Southland is Pando's gritty reboot of a tech conference. It starts Monday, is going to be ridiculous

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on June 4, 2014

From The News Desk

William Henry Collier walked into his manager’s office with a ludicrous pitch. He wanted their blessing — and financial support — to design and build a car.

What makes the story remarkable — aside from the fact that his manager said yes — is that William Collier wasn’t a car designer — in fact he was just a young apprentice engineer, at a company called Southern Engine and Boiler Works in Jackson Tennessee. Also, the year was 1904, four full years before Henry Ford’s Model T rolled off the production line.

By 1908, Collier’s Marathon Motor Car Co had raised $50k (about $8.5m today) to build its roadster and touring car models. The name “Marathon” was chosen by a Tennessee schoolgirl who won a contest to name the wonderful new vehicle. In 1910, the company moved to Nashville where it build a sprawling manufacturing facility -- Marathon Motor Works -- which produced 10,000 cars in 1913.

By 1914 the company was gone. The reason: a young inexperienced management, an inability to satisfy customer demand. Many of its best and brightest minds were hired away to work at rival automobile companies, and those who remained orchestrated a buy out of its tools and other equipment. Marathon had failed to scale.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Marathon’s flame out, and its factory still stands in Nashville, as proof that the more entrepreneurship changes, the more it stays the same.

Every day here at Pando we write about companies founded by young, entirely inexperienced engineers with a big idea who raised a ton of capital, build something truly innovation but which — sometimes — couldn't scale along with user demand. The good problem to have. Some of those companies are lucky — they’re acquired by Google or Facebook — while others break up, their talent scattered to the winds. Often that talent goes on to have ideas of its own and the cycle continues.

The only difference today is it's much less likely that William Henry Collier’s dream would be allowed to die through lack of mentorship or capital. Investors would be lining up to offer their experience and capital for a company that was by most metrics the Tesla of its day.

There’s a good reason we chose the old Marathon factory as the venue for Southland, Pando’s gritty reboot of a tech conference, which opens on Monday. The on-stage line up is first rate, of course: Chrisy Turlington Burns, Vice President Al Gore, PayPal’s David Marcus, Box’s Aaron Levie, Evernote’s Phil Libin and at least a dozen more huge names. There are also small salon discussions with entrepreneurs like Bryan Goldberg, Lockhart Steele, Jason Hirschhorn, Sam Shank and Leigh Rawdon.

But, as Sarah wrote here, we’ve also reimagined the start-up contest format. Each of the ten (just ten!) companies presenting at Southland has been assigned a superstar mentor — Tristan Walker, Bill Ready, Andy Dunn… — to help hone their pitch and also to have their back on stage during the negotiations. Yes, negotiations: every one of our judges has been asked to put up their own money to invest in the winning startup. The total prize fund currently stands well over $100k.

I'm co-hosting the startup contest with Ben Lerer, but the vast bulk of Southland was conceived before I joined Pando. I’ve been meaning to write a post about it for a while, giving my view of the conference as a semi-outsider. Two weeks ago, Sarah took me to Nashville to show me the Marathon factory, and for a walkthrough of all the spaces. She had spent weeks telling me how impressive — and fucking cool - the venue is, but until I walked through the giant roll-up door I just didn’t get it.

I feel bad for other tech conferences still working out of hotel ballrooms or purpose-built conference hangers. At one point during my tour of Marathon, I wandered into a side room and discovered a fully operational video game arcade. One of the annex buildings houses a whiskey distillery. I’ve been doing this job for a while, but Marathon is one of those places that's almost impossible to describe, and Southland is one of those conferences you’ll really have to experience to understand.

My writers block on the subject was cured late last night, only because I learned that the conference is basically sold out. There are less than two dozen tickets left, most of which will likely be gone by the time you read this (we sold 22 yesterday in the hour or so after Sarah wrote about our on-stage brass band). Now I don’t have to worry about failing to do justice to Marathon Music Works, or  about forgetting to mention any of the ridiculousness we have planned for conference attendees. If you’ve already got your ticket you’re going to find out for yourself why Southland is the tech entrepreneurship event of the year. If not, you’ll see the video and photos and tweets and reports from the event and punish yourself appropriately for not acting when we first told you about it.

Well. Actually...

Even if you can’t make it to Nashville next week, all is not entirely lost. We have not one, not two but three video crews on site at Marathon, ensuring that every on stage session, every entrepreneur salon, every startup pitch and every VIP party is captured. We even have a backstage studio setup for interviews with the stars and attendees of Southland, hosted by me and the rest of the Pando editorial team. 24 hours a day for the duration of the conference, Pando members will be able to watch all of the action, live, via our members' site.

But, yes, to watch the live stream, you do have to be a Pando member. For a measly $30 a month, members get unrestricted access to the full Southland stream — along with all the standard member benefits including a subscription to our quarterly print magazine and unlimited attendance of Pando Monthly events (plus streaming access to those too). If you haven’t joined already, it’s impossible to think of a reason why you shouldn’t do so right now.

Whether in person or via the live stream, I, Sarah, the rest of the Pando team, the former Vice President of the United States, and the ghost of  William Henry Collier will see you in Nashville on Monday.

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