South Bye Southwest

South by Southwest holds a special place in my heart.

Back when I was just a fledgling independent contractor, I met Dan Mall at a coffee house and he urged me to attend. He told me it was a great place to connect with people and well worth the money. (A couple grand is tough when it’s coming out of your own pocket!)

I went, and I’m glad I did. I got to meet some of my personal heroes, many of whom became personal friends. Early on, Dave Shea became a real mentor to me. He helped me understand that rock stars are people too and helped me get comfortable with the whole SXSW scene. Every year I met new people, experienced all sorts of new and amazing things, and created some priceless memories (e.g. #sushipower). I even made some connections that turned into legitimate business (for both parties).

But this year, I’m not going to SXSW.

Granted, that’s partly because I’m leaving AMC Networks and losing my travel reservations. However, when I found out, I was relieved. Not because I hate SXSW. I have so many great memories of South by and I’ll miss being in Austin in March. But I realized something important: what makes a conference great is not about the sessions you take, it’s about the people you connect with.

You can learn about responsive design from a book or from a website. You can catch a glimpse of what’s next by watching a TED video. What makes a conference meaningful and worthwhile is the personal interaction you have with other people that care about the same things you do and are working hard every day to do those things in better ways. Finding out what makes people tick, what drives them to do what they do, discovering their passion and sharing your own—these are the defining moments of a conference. Like life, the most meaningful parts are bi-directional.

South by Southwest has become very uni-directional, sadly. The past few years, my good experiences at SXSW have come at the exclusion of the actual conference. Walking twenty-five minutes to wait in line to sit on the floor to hear someone talk about something that I could have read about online? Hardly a petri dish for innovation. The Gingerman, the second floor of the Iron Cactus and the banks of the Colorado River became the real hot-bed for creative growth. The Pepsi Max Ping-Pong/Air Hockey/Entertainment Complex and the CNN-Sponsored City Block did little other than drive me further away from SXSW proper. I was thriving on everything except for the conference that I paid $750 to attend.

So, on many levels, I’m glad to be attending Greenville Grok this March. It’s a small, three-day gathering of creative folks. You probably won’t read about it in any newspapers, and that’s ok. It’s simply a collection of talented folks coming together to interact—to have fun, to talk about/listen to motivation and to share/discover new ideas. Everything that attracted me to South by Southwest early on basically summarizes the Grok.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ll be sad when SXSW rolls around this year and I’m not there; but I won’t be missing the halls of the Austin Convention Center or the conference rooms at the Hilton. I’ll be thinking about Dave Shea, Shawn and Leslie Inman, Dan Mall, Rogie King, Kyle Steed, Marc Hemeon, Chris Wallace, Nathan Smith, Dan Rubin, Matt Simo, Matthew Smith, Jonathan Snook, Bryan Veloso, Lea Alcantara, Matthew Oliphant, Chandler Van de Water, Phil Coffman, Trent Walton, Yaron Schoen, Drew Johnson, Andrea Rawlings, Chris Fullman, Mark Priestap and the scores of other people I’ve learned from by connecting with at SXSW.