How to make the most of South by Southwest last weekend

I just got back on Monday from attending the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas. It was one hell of a great time, but not for any of the reasons I might have expected.

So, since I seem to have lucked into a way to make conference attendance awesome, I figured I’d spell out a few of the things I’ve learned in the hopes that it will make your future conferences suck less. Or, at least, if you’d like to go back in time and attend this one particular conference, it’ll make SXSW 2010 in particular awesome for you. (I added that last sentence because I imagine some conferences are not salvageable.)

Tip #1: Don’t attend the conference
Pace, who ill-advisedly invited me to sleep on the couch at her and Kyeli‘s house while in town despite their lack of knowledge about whether or not I was an axe murderer, argued vehemently that I should come for SXSW but not actually buy a badge to attend the conference.

At first, this seemed strange and risky. I had never been to SXSW before, and I figured that without an event badge, I wouldn’t know what the hell to do with myself. But it turned out that the best stuff happened in restaurants and bars, not at the convention center. Hanging out was cool. Having to leave that to go sit in a classroom and take notes would have pissed me off.

Note: Charlie Gilkey will vehemently disagree with me on this entire tip, but this is my blog, so I’m right.

Tip #2: Be a huge gigantic nerd
Austin in March is a nerd mecca, a sacred homeland to which dorks amble, slumped, ungainly, bent forward by the weight of their overburdened pocket protectors. I hear that bullies wait greedily at the city limits, ready to give endless wedgies to conference attendees as they leave.

So, when in Rome, be a dork. To me, this meant finally buying a smartphone and becoming one of those douchebags who walks around texting and checking Twitter.

As it turned out, my new smartphone (a Droid) was essential. The first place we went was a restaurant called the Iron Cactus, and so when we got there, I tweeted “At the Iron Cactus. Anyone want to join us?” That’s how I finally met Andrew in person. The thing is, you don’t have phone numbers for everyone you interact with online. So you have to broadcast on Twitter, direct message them, or @ them. If you’re not dork enough to know how to do this and be able to do it from a restaurant, the whole system falls apart and you end up eating guacamole alone a lot.

Being a dork was totally the way to go. It’s how I finally met everyone, because while at the Cactus, I saw on Twitter that people were at Jo’s coffee shop. So we went there, and that’s how I hooked up with Charlie, Carl, Karl, Naomi, Megan, Erica, Marty, Baker, Jeff, Taylor, Cath, and a bunch of other people who will probably think I’m a dick for forgetting to include them in that list. (Note: I’m not a dick; I’m just incredibly disorganized. Sometimes I forget to wear pants.)

Tweeting your location, texting while walking, needing to plug in frequently, and being unable to charge your phone because there are cells and laptops plugged into every outlet? All acceptable and essential parts of the experience.

Tip #3: Make stupid business cards
I heard people talking about getting business cards for SXSW months ago and staunchly declared that I would not do the same. After all, I wasn’t going to network; I was going to meet people for fun. But then Jess started goading me and goading me about how I HAD to get business cards; how could I NOT get business cards, and so I finally gave in and had these printed up:

Apparently this was the right choice, because the stack I took on the first day went fast. And apparently I did it right because Sonia asked me how I got so many of Chris’s business cards to do this with and Mark, the lead developer at WordPress who I hadn’t known before Sunday, gave me a “what the fuck is wrong with you?” look after checking it out and I had to tell him that it was a joke lest he report me for identity theft.

Martin Whitmore’s business card kicked some serious ass, too:

The way I figure it, you’re always going to feel a bit like a douchebag when handing someone a card, because it’s a formal networking move. Having a cool card gives you an excuse to do it, like if you were showing them a porno playing card, like, “Hey, dude, check this shit out!”

The P.S. to this is that on Sunday night, I ran into Chris and he said that people kept telling him that he had to ask me for a business card. Later, after I had given him a few, a girl approached him and this exchange happened:

Girl: “Who are you? You look so familiar, but I can’t figure out where I know you from.”

CB: “I’m Lawrence Fishburne.”

Girl: “No, really… I can’t place you! Who are you?”

CB: [Hands her one of the cards I gave him] “I’m Johnny B. Truant.”

<< UPDATE: I just saw THIS LINK on Twitter. You have to check it out. >>

Tip #4: Don’t network. Hang out.
I just lucked into this one. I’ve gone to plenty of conferences in the past where my prime goal was to find and engage with the people who could most help me move toward my business goals. This time, before going, I declared loudly, “I HAVE NO AGENDA.” I wanted to find the folks I talk to all the time and… wait for it… talk to them. That was it.

So that’s what I did. And you know what? It made it awesome. There’s no pressure to pummel everyone with your elevator speech and to ask what they’re doing even if you don’t care, and there’s no need to go out there and starfuck.

It made me realize how true something that Lee Stranahan told me really is. He said, “Most people don’t have a specific strategy for networking, but when they get in front of someone, they suddenly have an agenda. The opposite is the better way to go about it.”

So what happened? I think I accidentally did some networking. I suspect I have better and stronger connections with a bunch of people now, and it happened because I had no pitch and no business intent. We just hung out. Plus, I took pictures of people when they got drunk so that I can calmly blackmail them later.

Besides, just chillin’ is a lot more fun. I didn’t know Terry before Saturday, but we didn’t figure out how to work together. Instead, we worked out his epitaph based on Prince’s song “1999”: “[year of death], party over, oops, out of time.”

Tip #5: Don’t think of it as a meet-up. Think of it as a reunion.
I figured meeting folks “in real life” that I’d only met before online would be strange and awkward, but it wasn’t at all, because we already knew each other. We just hadn’t formally been face-to-face, but once that was out of the way, it was like starting a relationship on the 10th date.

There were very few people I met cold, who I had never met at all before. But usually we’d introduce each other by name or Twitter username, and we’d both go, “Oh! Yeah, how are you?” That was the way it was when I met Tzaddi and to a slightly lesser degree, when Eric and I ran across each other (albeit briefly). We already had a shared history. It’s as if the definition of “knowing someone” has changed.

Tip #6: Think outside the campus
Since I didn’t have an event pass, literally everything I did was outside of the bounds of the seminars and panels themselves. But especially if you do attend events, make it a point to… oh, I don’t know… commandeer an evil illustrator, a raw foods witch, and a couple of pagan lesbians and play Rock Band until 3am a time or two. Be sure to sing “White Wedding” and demonstrate how well you can do Fred Schneider from The B-52s.

So yeah, my review? It was cool. I didn’t learn anything about the internet or social media, so here are my notes of important things learned at SXSW:

1. Pace is SCARY GOOD at both Dance Dance Revolution and at playing the drums in Rock Band. I wouldn’t have believed it I hadn’t seen it.

2. Apparently if Canadian lass Melle humps the leg of Jeff Moriarty, Jeff leaves with his leg covered in maple syrup. This was a joke that I missed but which Pace found retardedly funny and which would elicit ridiculously loud laughter. Not truly getting the joke will not stop anyone from enjoying it. I was able to get Darren to walk into a room and loudly proclaim “Maple syrup!” and then listen to crazy Pace bellows for like five minutes.

3. Shaking hands over a cactus is a bad idea. I did this with Baker and at first thought that he had a James-Bond-style razor or dart in his hand and almost unleashed some kung fu on his ass.

4. Chris Guillebeau is able to hypnotize people without them knowing it. I saw it happen. Chris Garrett and Andrea might have seen it too, but then again, they were possibly hypnotized into forgetting. In fact, I might even be hypnotized. Either that, or I actually am a goat. Not sure which is the case. Mmm, this tin can looks tasty.

NOTE: Want to hear more of my SXSW antics, and those of Charlie Gilkey? We spoke at length about it in this month’s Jam Session.


  1. This was awesome! 🙂
    I didnt had the chance to visit SXSW, but with your article, you made me feel like i would have been there.

    You got a great mindset and i totally enjoyed reading this, i even think its the first article of this length, in months, that i read to the end, because it was informative and amusing at the same time 🙂

    Well, i really think there are two kinds of business-people, the ones who have an agenda for everything and plan/organize every tiny little thing AND the ones who totally trust on gut instinct. I count myself to do “gut-people” and i think you are one of those too 🙂

    love & respect,


  2. Jeffrey Tang says:

    Haha! Love this SXSW writeup! Only got to meet you briefly, Johnny, but I figure you’re cool because you’ve got a Droid instead of a lame iPhone like everyone else 😉

    Totally agree that you don’t need a badge to have a great time at SXSW. On the other hand, having a badge can get you a lot of free food, so …

  3. Sid Savara says:

    Hey Johnny,

    Sounds like you’re having a blast =)

    I like that line – don’t think of it as a meetup, think of it as a reunion. That’s the vibe I’m getting reading people’s blogs who were at SXSW – it’s not meeting a lot of random people for the first time.

    Rather it’s reconnecting with people who you’re already familiar with online and perhaps never met in real life … or only met in real life previously at a conference, and now everyone is back together. But not to network – to hang out 😉

  4. This definitely seems like a conference I should be going to next year. It’s terrible to read all those names of people who were there and who I talk with and reading about you all meeting up there.

    It’s one of those rare occasions that I don’t like living on the other side of the big drink. (But then I think about the health-care system here, and I relax ever so slightly)

    I’ve got roughly 360 days left to make all the arrangements, that should be doable. 🙂 And practice my spoken English…

  5. Tim Brownson says:

    Last year few people I knew went to SXSW. Ms Dunford being the only one that springs to mind that I knew at the time.

    This time everybody I knew went (I even suspect that’s where the wife was), but nobody told me befirehand.

    I sobbed myself to sleep every night.

  6. Michelle says:

    I wish I would have been there for the weekend, but we were in Missouri from Friday to Sunday. Something stupid like bridesmaid dress fitting. Weddings! /grumble

    Ha, no, but I’m glad you had a good time! I was happy enough to catch the tail end of interactive and meet some awesome people. It was a lot of fun!

    PS: your business cards are awesome.

  7. Jess says:

    So I guess this means your friend Jess does, in fact, know a thing or two about these conferences…

    You’re welcome. Glad you had a good time 🙂

  8. Patty K says:

    Love the business cards!!!

    Here’s to rebelling against stupid “grown up” things like conferences and networking.

  9. OK, the biz card thing? Best story of its kind I ever heard.

    I wasn’t regretting missing SXSW at all until I read your post. THAT’S why you’re a douche, not because of your phone.

  10. Marty says:

    Hey Johnny! It was great to get to finally meet you this week – we should definitely do Rock Band again next time you’re in town. Glad you enjoyed the ‘Marty Money’ – I loved your business card! It’s sure to become a collector’s item. Mwahahaha!

  11. Pace Smith says:

    This post cracked me up all over again. (:

  12. Kyeli says:

    Dude, I have like 500 of those stupid cards on my desk. I’m considering mailing one a day to you for the next gazillion days til I run out.

    I like how you managed to not get *your* fool picture taken singing White Wedding, and how you manipulated the facts to coax everyone to believe that’s what I am singing in the picture. Nice work there.

    It was fantabulistic to have you sleeping on our couch. And I’m a lesbian, so I really mean it. (;

  13. Dick Carlson says:

    I’m glad you finally realized that the hot deal last year was to go, but not buy a ticket or attend any sessions. Unfortunately, that’s just SO 2009!

    This year, the best way to experience the show was to not buy a ticket and not go. That way I had no agenda, no meetings, and never had to play “Dance, Dance” anything.

    I spent my time hanging out with the cool kids at #FakeSXSW and had a ball.

    Next year? I plan to seal myself into a giant block of ice, have Al Gore ship me to the North Pole and not pay any attention at all. At least until my butt gets numb.

  14. Maren Kate says:

    Very cool 🙂 especially the business card ideas, next time I will be sure to go and make those choices!

  15. Charlie says:

    I vehemently disagree, but I’m starting to find myself more and more in the minority. I’ll have to do something really big know and proclaim that I got it from a panel so y’all will take it seriously.

    And no one told me there was Rock Band or else I would’ve lit the drums on fire. Then again, I think that would have pumped the testorene level in P&K’s house up to an unbearably high level and you, me, and the kilted zombie would’ve gotten run off.

    In the final analysis, this is your blog and I get a link, so I guess I’ll need to write a post and say you’ll vehemently disagree so that we can publicly agree to disagree without me lurking in your comments.

    And you’re dead on about Chris Guillebeau. I’ve been a thrall of his since SxSW09.

  16. Sean Oliver says:

    Dude. I so want to apply these tips.

  17. Johnny says:

    @Jeffrey – Great to meet you! I’m a Mac guy, but I hear AT&T’s network blows ass. So Droid it most certainly is.

    Those of you who didn’t go but say you might next time or should have, you definitely should. I’d like to shake your hand over a cactus.

    @Jess – I never deny that you are all-knowing. Never.

    @Michael – I’m a douche for many reasons. Might go to Blogworld, though, if it’s as fun.

  18. Johnny says:

    @Marty – It’s a date! Cool as hell hanging out with you!

    @Pace & Kyeli – Thanks again for the couch. And I was TOTALLY WILLING to be photographed singing, but nobody did it. I’m just terribly proactive with such things.

    Oh, and Charlie? You. Me. Rock Band. Eventually.

  19. Johnny says:

    I just posted more SXSW antics (and those of Charlie Gilkey) in the Jam Sessions. You’ll get to hear Charlie and I fight it out over the whole “should you get a badge” issue:

  20. It was such a BLAST hanging out Johnny! 🙂 I got a photo of you rocking the drums, and it’s posted on my blog if you want to see it.

    I’m so glad we got to be barnacles together and to hang out in real life.

  21. Johnny says:

    Just read it! And I just remembered what the “Charity” joke was. I knew it was funny, but I didn’t remember why.

  22. Valentina says:

    sooooo…. I’ve a year to go or not to go! Sounds like something I should calendar but would that not be in the spirit of things – no agenda kind of thing? But then I also have a year to develop a cool and crazy card, but then again something tells me that the bar for same has just been raised so the plan is to recruit a 20 something mindset and let it unleash its bent sense of humor.

    Great post … enjoyed reading it and just goes to show, creativity and ingenuity rock!

  23. Wow, this sounds useful for other “networkie” things too! I think I inadvertently used your advice before reading this and can think of a few times where it has been way more productive by just hanging out and stop trying to be so… productive.

  24. Johnny says:

    It’s interesting how often “not doing” is more useful than “doing”!

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  1. […] I got to spend time with some fantastic folks, who are far more fun than any people have a right to be. I traded obscenities with Naomi of IttyBiz, and found her to be my profane equal: also not an easy task! I was kidnapped for an evening by Pace & Kyeli to play Rock Band with the aforementioned Nathalie, and the illustrious Johnny B. Truant, who talks more about the evening (and his amazing Fred Schneider imitation) in his own SXSW post. […]

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