Every year dozens of brands descend on Austin to show their innovations and ride on the coattails of the festival. This year was no exception. I have already written about Gatorade and their work with sports teams and Sony's excellent 'WOW Factory' but plenty of other big brands were in attendance. As it was the final day I thought it would be good to tell you about a selection of findings I picked up.
IBM was one of the biggest talks with a huge hall showcasing IBM Watson's capabilities with beautiful data visualisations and added services that targeted cyber crime and provided genuinely useful info to groups including teaching and rural communities. The AI beer was a particular favourite with long lines of people looking to see what Watson recommended to them as their most suitable type of beer. All of it was fascinating but it did feel like a bit of a 'one trick pony' albeit a very clever one.
Esurance, Bud Light, Dell, Mazda and Adidas have been in attendance for the last few years and every year I ask myself why they are here. From running a sweepstake type game in return for data, to giving out screen printed posters and lounges with free beer and networking space, to VR experience, to a series of yoga classes, it all felt like badging rather than genuine involvement.
Levis were here for the first year and appeared to be genuinely adding value at their outpost. Celebrating the intersection of music and style with innovation in partnership with Google and Rolling Stone they showed unique collaborations and DIY customisations.
Armani were in attendance pushing their glass and sunglasses frames showcasing a collaboration with five film makers across the world, showing five short films shot in five cities in an interactive dome. The displays allowed us to manipulate the images and create our own montages and then watch the films. It felt indulgent but to their credit they appealed to the intersection of the film and interactive sections of the audience and the result was as you would expect stylish and on balance additive.
Technology: can computers make films?
Every year in Cannes, Saatchi and Saatchi run a new directors showcase and with the 25th anniversary coming up, Team One at Publicis decided to look forward 25 years into the future of directing and ask the question of whether in the future would a director be human or a computer? To investigate this they created a music video that was completely conceived, directed, filmed and edited by a computer.
Culture: ideas are king
Ideas are the lifeblood of SXSW. There is a pitch on every corner, in every bar and on every stage so it was hugely interesting to hear Mike Maples, a prodigious investor and Scott Cook the inventor of Quicken talk about how they assess and come up with ideas.
The first piece of advice was perhaps the most relevant to SXSW, it was the ability to be able to pivot and screw up everything you have done to date without regret.
Pivoting is not always because of failure it can also be relevant when the unexpected happens, indeed this was what Mike said he loves "hidden surprises often offer huge opportunity."The best examples he shared was an Instagram account that started as a location based gameplay but they found that most people were using to share photos. Paypal is another as it started as a means of transferring money between palm pilots, then an email from an eBay seller asking to put their logo on her page got them thinking and the rest is history. Scott Cook shared that Quicken was originally built for consumers but found out that the majority of their customers were businesses using it hence Quickbooks was born.
Peter Thiel said the great entrepreneurs find secrets and then go for it and see it through, the question of how do you find this secret was debated. The answer is to avoid confirmation bias and not look for what confirms your existing beliefs, look for what surprises you, savour it and use it. They shared a great leadership technique, think about asking teams "What have you learned that surprised you?"
In such competitive spaces all companies are dealing with close competitors. Thiel said not to focus on the competitor but instead focus on your customers so you innovate forward. Quicken was given as a great example of knowing the customer better and as a consequence developing a better product. As an investor in Lyft Mike Maples said, his advice to them was to focus on being the best version of itself not focusing on competing with Uber.
When developing new ideas they advised to always focus on the ideal not small changes and used the example of the Japanese Bullet train. They didn't focus on shaving off 30 mins they embraced the concept of thinking completely differently, in essence, don't see limits and don't see walls.
Lastly perhaps the best advice of the session was from Mark Maples who rallied against one of the key phrases you hear a lot in tech, "fail fast fail often." This as an excuse for failure and lack of effort. Instead his advice is to take risks and fail that way - exert yourself to the maximum and if you then fail you know you did your best.
Wild card: don't mess with Cindy
It is not often you meet a billionaire entrepreneur who is female let alone dressed in bright pink, Cindy Whitehead spoke on"Sex bias and $1bn.
Coming from a large pharma background she founded Sprout Pharma to investigate new pharma based ideas. In 2015, she came across a fascinating stat that drove her next venture. She found there are currently 26 sex help drugs for men and 0 for women. This set her off looking for a solution and found that a German pharma company had developed a drug that was billed as 'Viagra for women'. The company had experienced huge problems getting any governmental approval and had shelved the product so she raised the money to buy it and made it her mission to get it through the FDA.
Using 11,000 female subjects they found conclusively that the drug resulted in these women having desire. She took the 1m pieces of data to the FDA and despite meeting all the criteria they asked for, the all male panel turned her down. This resulted in a coalition of women turning on the FDA to even the scales, using #womendeserve. Ultimately she was successful and eventually the FDA passed the drug and her company was immediately bought for over $1bn creating an enormous payback for her investors many of whom were friends and wealthy women suffering from the same issue.
She ended with three bits of advice that helped drive her over the decade long struggle:
1) Do not accept narratives that impede progress, poke fun at the absurdity.
2) Be unapologetic in your mission, hers was "the most intriguing new pharmaceuticals in a generation" (New York Times)
3) Embrace the workhouse to become the unicorn
As you can imagine she didn't retire with the cash she has reinvested a significant amount into a "Pinkubator" which has invested in products that propel female focused companies. A true inspiration.
Andrew Roberts is managing partner at Gravity Thinking.