Serendipitous Takeaways from SXSW

I agreed to go back to SXSW with some trepidation, because this is my seventh year, and the event has gotten larger and larger. At first, I knew or knew of most of the attendees, and going to Austin was a way to put faces to Twitter handles. Twitter, like me, was new to SXSW in 2007. Now, the conference has over 25,000 attendees at the interactive conference alone, and I’m lucky to find my old friends.

But something has happened for me this year: the serendipity of new friends. The three things I learned at SXSW had nothing to do with meeting people I already knew, but rather in learning about things I didn’t.

At the WP Engine dinner the other night, I was sitting on the left of Werner Vogels, the CTO of Amazon, who was telling us about the lengths to which Amazon invests to make things convenient for its customers and the extent to which the company still reflects Jeff Bezos’ vision. It was a behind the scenes look at a disruptive company’s vision and how it scales from category to category. Amazon has gradually changed the face of retailing, from books to luxury fashion to toilet paper and created almost instantaneous fulfillment through its free shipping service Prime. And now the company is facilitating e-publishing with Kindle and CreateSpace.

Along the way, it has revolutionized the away startups are brought to market through Amazon Web Services. I saw that when I attended the LeanStartup track. This year it was in a huge ballroom for a crowd in the thousands, because the cost of doing a software startup has been dramatically lowered by AWS.

The next day I found out that Ping Fu, whose memoir I had recently read, was speaking about the recent merger of her company, GeoMagic, with 3-D Systems, an early pioneer in 3-D printing. I didn’t understand much about 3-D printing, but now i do. Not only did I get to see Ping Fu’s own 3D printed shoes, but I saw people carrying around the lightweight portable 3-D Systems printer Ping says will go mainstream this year after nearly twenty years in development. It will usher in an era of mass-customization, or one-off manufacturing; in the near future your shoes will always fit perfectly, as Invisalign braces do now. Invisalign was one of the first GeoMagic customers

I had to race out of Ping’s presentation because my schedule told me Adam Curry, co-host of the amazing No Agenda show, was speaking in another venue. No Agenda, a completely donor-supported (no advertising) unbiased look at the news of the week, has become legendary in its iconoclasm over the fast five years. A scathing look at events covered by the mainstream media only as talking points, it is a profound new model for authentic journalism. Curry turned his back on a lucrative career on MTV to become a thought-provoking online podcaster, and the No Agenda Show now supports two families.

There is so much ainnovation showcased at SXSW. Perhaps the most mind-blowing thing I saw was an app called Augment, which takes augmented reality to the next commercial step by helping you take a photo of a piece of furniture and lay it on a background to get a 3-D view of how it will look in a room. It looks like CAD drawing, but it’s a free app.

Things I’ll take away from this year: the value of investment in obsessive customer service; the mainstreaming of 3-D printing and its effect on manufacturing, and a promising new model for journalism. SXSW certainly augmented my reality.

 
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