How a Misfit Band of Startup Renegades is Trying to Bring Community Back to SXSWi

By Nathaniel Whittemore , written on March 9, 2012

From The News Desk

At the heart of every entrepreneurial endeavor are three words: "What if we…"

Austin Caravan started when Launchrock co-founder Jameson Detweiler and Crosswalk founder Tom McLeod began to wonder if they could create a totally different space at South By Southwest. They loved the event. The loved the convergence, the revelry, and the maddening hustle of new companies being born. But like so many others, they believed that in the post-Twitter years, the event had lost the intimacy that had made it great in the first place.

They started to imagine a renegade side event that would be anchored in community. They would need a space. They would need content and programming. They would need atmosphere. They would need real people to bring the whole thing to life.

What happened next was an example of one of the most important phenomena of the modern era: semi-spontaneous mass collaboration. The social architecture of the Internet has enabled a type of collaboration in which new groups can rapidly form, and identify and aggregate disparate resources to accomplish tasks that previously would have taken extensive bureaucratic infrastructure to accomplish.

We see semi-spontaneous mass collaboration all around us, from the groups that form to enact change using online petition sites to the Occupy Wall Street movement to unconferences democratizing access to performed knowledge. While similar things did happen before the Internet, they required a totally different level of organizational rigor, time, and money to work. It was not collections of people mobilizing their varies skills, connections, spaces, and other assets to get things done, but individual organizations leveraging their financial means.

In the Internet world, semi-spontaneous mass collaboration happens when new groups (usually anchored by existing social bonds) form to respond to some catalyzing impetus. When Jameson and Tom put their idea for the Caravan into the ether, their community of friends quickly turned the "what if we" into a stream of "and then we coulds…"

Within a few days, working with friends at Social People, they had secured a space -- a 20,000 square foot lumber mill less than a mile away from the heart of SXSWi events. Interestingly, instead of focusing on one event, the nebulous team wanted to focus on the big idea of building a better community and decided to use their space as a platform to allow other startups to host their own gatherings.

What emerged is a four-day convergence that shows off the full weird and wonderful energy of the startup community. Launchrock will be hosting a first-of-its-kind User-acquisition-a-thon. The parking lot of the lumber mill will be playing host to half a dozen RVs full of entrepreneurs who will be living, working, and hanging out in the space throughout. An indoor stage will provide a platform for musicians and film screenings.

Each evening entrepreneurs, nonprofit leaders, designers, artists, and musicians will be hosting discussions that get past the panel format and instead focus on real deep engagement. It will be the only place at SXSW where you can actually participate in a discussion about community with a founder of Reddit and a leader of Burning Man at the same time.

And then there are the hot tubs. And the art show. And shuttles bringing people back and forth from other events all day. And a farmers market. And, and, and...

The power of the new approach to organizing is that each of these "and then we coulds" came not from the minds of the folks who initiated the project, but the extended community of friends they brought into it.

From SXSW to TEDx to Burning Man to Summit Series, the rise of conference culture suggests that, if anything, the incredible connectivity of the Internet makes us thirst even more for real, offline experiences. Austin Caravan is one more example of how entrepreneurs are harnessing their communities to give life to that desire.

[Image Credit: Shutterstock] Ed. Note: I should mention that this photo is the backdrop of Austin Caravan's website, and that no RVs (to my knowledge) are likely to be harmed at the event itself.