SXSW is a Strong Reflection of What’s Hot in Austin says Hugh Forrest on the Ideas to Invoices Podcast

Hugh Forrest, Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, photo by John Davidson.

By LAURA LOREK
Publisher with Silicon Hills News

When South by Southwest started in 1987, it was a music only event and in 1994, the Interactive conference launched.

“There was this thing called the Web but not many people understood what it was,” said Hugh Forrest. “What was state of the art in 1994 was CD-ROMS. You had this disc that you could put a whole encyclopedia of information and content on. And that was, at that time, phenomenal and groundbreaking and worthy of many, many panels.“

“We look back at that two decades later and think how quaint that was,” Forrest said.

And in 20 years from now, people will look back at what was state of the art in 2017 and 2018 and think how dumb, stupid and trivial and quaint that was, Forrest said.

This Ideas to Invoices podcast kicks off our second season with a talk with Forrest, an Austin Icon and chief programming officer at SXSW.

An Austin native, Forrest graduated from Austin High School and majored in English at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.

Before SXSW, Forrest held several jobs in the newspaper industry and he started an alternative newspaper in town, The Austin Challenger, a rival to The Austin Chronicle, which runs SXSW.

In 1988, Forrest joined SXSW to head up the Interactive operations.

Forrest has seen the city change from a sleepy college town portrayed best in Richard Linklater’s Slacker showing off Austin as an “Eden for the young and unambitious” to today’s bustling tech center.

SXSW Interactive has gained an international reputation as one of the world’s most influential tech events. It’s been called Spring Break for Geeks among other nicknames.

Today, SXSW Conference and Festivals is a ten-day-long convergence of tech, movies, and music now entering its 32nd year.

Interactive used to be the smallest of the three conferences for SXSW, behind Music and Film and now it’s the largest.

Roland Swenson, CEO of SXSW, had a vision that Interactive would grow to become a huge part of the festival, Forrest said. He could envision a day when everything from music to film to software goes from physical products to digital ones. Yet, in the beginning, Interactive struggled to find its footing and lost money for several years, Forrest said. Swenson said to stay the course and eventually it would turn around and it did, Forrest said.

“We were also very fortunate to be at the right place at the right time on social media,” Forrest said.

SXSW got a reputation as a place to launch a startup with Twitter gaining a lot of traction there in 2007. Other startups to launch out SXSW include Foursquare and Gowalla, an Austin-based check-in startup, that launched on the same day in 2009. Facebook bought Gowalla and Foursquare is still around, but it has pivoted many times since then. Meerkat, an online streaming app, also launched in 2015 and went out of business due to increased competition from Periscope and others.

AirBnB also tested out its concept at SXSW but didn’t get a lot of traction. It only rented out a few places and one was to Brian Chesky, one of the founders.

In 2015, William Hurley, known as Whurley, launched Honest Dollar at SXSW and won the SXSW ReleaseIt and ATI pitch competitions. A year later, he sold Honest Dollar to Goldman Sachs and made the announcement at SXSW.

SXSW is known worldwide as the birthplace of new ideas and that is still true today, Forrest said.

“We strive to be a place to be to come and discover what’s going to be hot in two years,” he said.

In 2011, SXSW launched the Startup Village and it features the SXSW Accelerator competition, ReleaseIt pitch competition and this year, a new pitch competition for Block Chain startups in cooperation with Capital Factory, Forrest said.

SXSW also attracts all kinds of top-notch speakers, celebrities and politicians including President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

Still, there are people Forrest has not been able to get yet. Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape and general partner of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, is one of the people Forrest has had on his radar for some time that he is working to get to speak at SXSW.

Lots of international speakers and startup founders, that Forrest hopes to get to SXSW.

And Oprah is another one.

“It will happen one of these years,” he said.

For more about trends at SXSW 2018 and pivotal moments from SXSW’s history, listen to the rest of the podcast.

Editor’s note: This podcast kicks off our second season. We are looking for a sponsor for the next 30 episodes of Ideas to Invoices, please contact LauraLorek@gmail.com to sponsor. Also, please rate and review Ideas to Invoices on iTunes. Thank you!

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