Free Enterprise Staff  | March 13, 2015

26 Years at SXSW: A Q&A with Festival Director Hugh Forrest

In Silicon Valley lore, Twitter’s unveiling at the 2007 South by Southwest Interactive Festival ranks among the great tech genesis stories, rivaling those of Microsoft and Apple. That a formerly obscure event now had the cultural clout to catapult a fledgling startup into a $30 billion behemoth was just too delicious a story, especially for the narrative-obsessed entrepreneurs who inhabit Silicon Valley.

The only problem with that story, however, is that it’s not true.

“In 2007, when Twitter essentially launched here, no one thought it was going to be huge. And anyone who says that they understood that it was going to be big at the time is totally lying to you,” Hugh Forrest, the festival’s longtime director, told Free Enterprise during a recent sit down. “All of us thought that Twitter was great for South by Southwest, but we didn’t think it had any use outside of that. And it really wasn’t for two or three years afterwards that it really began to gain traction with the mainstream audience.”

Finding the next Twitter is, in some respects, what Forrest’s job is all about—though he’d likely contest that assertion. Since 1989, save “a few years in the early ‘90s,” Forrest has been the driving force behind SXSW Interactive, one of the festival’s three major conferences.(the other two are Film and Music). Though it’s now a major draw for the tens of thousands of people who flock to Austin every March for SXSW, Interactive struggled for years to gain its footing. Its shortcomings were particularly glaring, Forrest stresses, because both Music and Film resonated almost immediately with the broader public, attracting stars and building industry buzz.

How, then, did SXSW Interactive go from a perennial money loser into a cultural phenomenon all its own?

Slumped in a chair in his office at SXSW’s Austin headquarters, Forrest—a Five Hour Energy drink in hand—discussed Interactive’s unprecedented transformation and spoke candidly about the tech and startup economies in an interview conducted just weeks before this year’s SXSW Festival.

You’ve said it took 10 years for you to figure out Interactive. Why?

There was strong doubt about where we were going during those 10 years when Interactive just wasn’t growing at all. Music popped right out of the gate, and in fact, Music supported Interactive during those years when we were really not growing. There was also a time not too far ago in the past when these industries seemed so far apart, and the cultures also seemed so far apart. I remember in the mid- to late 90s, I would complain to anyone who would listen that Music has these rock stars coming to town, Film has these movie stars, and all we have is geeks—and who cares about geeks?

And the whole dynamic has really changed in the last 10 to 15 years. I like to say that geeks have become rock stars, and a lot of that is because of the whole startup mantra and ethos, where Mark Zuckerberg can drop out of Harvard and become a billionaire. But all of a sudden—or not all of a sudden—it happened that being a geek kind of became cool. There’s still a difference in the first part of the week (Music) versus the last part of the week (Interactive). But it’s certainly not as pronounced.

How does the selection process work?

We have a system called the Panel Picker that allows anyone to enter a speaking idea, whether it’s a solo presentation or a panel. That entry process happens in July, and then in August anyone in the community can vote on the ideas they like best. We decided on this system because it connects us with people who are actually in the field and know more about a topic than anyone. It creates engagement between SXSW and our community. It also more formally processes that pitching process.

I realized I was getting the majority of pitches in February right before the event, and I was spending my time telling people it was too late. This system essentially formalized what was happening already and also established some boundaries.

If you’re choosing speakers 8 months in advance, how do you ensure the event stays relevant? 

Ah, the relevance question!

So, there is a not insignificant amount of criticism—and it’s entirely fair—of people asking why we are taking proposals eight months before the event because technology changes weekly and even daily. That said, I think the best presentations, the best panels, and the best sessions at SXSW aren’t focused on what happened yesterday. They’re focused on what happened yesterday in the context of what’s happening in a much bigger picture. For us, that big picture context is creativity and innovation and big picture trends, as opposed to, ‘Hey, the new iPhone 6Z came out yesterday, and I really like this new button.’

Do you get lobbied by people hoping to get on a panel? 

Yes, people are aggressive. For the speaking proposals, part of that is that an advisory board rates the proposals, and we had to quit printing the names of the advisory board because PR agencies were lobbying them so often. It’s kind of annoying, but I’m glad people see it as such a valuable platform that somebody is going to lobby for it.

Has someone ever lobbied you to the point that you gave in?

Yes, the best example of someone lobbying and getting it is maybe six years ago when a friend of mine met this guy at CES in Las Vegas. And I thought, ‘Yeah right.’ But my friend gave this guy my contact information, and he kept calling and e-mailing me—and I just didn’t want to deal with him. But then I finally talked to him on the phone, and he was so energetic and really wanted to speak at SXSW. Since enthusiasm can go a long way with me, I told him we had one extra spot in our book-reading program, where new authors either read from or talk about their new books.

Well, that person was Tim Ferriss, and the book he read from was “The 4-Hour Workweek,” which was another SXSW success story in that it really broke out at SXSW. It certainly wasn’t something where I said, ‘I’ve read this book, and I just need to have him here.’ I was just really impressed by his enthusiasm and confidence, and it turns out his book and the concept just really resonated with people.

You’ve experienced tech booms and busts throughout your career. What do you think about where we’re at now, particularly in Silicon Valley?

It makes sense that soon there will be another market correction, or however you want to phrase that. It is fairly frothy now, and lots of money is being put into things that don’t have solid business plans. At our end—knock on wood—we’ve traditionally done okay during periods when the market has corrected itself. So, from my very limited perspective, we will probably be okay if this happens. But there will be lots of people who it’ll certainly change their circumstances, and that’ll impact us in one way or another.

Still, one of the speakers that we’re most excited about for 2015 is Bill Gurley, who will be on a panel with Malcolm Gladwell, and he’s been one of the people who’s been most aggressive in terms of saying that there is going to be some kind of shakeout in 2015.

Do you feel pressure to have a repeat of 2007, when Twitter exploded at SXSW?

That was clearly our turning point and biggest success story. But in a sense, it’s also become our biggest albatross because so much has changed in the world since then. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever have another success like that, just that the whole dynamic of SXSW has changed significantly. I think that the more that we repeat that Twitter story, which makes peoples’ eyes get big, that’s a good thing.

But I think what people forget about Twitter is that Evan [Williams] had been coming to SXSW for five years prior to 2007. He’d had Blogger, a podcasting company, and then you saw this Twitter thing, and you thought, ‘Okay, cool. It’s another of your startups, and it’s really neat. But is it going to have a different fate than those other ones?’

And sure enough it did. And the fact that he’d been to South by Southwest for those five previous years meant that he knew how to work the event, he knew what would work, and he knew what wouldn’t work. So, that really set the stage for what happened with Twitter in 2007. I think that’s a good example in that you make small changes or create small victories that can lead to a big thing, as opposed to thinking that you’re going to go somewhere and change the world.

Where do you see the festival going in the future?

Generally I think it’s one of those things you have to wait and see. I do think that SXSW is about making connections that can lead to bigger or better things. As much as the event is about technology and celebrates new technology, it’s still those connections that have to happen with me sitting here and you sitting there—it’s about communicating with someone face to face. Well, maybe in five years I can look into my computer, and it’s so lifelike that I can feel like you’re right next to me. I can reach out and have some kind of sensory equivalent of shaking hands. And, if so, does that change our business model? I don’t know. Maybe it does, but maybe it doesn’t.

One imagines that if the pace of technology continues to change as quickly as it has over the last 5 years, then that might be realistic and less people would be inclined to travel to an event like SXSW. On the other hand, I think in some ways we’re hardwired for social interaction. With events like SXSW or TED, half the fun is just being around people and having that experience. But who knows, maybe Google can invent something that’ll change that. Perhaps a better hologram technology? I don’t know!