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South by Southwest Stars: Where Are They Now?

March 9, 2014

In 2007, Twitter put up TV monitors in the halls of South by Southwest Interactive, scrolling tweets from attendees. The founders credit that move with catapulting the service to its current status of 241 million active visitors. Ever since this momentous breakout, the interactive portion of SXSW has gained a reputation for launching new technologies.

But does the show really spawn that many big hits? Or is it just an echo chamber for hipsters and venture capitalists desperate to say they discovered something cool?

To find out, we’re playing a little game called “South by Southwest Stars: Where Are They Now?”

The interactive portion of the festival launched in 1997 with exciting sessions like “So You Want to Make a CD-ROM?” and “The Internet is Dead.” Given that time warp and the aforementioned Twitter explosion, let’s catapult forward to 2009.

2009
Some of the big hits in the interactive competition were TubeMogul and Popcuts. What? You haven’t heard of them? Yeah, me neither. But a little research finds TubeMogul still exists as a place where advertising agencies and big companies buy video ads online. Popcuts didn’t fare as well.

The big concept breakthrough in 2009 was location services. Two companies, FourSquare and Gowalla, were vying to get you to “check in” with your phone whenever you went to a bar or a bowling alley. The idea was that it would create an endorsement so your friends would be able to find cool places to drink or bowl, based on the habits of their friends.

FourSquare still exists with 45 million members (no published data on how many are active), but is it a game-changer of modern life? Um … no.

Gowalla was shut down in 2012, three months after it was acquired by Facebook.

That Facebook “acquihire” (buying a company primarily to hire its engineers) highlights a South by Southwest trend: Technologies that break out at the festival often do get purchased by established companies — sometimes to integrate their technology, other times to hire their talent. Google bought Weardrobe, reMail and Apture Highlights; Constant Contact bought NutshellMail, and OpenTable bought Foodspotting; all startups that shined at the festival.

2010
This year has a definite breakout star: Siri. The independent app developed by a research lab spun off from Stanford University appeared in the App Store first in February, it got a ton of press at SXSW in March, and in April, Apple bought the company for a rumored $200 million. Boom!

Another interesting product that emerged in 2010 was GameSalad. (Who comes up with these names?) While the average Joe may never have heard of it, GameSalad provides a drag-and-drop engine for making mobile games. 180,000 games have been created with GameSalad, proving that SXSW is more wide-reaching than just pop culture and consumer products; it can be about the tools.

2011
We’ve got a winner! Airbnb was dubbed the breakout app of the festival. Fast-forward to 2014, and it’s delivered on that buzz with more than 600,000 rental listings in 34,000 locations. Ask anyone in the travel industry, and they’ll tell you Airbnb has indeed been a disrupter.

2012
The focus this year was on social discovery: apps that use the location information on your phone to help you find new people and places to check out. Highlight, Kismet, Glancee and Sonar were breakout stars. But none has really overcome the creepiness of letting total strangers know where you are.

2013
It took another year for the location discovery concept to find a use certain people were willing to accept. Tinder, the location-aware dating app, made a splash at SXSW in 2013. If you’re using Tinder, your profile pops up on other people’s phones when you’re physically nearby. In a small place like South by Southwest that’s fueled with booze, banjos and hot bodies, this dating app definitely got its moment in the sun.  Today the company says there are more than 750 million profiles in its database, and it matches more than 5 million people a day. Holy hookups!

But 2013 wasn’t all fluff, Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla, was the hot commodity at the show; he was hailed as the next Steve Jobs: equal parts brilliant and crazy with his talk of electric cars and commercial space travel. But, amazingly, the greatness of Musk was overshadowed at SXSW by the very sign that the show is either totally irrelevant or completely on track: Mashable.com crowned Grumpy Cat the undisputed winner of South by Southwest 2013. MEOW!

So in 2014, I will bring a strong dose of skepticism to my consumption of hot trends here. Based on recent history, I expect some winners, some losers and a Texas-sized load of marketing bull to wade through before I crown a game-changing disruptive technology star.