South by Southwest Interactive has a history of being the place for apps to “blow up”. Twitter, GroupMe, and Foursquare are notable examples of apps that have gained substantial mainstream adoption and had their breakout moment at SXSW by winning the favor of the 25,000-strong early adopter crowd eager to grab their first-name as a username on every service out there.
This year was an interesting exception to that trend – though I certainly saw startups trying to use the convention as a launching ground for their venture (representatives from Highlight were passing out popsicles all weekend, among other similar efforts), there was no major app release or push this weekend that caught the attention of tech publications or conference-goers. What I realized was that apps best suited for launching at a tech conference like SXSW are of the “SoMoLo” (Social, Mobile, Local) variety, and such apps are actually on a downtrend in this past year or two. After a couple years with a deluge of hundreds of SoMoLo (and other, somewhat frivolous, consumer-oriented) apps were hitting the market and often raising millions in funding, I think we’re seeing the focus of new startups shift towards markets where customers are actually willing to pay money, like applying technology to fix problems in other, totally unrelated, industries. A company like Expensify simply can’t expect SXSW participants to try out a website which simplifies expense reports to supplant their conference experience.
Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, gave a talk on Saturday about entrepreneurship happening outside of Silicon Valley. He is working on a documentary called “Silicon Prairie” which describes how the internet is opening up opportunities for entrepreneurship and innovation in industries and verticals (like farming) that one would traditionally expect almost no technological penetration. While I think that this “democratization” of entrepreneurship through the internet and related technologies opens up the floodgates for even more SoMoLo apps, it also enables savvy individuals in low-tech/non-tech and “unsexy” industries to innovate in places that the typical Silicon Valley resident wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole.
One of my favorite things about SXSW is how it has both directly and indirectly opened up my eyes to subtle trends going on in this industry that I am already immersed daily in. Unfortunately, I’m writing this in the Dallas airport on my way back to Philadelphia (final recap post up tomorrow), but this weekend was easily the best I have ever had. Some people seem to think that SXSW is now past its peak, but based on my experience these last few days, clearly they’re not approaching it the right way!