? Sure enough, one of them doesn’t work.”
They’ve had their blow ups in all the tension, but over the years they’ve learned to work together when something cranks up the pressure, like today when a pitching team that was supposed to pitch at 3:30 never appeared. Someone had to talk to the judges, the other teams, the emcee and make changes that would all be upended if the team suddenly showed up. Valentine and Murdough spell each other in those moments, taking turns dealing with the circumstance. “He has a huge heart and a tremendous focus on his work,” she said.
Valentine sees SXSW Accelerator and Startup Village as part of the startup ecosystem of the city that has been steadily growing over the past 10 years.
“I love this community,” he said, “the eclecticness, the quality of lifestyle…we have our own identity as far as a tech community. A new wave coming up and we’re different from the other tech communities. SXSW is not your traditional conference and I think people see and appreciate that. It’s so intertwined with the city. More and more the city realizes the value of startups, that they create vibrancies, possibilities.”
Valentine wound up as SXSW Accelerator and Startup Village Producer by a circuitous route. He got his degree in communication and behavioral science. But what he really loved was the arts. When he was a kid he lived part of the time in New York and New Jersey and his parents often took him to the museum. He began volunteering at various arts events just to be around the arts and wound up being asked to run the events. Two years in a row he created a Dancefest with 39 dance companies and 450 dancers over five days.
He was working as a recruiter with Intelquest when he decided to ask the marketing department if he could switch jobs and become their event manager. When he showed the head of marketing his portfolio, they were thrilled.
“People love it when you are passionate and have a lot of energy,” he said. Two years later, he was asked to run events for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and they elevated him to Executive Director. Then he started his own events video and audio company for the Chamber of Commerce and tourism industry, but when the tourism industry slowed down he segued to other jobs. He took on events management for the Busby Foundation for Central Texas for families of patients with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) which he still does.
When he feels overwhelmed by the pressure at SXSW, he remembers the families he deals with who are dealing with really painful issues and it restores his perspective. “People are dealing with really hard life issues,” he said.
But none of that means he lets anything slide.
“This event is very, very important to Chris,” Murdough said. “This one has his name and reputation on it. This one has to go right.”