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Pedal to the metal: the SXSW Startup Accelerator

One of the more eye-popping statistics to come out of the SXSW Accelerator is that, between 2009 and 2015, over 63 per cent of the 305 companies who participated received funding — with the combined funding in excess of $2.6bn. Another nifty nugget is that 13 per cent of those companies have been acquired by serious heavyweights including Google, British Telecom, Huffington Post, Apple, Live Nation, OpenTable, Constant Contact, and Harmon.

This year, the competition should, once again, be highly competitive. Chris Valentine, event producer for programs including SXSW Startup Village, SXSW Startup Austin and SXSW Accelerator, has seen a significant evolution from the first year — with the whole of his work taking on a decidedly international flare.

“Think of SXSW as a company first,” said Valentine. “As a company grows, very much like any company, at some point the way that you grow your base is through going global.”

Valentine, equal parts an “expert” and “student” of the startup world, has observed the exciting opportunities at other global events — which has helped inform the future of the SXSW Accelerator.

“I go to about fifteen to twenty conferences every year,” noted Valentine. “I find myself more and more going outside the US. I went to Dublin Web Summit. I went to London Tech Week. When I started going to more global events, I was able to see more of this technology ecosystem first-hand.”

By looking at different markets and their specialties, like financial technology in London and fashion technology in Paris, Valentine has a keen understanding of how the startup world moves around the globe.

“Of course, people think Silicon Valley first,” said Valentine. “But there are truly amazing things happening in places like Tel Aviv. We’re all hearing about these emerging powerhouses, but to be able to see and experience it — and to have companies and people like that in Austin is a great opportunity.”

The startup world continues to explode. Though there tends to be more pressure from investors to scale or sell due to economic uncertainty, a quality idea could break through. However, Valentine noted a comment he once heard from a billionaire investor that he said points to the single most critical component to startup success that can be overlooked.

“At one SXSW Accelerator he said, ‘I want to invest in five of the 18 companies that pitched in front of me today,’” said Valentine. “Obviously, that’s a great thing to hear — but he underscored it by saying, ‘I invest in people, people, people.’ So an idea is a great thing. But a good idea, plus a good plan, plus good people? That’s truly powerful.”

Investors and the C-suite also give Valentine high marks for the overall quality of the competitors.

“I'm on site and I can't tell you how many times investors and executives or entities track me down and say, ‘Oh my gosh, where are you finding these companies? The quality…,” said Valentine. “To me, that's nice validation of what I just spent the last year doing.”

As for this year, Valentine is very optimistic about some of the new innovations that are likely to get the spotlight at SXSW, especially Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality (ARVR).

“I think that ARVR has grabbed us quicker than we thought,” noted Valentine. “Sometimes when it’s ‘the next big thing,’ it can take three to five years. I feel like ARVR has been out for a while, but it really kind of grabbed us just the last couple of years.”

Though the tech and startup world moves at a dizzying pace, Valentine has likely hit on a way to make it all much more manageable and easier for attendees to absorb,by centralizing the 132 sessions (including Scott Cook, founder of Intuit Inc. and Mark Cuban, Shark Tank star and Owner of Dallas Mavericks) in the Startup Village.

“Attending SXSW takes time and resources,” said Valentine. “There’s obviously a lot going on in a number of places, but if you’re interested in the startup ecosystem, I wanted to ensure that we not only have strong programming, but a good base of operation for people to enjoy throughout the week.”

Doug Zanger

I am the North America editor for The Drum. A geographic mutt, I was born in Minnesota (lived outside of Minneapolis until I was 12), lived in suburban Philadelphia, attended college in Denver and London — and have proudly called Portland, Oregon (and the Pacific Northwest) my home for 24 years.

Sadly, I love Philadelphia/Portland/Oregon sports and Arsenal.

I am deeply committed to telling the best stories possible, to not only legitimately engage, but to contribute something meaningful to the industry as well. Yes, marketing can change the world, and we will always do our best to ensure we are doing our part.

All by Doug