How SXSW Brings Small Businesses Together

by Vanessa Richardson on March 17, 2011
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As the South by Southwest Festival (SXSW) gets larger every year, it’s easy for a small business attendee to get lost in the crowd and feel overwhelmed. But with a little work, it’s possible to meet the right people, make the right connections, and enter into profitable partnerships.

Michelle Riggen-Ransom is the co-founder of BatchBlue Software, a maker of small-business online products based in Providence, Rhode Island. During her trips to SXSW, Riggen-Ransom has learned how to meet and greet the right people that helped her co-create the Small Business Web, a group of software companies that joined forces to offer cheaper services to small businesses by integrating and sharing their software applications. The organization launched at SXSW in 2009 and is throwing another party at the festival this year.

Riggen-Ransom told ISBB how she has made SXSW work for her role as a small-business owner.

“This year will be my fourth time at SXSW. Every year I go, I have a different experience, but it’s the best conference to attend because of all the networking opportunities. During my first year, it was all about going to panels and meeting people with similar interests. The second year, it was about meeting people I had only known through Twitter, having dinner and drinks with them, and moving relationships forward by becoming business partners. Even if you have limited marketing and business-development budgets, attending SXSW is one of the best business moves you can make.

“Two years ago, I had deep conversations with friends I had met at previous SXSW events about co-marketing possibilities. We had already integrated each other’s services to use amongst ourselves, but we realized there was a bigger opportunity to do this for other small businesses. It’s easy to get lost in the noise if one company tries to do this, but if we banded together, we could provide a complete batch of business products for clients to use. At last year’s SXSW, we launched the Small Business Web, a directory of the different 100 companies that had joined in the past year. It provides a variety of resources to help startups integrate services and scale up their internal operations.

“At our launch party, 13 of our small-business members sponsored as hosts. We threw it in a large warehouse space across from the convention center. It was open to the general public, and 5,000 people came through. It was a great way to meet each other’s customers and our customers in the Austin area. This year, we are celebrating small businesses once again [on Saturday, March 12] at an event we’re calling “The Big Party for Small Businesses,” but it will be on a much smaller scale. We’re doing a raffle for attendees and offering gift baskets made by Austin businesses, who will also be a part of the party so we can celebrate Austin’s uniqueness. Now we have 170 companies listed in the directory.

“Also this year, I will be on a panel called “Friends with Business Benefits,” about how companies can share data and use each other’s software programs. I’ll be talking about marketing, customer service, and serving customers across multiple platforms.

Want more tips for working SXSW as a small business attendee? Here’s Michelle’s advice.

  1. Find the speakers and panels that seem interesting, but be open if something else crops up. “The best partnerships really come through people you meet in an impromptu way.”
  2. Make sure you’re on Twitter to see what the people you’re interested in meeting are doing. “For logistics and schedule planning, Twitter helps me figure out where I wanted to go.”
  3. Take advantage of small business events outside of SXSW. “I plan to check out the Coworking Unconference on March 10, the day before SXSW starts. It’s being sponsored by co-working spaces nationwide as a way to do co-working and meet other small-business owners before the conference starts.”
  4. Drink lots of water, wear comfy shoes, and take naps. “You’re generally out pretty late at SXSW, so take care of yourself so you can keep up the pace.”
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