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Irish Tech; Kong Gets to Grips with SXSW 2016

When I got the email from Enterprise Ireland suggesting that SXSW would be a suitable event for Kong Digital to attend in 2016, it didn’t take long for us to see the potential & opportunities this event would provide! When start-up companies are deciding which events are the most valuable to attend throughout a calendar year a lot of things need to be considered. Location, profile of attendees, cost to get your team there etc… So of course a trip to Austin Texas for 8 days is something that needs to be thought through.

Enterprise Ireland were kind enough to put me in touch with a few companies who have attended the event over the past few years and I was able to get a fairly good handle on how SXSW would fit with Kong Digital. And it didn’t disappoint…. Here is our experience from our trip to SXSW 2016…

The excitement started to kick off when we got the invite to the American Ambassador’s residence in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, Ireland for the Creative Minds SXSW Send Off. Most of the Irish tech companies & musicians who were bound for SXSW 2016 were in attendance along with some of the companies who attended SXSW over the previous few years. Plenty of information and advice was on hand for the SXSW virgins who were unsure what to expect when they got their feet on the ground in Austin. It was a great night with an experienced panel of past attendees & also a couple of fantastic performances from Irish artists Rosie Carney & Saint Sister.

American Embassy

It was getting close to flight time, the branded t-shirts & leaflets were ready to go and the bags were packed. The Kong team landed in Austin late on the night of Wednesday 9th March. There was heavy rain and a few tornados in Austin that day, so the flights were a bit behind schedule. The airport in Austin is only a 20-30 min drive to downtown Austin – first bit of advice, stay in downtown Austin for SXSW it will make your life a whole lot easier! On our connecting flight from Chicago to Austin we were lucky enough to be sitting beside a native Austonian who kindly gave us a list of the must eat places and where is worth a visit while in town (the food in Austin is unbelievable! See list of recommendations below).

Food recommendations

We arrived at the JW Marriott hotel where we would be based for the next 8 days. It’s a little bit pricey but we were late booking accommodation, otherwise we would have been a 1-2 hours’ drive outside of downtown Austin which wasn’t something we were keen on. I couldn’t recommend the JW Marriott any higher, we definitely got what we paid for, the location, food, service, facilities & all-round comfort was second to none. We may have spoiled ourselves by staying here at our first SXSW but we would struggle to find a reason not to book here again next year. We got to rub shoulders with some very influential people who were staying there too!

So day 1 for us at SXSW was Thursday 10th March – we picked up our badges early,  the queues can get quite long as it gets closer to the interactive session and the city was about to go into Presidential visit mode!It was then time to get our first taste of Austin food. We had a tasty breakfast at La Crepe which is just a 2 minute walk from the JW Marriott, later for a light dinner we went across the road to Gus’s Fried Chicken – once you taste you will understand why its World famous!

Day 1

We got to bed early on the Thursday to make sure we were well settled before the meetings and events kicked off. We started day 2 with a healthy breakfast in the JW Marriott and ended up sitting beside Guy Kawasaki (an influential Digital Marketing specialist). We then set off for a small bit of sightseeing with a walk up to the Texas State Capitol building.

Day 2

It was then time to head to our first event; Irish tech company Overhaul were hosting their launch party at a nearby bar/restaurant. We headed off using Google Maps  (which, of course began with the its this way, no its that way moment) to find the location where we got our first taste of local beer & some delicious tacos. We introduced ourselves to the Overhaul CEO Barry Conlon, who is an inspirational entrepreneur with a great story. We also got to meet with the Enterprise Ireland team who organise the SXSW event for Irish tech companies, Simone Boswel, Robert Walsh & Brendan Roberts.

Overhaul put on a great event and had plenty of tasty food and beverages for their guests. Their CEO Barry Conlon finished off the event chairing a very relaxed but informative  Q&A session which consisted of some of their founders, investors and some experts within the haulage industry. Co Founder Robert Clarke spoke about one of the things that makes this company so special, they value the people who get the job done for them, the people who deliver on the companys word, every single day, something at Kong we really believe in.  This gave us a clear understanding of what Overhaul have set out to achieve, their values as a company and how their technology is going to bring the haulage industry into the 21st century. I’m looking forward to seeing how these guys grow over the next couple of years.

Overhaul event

On day 2 I reached out to Dennis Yu, who I had been following online for the past two years. Dennis is a thought leader & influential guy within the Digital Marketing space in the US & I was delighted when Dennis invited me to the Spredfast event that he was attending in downtown Austin. Dennis also had one of his young colleagues with him, Zac Sinks, and we chatted for over an hour about how the digital marketing software space is rapidly evolving and creating massive opportunities. I’m looking forward to working with Dennis & Zac as we expand Kong Digital’s digital marketing software “Kongalytics” into the US market.

Dennis Yu, Zac Sinks & Robert Kelly

The Interactive keynote speech was a first for SXSW, Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune spoke with President Obama about Tech innovation and citizen engagement, it was all very impressive with streets closed down everywhere and POTUS tweets trending. It wasn’t only the presidents visit to Austin that was causing excitement, there was also USA Network’s Mr. Robot attracting everybody’s attention down on Congress Avenue with a free carnival! but never to be outdone, Paramount Theater brought an actual Tie Fighter to the SouthBites Trailer Park….yes, seriously!!!

Friday evening we made our way back to the ACC  for the first Enterprise Ireland event (yes, we are still on day 2!) at the Interactive Registration Lounge, where we got to meet the great Irish tech companies that we would be spending the next 5 days with and also enjoy some free beers! This was a great intro for everyone and set the scene for the days to follow. We also got to meet with some of the Bank of Ireland delegates who travelled over for the event.

Day 3 kicked off very early (yes very early, kick off was 7.30 am Austin time) with a trip to a local Irish bar called FADÓ to watch the Ireland v Italy 6 Nations match. As it was early (have i mentioned that already?) the atmosphere was quiet but as the morning ticked by, people started to flow in, and in no time there wasn’t a seat to be found! We enjoyed a delicious Irish Breakfast while Ireland whipped Italy 58 – 15! The crowds continued to grow as the England v Wales game got underway, as we were the early starters we had a bird’s eye view of the TV. An English guy politely asked if he could join our table to watch the match and we, of course, welcomed him. This was the first realisation that the profile of people at SXSW was of high quality! We started chatting (as the Irish do) and found that we had synergies between our companies, which can be of great assistance with our expansion into the UK market. My second piece of advice is to talk to everyone – you never know who they are or who they’re connected to!

Irish breakfast

We spent the rest of Saturday prepping for the first day of the exhibition which kicks off with the interactive session, where the tech world comes together to showcase what they have to offer. We were still unsure about how we would be received and what profile of people would be visiting our stand over the following 4 days, but we were soon to find out…

Saturday night, Macnas, presented by IDA Ireland and Culture Ireland, brought a vibrant parade to 6th Street, check out the video here.


Interactive Session Kicks Off

Sunday morning arrived & the temperature in Austin was heading for 30 degrees! Luckily enough the Austin Convention Centre was nicely air conditioned 🙂 The Enterprise Ireland stand was prepped and ready for the first bit of action.

The SXSW stand

From the get go, the flow of people passing by the stand was pretty steady and easy to manage, but I would recommend that you have at least 2 people with you to man the stand. The days run from 10am to 6pm and there is generally always someone visiting the stand that wants to find out more about your business. Having 2 people there allows you to manage when there is extra activity at the stand, and also allows you to grab some food & coffee throughout the day.

About an hour into the first day we had a visit from a well known Digital Marketing speaker and author, Mark Schaefer. It was great to connect with Mark and get his insight into the rapidly evolving Digital Marketing sector. We are looking forward to meeting up with Mark when he visits Ireland in May to speak at an event Content Marketing Mastery. This trend continued throughout the following few days where we got to meet with key decision makers and knowledgeable people within our target markets including people/companies from Ireland, UK, Mainland Europe, Canada & USA.

Enterprise Ireland had, without doubt, one of the best positions on the trade-show floor, straight in the door of exhibit hall 3 – but along with that one of the best draws around the whole SXSW event, free Guinness. I can’t begin to explain the amount of interesting and diverse people we met and got to pitch to, purely because they stopped by for a taste of the black stuff!

It was also used as the location for the second Enterprise Ireland Event: “Meet the Irish! PARTY & Free Bar” which attracted a wide range of people who wanted to find out more about the Irish tech scene.

Enterprise Ireland Exhibition Stand @ SXSW 2016


On the second day of the interactive session, Enterprise Ireland had their 3rd event: “Tech and beer go together well in one country…”, which provided another great networking opportunity for the Irish tech companies. We met with Adrian Farrell who is the Consul General at Consulate General of Ireland, Austin. Adrian is Ireland’s first Consul General to the US southwest, prioritising the maintaining and building of strong links between Ireland and the US and we wish him every success in the role.

On Monday evening a number of the Irish delegation and  EI team got together for a meal and a few beers to get to know each other better and share our ideas and experiences. This is another thing we would recommend as it helped us to build relationships that  go beyond the SXSW bubble.

The third day of the interactive session is when the profile of attendees starts to change; the music session is getting ready to kick off and the atmosphere starts to change – it’s not any better or worse but just different. Some of the tech companies finish up on the third day as they haven’t a specific link into the music tech side of things, but as our product “Kongalytics” has a unique offering for the music digital marketing sector, we were in for the long haul!

Tuesday evening brought us to our first music event which was hosted at the JW Marriott: “The Universal Music Pool Party!” This was an excellent opportunity for us to network with some key players with in the music industry in the US and it didn’t disappoint. The tunes were pumping the beer was flowing and networking was excellent! The scenery wasn’t bad either 🙂

Pool party

Once or twice I got a chance to stretch the legs and wander around the exhibit floor to see what else was happening at this jam packed show, which boasted almost 2,000 exhibitors. I can’t lie, the show stealer for any nerd, be it tech, music or innovation had to be NASA – these guys are just awesome. Wanna see what the actual suit will be like for the Mars mission? Sure, take a look… Want to check out the latest space robot? Yep, that was there too! Oh and while you’re at it, meet the astronauts, have your photo taken, here’s some freebies! But even these super cool people were drawn to our stand by the idea of a Guinness and an Ireland & USA badge!

Ireland SXSW 2016 - NASA

Speaking of Tech nerds though, the innovation and app development from Korea and Japan was very exciting! The apps, the tech, the ideas coming from Asia were enough to hold a casual wanderer up for the day at their area outside the pitch stage. In fact each country seemed to have a unique draw to their stand, a German coffee shop, a British living room, a Spanish tech hub, an Italian relaxed space…

A truly interesting company we came across, Social Imprints, totally blew me away! Their product is awesome for sure but what impressed us most was their hiring policy, they hire at risk adults and give them an employment opportunity, all in all a fab company with an impressive product and all day long queue at the event!

First Lady Michelle Obama opened the Music Keynote session on Wednesday, to discuss the Let Girls Learn Initiative, which aims to break barriers for the 62 million girls around the world who are not in school today, more than half of whom are adolescent. This kicked off the fourth day, with the SXSW Music Session now in full flow and the Irish Artists starting to arrive at the Enterprise Ireland stand. Angela Dorgan from First Music Contact does a serious amount of work to organise the trip for the Irish artists. This day gave us a great opportunity to talk to record labels and music organisations across the globe. It was definitely worth our while staying on for the last day. The final day the trade show finishes up at 2pm, this gave us the rest of the day/night to relax and enjoy the atmosphere that comes with the music session. We went to Maggie Mae’s on 6th Street to enjoy some of the Irish artists who were performing for the first time at SXSW.

So that was our first experience as an Irish tech company at SXSW! It definitely surpassed my expectations,  I think you have to make the most of it & be open to talk to everyone you meet along the way. Its a week of hard work which can provide huge opportunity for ambitious tech companies. I would also like to say a BIG thank you to the Enterprise Ireland team (Paul, Simone, Rob, Brendan & Randy) for the massive amount of planning and organisation that went into the SXSW event before we even landed in Austin, not to mention the hard work and encouragement during the Trade show making SXSW 2016 a huge success for the Irish Tech companies.

Here’s a summary of my tips for a successful trip to SXSW.

1) Get your accommodation in downtown Austin, its a tough week of work & networking, don’t make it any harder on yourself.

2) Talk to everyone you can, listen to their story and tell them yours, we made valuable connections by being open to having a chat and listening to other people.

3) Reach out to the people you see as the thought leaders in your sector, the chances are they will be at SXSW and most of them are there to learn as well. All they can do is say no, but in my experience most of them are more than happy to meet up.

4) Get there a couple of days before the interactive session kicks off. We had some great meetings in our first couple of days.

5) Have your pitch ready! This is probably the most important thing for your trip. As the week progresses you will get more comfortable & better at pitching your USP. But make sure you are clear about what your business is offering and whats unique about it.

*Bonus tip! Don’t get to the airport check in desk and realise your passports are back in the hotel safe!

If you or your company are considering attending SXSW 2017, I would be more than happy to chat to you in more detail about our experience. Robert Kelly CEO @ Kong Digital

And last but by no way least, I want to give a shout out to the other great Irish tech companies that we shared our SXSW experience with. In no particular order;  UrbanFoxIntuitionKabzyFirstageOverhaulTekTalentOpenBackKantanMTGalvanic (Pip)CrowdsightSynergySuite

Irish Tech Companies at SXSW 2016

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