How to Hustle SXSW for Fun & Profit

This is a copy/paste of an email I sent to 500 Startups Founders & Mentors email distros.  Another reason why you should join our program – I will fill your inbox with swear words and unsolicited advice.  Enjoy!

Thank you so much to everyone who voted this up on Hacker News, where it spent 3 hours in the #1 position and more than 12 hours on the front page.  This post has now officially beat out How I Built a Multi-User Door Buzzer for our Apartment, with over 8,000 unique pageviews in the last 12 hours.

This is the email where you all find out I am a hyper-socially sensitive (if you didn’t already notice) and have an incredibly intense meta level dialogue going on in my brain during every social interaction.  Basically, it is my super power.

SXSW is upon us I want to share with you some tactics and strategies for having fun and hustling hardcore at this event.  This is a jumping off point for conversation, because I have spoken to several entrepreneurs with various fears/concerns/questions about SXSW.  This does not cover everything, it got really long and I wanted to get off my soapbox and have a beer.

Before I forget

Save my number in your cell 425-698-7497 DANIELLE MORRILL (I know, a lot of double letters) —- TEXT me when you are at SXSW and we can hang out!  I roll in the Twiliomobile (like “Batmobile”, not the mobile version of Twilio, see pics a the end of this post) version 3 (although I will not be hand painting it this year) and I love breakfast burritostacos.  I also have access to a lot of interesting activities off the beaten path, so if you happen to find me you might consider saying, “hey Danielle, where are you going next?  Can I come?”  If the car is not full, the answer is YES.

Prepping your calendar

Don’t fucking do it.  At least not in the way everyone else seems to.  Here is what is going to happen.  You are going to think you are being a front of the class kind of kid and spend PRECIOUS HOURS carefully picking through events, judiciously adding what you perceive to be highest value to your calendar and RSVPing for those event.  And guess what — BOOOOM! — the magical serendipity of SXSW is going to screw it all up.

Instead, put EVERYTHING on your calendar so you know what ALL your options are, RSVP for EVERYTHING (yes I use an intern to do this — get one at #500strong) or use also #500strong.  If there is something you absolutely have to be at, like an event your company is hosting/sponsoring then make it a different color.  But if you are the CEO/most senior person going and you have a team there then *tell them you will not be there every moment*.  They will live, and if you are less stressed about getting there in time you will hustle better.

Prepare like a soccer mom on crack

So you aren’t going to plan your calendar beyond knowing all the options, but that doesn’t mean you can throw all planning out the window.  You need to treat yourself and the team like athletes.  Anything that could keep them from finishing the game/series/season is a problem.  I rent an SUV (getting 2 this year – covering them with vinyl decal branded stuff) and fill it with supplies for me and for the people in the Twilio community.  This includes bottled water, granola bars and other fast snacks (don’t do chocolate bars or candy – it melts in the Texas heat), and First Aid kits.

First Aid is REALLY REALLY REALLY important (you can buy a standard kit at Walmart)!  I took an attendee of one of our events to the hospital, he sliced his foot open climbing off the bus and needed 10 stitches!  Did it ruin the event/day/trip?  Hell NO!  I got to spend an hour with one of our newest community members stuck in Austin traffic, trying to come up with things to distract him from how much blood he’d lost — we keep in touch, and I can’t wait to spend time with him this year.

Your game face

Okay fast forward and we’re in Austin now.  Repeat after me, “I am more hardcore than you” – hold this in your mind for a minute and feel a little competivie adrenaline rush.  This is the web marketing Olympics and its time to play ball.

If you have ever played sports, team or otherwise, or crushed nerd face in StarCraft II like I do every Sunday then I want you to imagine getting and keeping your game face on for 5-7 days.  For those of you without these experiences, imagine how you feel trying to get out of San Francisco after a Giants game win.

You have 3 game faces you will need to master:

  1. Company Figurehead (external facing) – You are repping your company 24/7, so whatever public persona you have or are developing needs to be in top form.  My recommendation: set the bar low.  For me, this means rarely wearing makeup, speak in plain English, and share exactly what I think without (too much) self-editing.  Again YMMV, but you are going to get stuck with this persona you created so think about it.
  2. Mercenary for the Leads / Missionary for the Brand – why the hell are you even going to SXSW (I probably should have started this email out with this) — to GET SOME leads.  Make this fun if you can, what I did last year with a team of 6 was to make a competition with daily prizes and overall prizes for most business cards, most Twitter engagement, and other *measure-able* things.  Measureable is key.  I gave out the prizes and announced the new challenge at breakfast each day, and each person gave a recap on cool people they met.   The order of magnitude for the challenge: MINIMUM 100 business cards per day (usually you’ll get 20 – 30% high quality leads).  This is totally DOABLE, don’t let anyone tell you it is not.
  3. Fearless Leader (internal facing) – your team is looking to you both for guidance and approval (always), don’t forget how important this is in an exhausting and stressful situation.  Make sure to praise things they are doing well but also to give quick, straightforward, helpful feedback if you see things that are slipping.

If you need supplies, get to the grocery on day one with the team and make it happen.  Go to Walmart like we did last year (its on the way from the airport to downtown Austin) and buy up all the chalk, bubbles, glitter, and other fun cheap awesomeness you can.  Not sure how you’ll use it yet?  You’ll find a way.  Then take your team to eat a solid meal, probably the best one they will get and the one they will enjoy the most because they won’t be ready to fall asleep with their face in their plates.  Have a toast, make it count, this is an exciting moment.

Mind like water

Stress.  It’s going to happen because you’ll wake up Thursday and plans will constantly fall through, and you will be forced to be “on” 24/7 in person (which is much harder than online) for several days back to back.  You need to at least try to have a mind like water.  I am a Type A on a level that generates panic attacks so let me tell you other type As out there – forget the fucking details.  This is going to be a shit show organizationally — this about it like you are planning for a natural disaster and embrace the chaos, or you will be miserable.

Mind like water = “oh cool, there’s another party down the street? let’s check it out”
Mind like water = “looks like the wifi here is making our product demo impossible, lets get a beer and try again later”
Mind NOT like water = “oh shit this is a nightmare, who forgot to ship the tshirts, you are all fired”
Mind NOT like water = “why are you drinking, its 10pm on a Saturday but you are supposed to be WORKING!!!!!!!!!111111”

You get the idea…

You need a mind like water to work a room, to put up with the constant change, to understand that everyone else is also trying to adapt to this strange environment.  You need a mind like water so that you won’t be totally burned out at the end of the trip, or damage relationships.  But mostly you need a mind like water because once you let go a little bit it is extremely FUN.

Okay, I hear everyone gets drunk at SXSW

If you are going to get ridiculously drunk, and especially if you are considering using substances that the United States considers illegal, PLEASE DON’T WEAR YOUR COMPANY TSHIRT.  It is every PR person’s nightmare.  Please just no.

Getting drunk at SXSW is deceptively easy, because if you are hitting nonstop events from noon to 2am and having 1 drink per 90 minutes (and are a lightweight like me) you are going to feel like shit by 10pm.  YMMV, but I did SXSW on a 2 drink per day rule last year and felt massively better.  One exception: if you are the host/MC of an event take 1-2 shots of tequila/vodka right before things kick off.  I do this with my team, and it really does help chill out the nerves around a massive event.  We hosted 800 people at Pure Volume house, with 2 VIP rooms and 2 signed bands on stage — to say I was freaking out abou the line wrapped about the building and the angry requests re: “the list” (from Type A people who planned ahead no doubt!) — so I needed it.

Designated drivers = do it, take it seriously.  Love your team and protect them.  Make sure they drink water.  Even if that means sitting together on the curb til 4am because no one is sober.  Do it together, life is too short.

Sleep & Hangovers

You best be getting out of bed by 9am and taking your team to breakfast every day chief, this is your army – feed them, cloth them, inspire them.  If you still have the hangover shakes at 1pm you are doing it wrong.  (See: substances)

Doing Deals at SXSW

Pick a single day, pick an expensive bar, camp out at a table, make friends with the staff.  Don’t spread your stuff all over or it will be obvious you’ve been there all day.  You’re just the guy who happened to get there early for every single meeting, as far as the person meeting with you knows.  Expensive is relative if you are not drinking much, but it keeps the place from being loud or crowded.  The nice bar in the Hilton right across from the Convention Center always has tables because they charge $15 for a glass of wine — its PERFECT.

Tell your team what day is your deal day (I pick Sunday – because you will have time to fill the funnel) and cherry pick people from their business cards that you want to meet and call/text them to introduce yourself and set up a time.  You invite, you pay.

It’s going to cost maybe $300 for the day if you have a table from 11am – 6pm and take 10 meetings — ~45 min apeice — at $30 each.  If you can’t afford this (you probably should have stayed home: “I am more hardcore than you”) then invite people to meet you at other events OR invite them to the VIP section of your own events.  However, events are not where you close deals (unless you are Dave McClure).  Events are for lead gen.

If you spend $300 and have a 10% success rate from those 10 meetings then I am guessing you will recoup your cost.  Have > 10% success rate!!!

—– end email

Twiliomobile 2010

Twiliomobile 2011

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  • Btw, I did not make that dent on the back of the silver car… just sayin’

  • Love it.

    Re: Emergency kits. This is where the Soccer Mom mentality comes in handy. Aside from the basic emergency kit of Band-Aids, etc, I pack other needed essentials. At a party with no bottle opener? I’ve got one, and I just became every drinker’s best friend. It’s hot out and everyone needs sunscreen. Bam – borrow mine. Who’s needs a tissue? I’ve got a package of Kleenex with your name on it. 

    Oh, concerning designated drivers: If you decide to get clever and ride a bike drunk – and you get caught – you’re facing a real DUI. Just sayin’.   

    • Next life, you and me plan weddings and do reality TV show.  #notkidding #okayalittlekidding

      • Reality TV show of us planning weddings in the Valley. Episode 1: Danielle has to calm down a client who’s just found out her fiance wants a Jedi Knight themed walk down the aisle. Kaitlin helps an awkward startup founder propose to the love of his life… until she finds out it’s a Real Doll.  

        • Episode 2: Kaitlin meets up with a widely known startup founder, after 6 months of elaborate wedding planning, to learn she has decided to put all her savings into her struggling company instead.  The couple have a screaming fight when she demands her fiance sell his equity in a previous company on Second Market.  Meanwhile, Danielle takes a referral that turns out to be meeting with the Winklevoss twins, who are planning a double wedding with the Olsen twins.

  • I can’t wait for SXSW this year. This will be my first time going and I’ll be going with a few of my coworkers who are all “Social Media” people while I’m the only developer going. I always usually see Twilio at the Lone Star Ruby Conf in Austin as well (coming down from Fort Worth). I see you have included your number in this post, is it actually cool to call up up during SXSW? I could use someone who knows the in’s and out’s.

    • @twitter-14338689:disqus  – I was repping Twilio at LSRC this past year. I was the PHP guy that they forgot to kick out. 😉
      If you need a hand in the meantime, don’t hesitate to drop me a note: keith @ I’m Austin-based and always roaming the countryside.

    • Absolutely, you can call me anytime

      • So I saw your comment about RSVP’ing to everything. So I went on Plancast and RSVP’d to as much as I could. About 30% of them were already “Sold Out”. How hard is it to get in without RSVP’ing?

        • Pretty tough.  We have events with capacity of under 500 with over 6,000 RSVPs.  And RSVP isn’t even a guarantee of getting in, but if you aren’t on the list at all your odds are approaching zero.  So you need to learning how to “socially engineer” your way in.  Probably a good topic for another post.

          • The music portion, getting into the best shows, is even worse. 
            I saw Perry Farrell outside a gig a few years back, said hi and reminded him how we’d met years prior, and asked if I could walk in with him to his gig. He couldn’t say no!

            Amazing post, DM!

  • Ivan Vanderbyl

    Thanks for the tip. This is my first SxSW and I haven’t spent more than 10 seconds looking at the schedule, I’m just going to wing it.

  • I’ll be a SXSW newbie this year too, thanks so much for the tips! 
    I’d heard multi-outlet extension cords were good to have on hand as well but I’d never thought of bringing first aid kits, that’s great. 
    Is there a central hub online somewhere to find most of what we should RSVP to? 
    I thought getting a platinum pass would get you into pretty much anything, didn’t realize you had to RSVP as well.
    Thanks again for the advice. 🙂

    • There are a TON of non-official parties and events to RSVP to.  I would suggest looking on Startup Digest and also Plancast

  • I am taking all of this fantastic advice and putting it into action! After having gone last year – I feel like a lot of this advice is going to significantly improve my time at sxsw. You sound like so much fun – your team is really lucky. I sent you an email earlier today and I look forward to hearing from you 🙂

  • Wow.  Thanks for the taking the time to share this.  Exceptionally useful.  I’m almost afraid to forward it along to my team, because then they might expect me to be all leader-y and helpful and stuff, which I am decidedly not.

    • First step of leader-y might be forwarding this… never know, maybe you will unlock the leader-y-ness of one of your team members and can help them take this on

      • Of course, I didn’t even have to forward the article.@pistachio:twitter (from HubSpot) found the article on her own and retweeted it.  (Have I mentioned that I have an awesome marketing team?)

  • a) Have we ever met Danielle? I don’t think we have. I guess SxSW would be a good place to do so!
    b) This is some great advice. I’m glad I’m not going to SxSW to do deals 😉

  • Will

    One addition.

    Its pretty cool here (I live in Austin now, have for about half a year now.)

    Its probably going to fluctuate between San Francisco like weather and low to mid 80s.based on the weather 


    1) you may pack chocolate if you like this year (now in the middle of the summer, honestly even late spring you would be more than right about the heat)
    2) Prepare for anywhere from light jacket to pretty warm weather


  • Taking your advice I’m hustling in your comments! We’re running at US$50,000 Internet Scavenger Hunt at SXSW… go to now to register!

    • Nice hustle.  Is there any way I can get Twilio involved?

  • Loving it.

  • Wow lovely post thank you for share this information i really like it this type of post specially last part such a nice content thank you for the post.

  • Katerina Morjanoff

    Another tip: Use Facebook and Twitter status search to find others heading to SXSW. Filter their profiles, connect with the interesting ones, and ta-da…. a whole bevy of new friends to meet up with while you’re there.

  • If SXSW will be in the same spirit as this post, well…. it WILL ROCK!!! 
    Thanks Danielle!
    I hope you’ll be able to spare few min at SXSW, I have cool app to show, and I’ll love to discuss Twillio, 500 startups, and more….

    Gal( @galmelamed:disqus ) / WonderVoice

    • Totally, just text me while you’re there and we’ll meet up

  • Ryan W

    Danielle –

    Great writeup.  However, you’ll get the stink eye if you call them “Breakfast Burritos” here in Austin. We call em “Breakfast Tacos”. Same thing though.

    • Oh shoot, I will be very careful. I drove to Tony’s Tacos last year, it was so worth it.  8am heaven

  • Great post, putting my game face on and repeating the “I am more hardcore than you” mantra.

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  • Before, I wanted nothing to do with SXSW2012.  But now it feels manageable.  I’m calmer.  Fitter.  Happier.  More productive.  And thinking of going….

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  • Great advice to first timers and seasoned vets. Looking forward to seeing you there!

  • Realizing our future life in present is really interesting one. That’s why I like this post very much. The discussion about video game participation in our future life is really very interesting.

  • Great post! I’ve only been to SXSW once back in 2010 and then only for Interactive. We’ll be launching Music Nearby ( this year and staying for the entire thing. Platinum badges baby! So much good advice above. Look forward to meeting you at some point.

  • Great post!  Hope to meet up with you!

  • asalvesen

    Love this post!  I was gonna share it with my CEO, but she’d already seen it.  Hope to cross paths at SXSW!

  • Can’t wait to see you, Danielle. Been too long

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  • Help us try to beat the Guiness Book of World Records for the largest Internet scavenger hunt at SXSW! Register now at – US$50,000 in prizes!

  • How about just be yourself? 🙂

  • Anonymous

    I think this is good advice for SXSW but also or any conference. Make the most of your time and meet as many people as you can. 

  • Stellar post! The HootSuite tribe will be there with a HootBus and a lot of other surprises. Look forward to using up one of your 2 allotted bevvies with you ;-). 

  • Stellar post! The HootSuite tribe will be there with a HootBus and a lot of other surprises. Look forward to using up one of your 2 allotted bevvies with you ;-). 

  • Just texted you 🙂

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  • Fantastic piece. If this is how you run an event there’s no doubt you will be successful, however I take this as greater advice on how to run a startup. GO FASTER. KICK MORE ASS. Schedule all your meetings on one day if possible. Mind like water. Prepare like a soccer mom. Market all the time. Get 100 biz cards in every room you enter. Multiply by hugely motivated team. Gameface always on. This is it. Someone is drunk or hungry or bleeding. CEO’s job is to fix it so we can get back to kicking more ass.

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  • Ah! I wish I had read this before the 2013 SXSW events! I’m bookmarking this for 2014! 🙂

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