What We Learned About Innovation Trends from SXSW Interactive

March 16, 2016 By Alida Miranda-Wolff

Since launching the SXSW Accelerator eight years ago, SXSW Interactive has increasingly become a hub for investors and entrepreneurs alike to immerse themselves in emerging trends and make critical connections. Since the first Accelerator, SXSW has grown its startup focus considerably, expanding Startup Village and the number of startup-specific panels, meet-up’s, and exhibitions.

This year, Hyde Park Angels took a trip down to Austin to experience the insanity that is a three-track conference with 72,000 attendees to discover what’s on the cutting-edge of entrepreneurship and innovation. Here’s what we found.

Qualitative Counts
For a conference filled with investors, growth marketers, and data enthusiasts, the common theme across the various SXSW Interactive programs was that intangible components of success like vulnerability, resilience, and human connection often count for more than pure metrics.

Qualitative leadership research professor Brené Brown led one of the most attended and active keynotes of the conference, which focused on what resilient people do to be so resilient. She addressed the entrepreneurs in the room when she stressed that that “vulnerability is not weakness,” but a side effect of creating. Her biggest takeway was that to be a true maker and leader, you have to have a tolerance for failure, which you can develop through mindfulness. Ultimately, this supported a point that cropped up throughout the diverse set of panels; for founders and leaders, building a successful business is about understanding people on a human level.

Dean Carter, VP of Human Resources at Patagonia, stressed this idea. He used Patagonia as an example, citing it as a values-driven company focused on and devoted to it “knowing its why” above all else. He echoed many of media leader Gary Vaynerchuk’s ideas around value; namely, to truly provide value to customers, you need have a deep understanding of who they are as people — what motivates them, how will the solution affect their view of their own, and what resonates with them on a basic level.

AI is Exploding
While there may have been tracks focused on hot startup verticals like VR, entertainment tech, and fintech, the real star of SXSW Interactive was artificial intelligence. The question is no longer how can we use AI, butwhere. The answer — at least if you look at the companies and programs across the accelerator, trade show, and hundreds of panels — is everywhere.

From using AI to read contracts or identify cyber security attacks to fundamentally disrupting retail and the job market, talk of AI and AI-enabled technologies dominated nearly every discussion. We expect to see more and more of these technologies emerge as the number of relevant use cases continues to expand.

VR Will Pop Soon
Other than AI, the most dominant industry at SXSW Interactive was virtual reality. This year, the conference even featured a track focused on VR, which added another element to the competitions, panels, and workshops geared towards understanding and supporting the industry as it continues to grow over time. Specifically, the VR/AR Experience opened an all-day showcase were all registrants could experience the newest VR and AR (augmented reality) technologies on the market.

Big players like Samsung also hosted Oculus-sponsored VR test rooms, while other players in the space did demos, offered gaming experiences, and even raffled off equipment. Like the discussion around AI, the general consensus from leaders across the conference was not whether VR was going to pop, but when, and who was going to be the one major powerhouse responsible.

The Startup Stage Is Global
More than any other conference we’ve seen so far, SXSW Interactive had the most diverse set of registrants and exhibitors. Companies came from all over the country and all over the world, which led to multiple discussions around international regulations, supply chain, and global investment interests. Hot topics included Cuba as a promising emerging market, new developments in technology infrastructure in West Africa, and what the new “Industrial Revolution” looks like, continent to continent.

Perhaps one of the biggest signs that startup innovation is pervasive all over the world was the trade show. Japan, South Korea, Ireland, France, and Brazil, among others, built showcases of their respective countries’ most promising new technologies and companies.

It’s All About Content
For an amalgam of conferences and festivals that started out catering to music fans and film buffs, it makes sense that even SXSW’s technology offerings were content-focused. However, of the hundreds of marketing-oriented workshops, lectures, and panels (and dozens we attended), one idea rose to the top of the collective consciousness: valuable, non-intrusive content is the true future of selling product across verticals.

As Gary Vaynerchuk put it, “The people who can create the least amount of friction by advertising their product are the ones who win.” Clearly, the banner ad is dead. But what is its successor? If you ask Gary, or almost any of the other media experts at the conference, the answer is product placement and thought leadership, both of which are either embedded in or actually consist of content.

Photo via SXSW