Tupperware Prototypes and Private Space Exploration: SXSW 2013

A typical SXSW gathering.

AUSTIN, TX—If you want something done right, do it yourself.

It’s an old cliché, but one that feels true at the SXSW Interactive conference. Dozens of speakers—and not only tech superstars such as Elon Musk, but also the founders of small startups like Dontflush.me—have taken to stages all around Austin to explain how, when confronted with some sort of problem, they whipped out a laptop or tablet and plotted some sort of solution. The nature of those problems and solutions vary, of course—a Google executive or billionaire entrepreneur can throw insane amounts of money and people at an engineering conundrum, while a few intrepid startup types might find themselves using Tupperware containers as improvised device casings.

That emphasis on entrepreneurialism is what separates the speakers at SXSW from those at, say, the Consumer Electronics Show or CTIA, where the emphasis is often on plugging the latest and greatest products. The various SXSW keynote speakers take particular care in angling their discussions toward that entrepreneurial mindset—even Nate Silver, arguably the world’s most famous statistician and someone who tends to focus on sweeping macro-issues, spent a portion of his March 11 talk on how businesses can deploy analytics in a particularly effective way.

Meanwhile, hundreds of attendees roaming the halls of the Austin Convention Center are here to plug their own apps or startup efforts. Every pillar around downtown seems plastered with an ever-thickening collection of posters and fliers, begging passersby to direct their tablets and smartphones toward a particular URL or app, or at least hashtag some cute phrase the next time they use Twitter:

At some point, some poor sap will need to strip all this off.

SXSW, of course, has a reputation as the place where some apps and services have truly broken out and gone big time—Foursquare earned a lot of buzz here a few years back, for example—but the sheer mass of people pushing their software recalls the recent Onion joke: “New Social Media Startup Launches, Shuts Down Within 45 Minutes.” No matter how big SXSW gets, there simply isn’t enough room for every entrepreneur here to distinguish their platform.

But that hasn’t stopped thousands of startup entrepreneurs from flying or driving to Austin with a dream and a beta on their iPhone or Android device. They’re never here long; and as the Interactive portion of the conference transitions this week to the famous Music portion, they’ll be replaced by yet another group of hungry-and-ambitious types: indie musicians.


Images: Nick Kolakowski