Pando

Curse of the lanyard: Does anyone even want to be the darling of SXSW anymore?

By Sarah Lacy , written on March 7, 2016

From The Facepalm Desk

This week we start to gear up for one of the most beloved and yet eyeroll-inducing “oh it’s so ovvvverrrr….” events of the tech calendar: SXSW Interactive.

It used to be called “tech spring break” aka rowdy excuse for developers and nerds to unleash their inner suppressed jocks and drink heavily, stay out late, and engage in behavior that they could never get away with the rest of the year. Those were-- according to some-- the good old days.

Now it’s just gotten weird. And not in that KEEP AUSTIN WEIRD! kinda way. Many of Silicon Valley’s tech entrepreneurs and thinkers who loyally flocked there early on have long since stopped attending, meantime, every massive brand on the planet spends six figures or more hosting parties and giveaways. Sure, big tech names still speak. But like a lot of mega-events, they fly in and fly out.

Look at the numbers, dollars spent, and the fact that the President of the United States is speaking this year. There is no denying SXSW keeps getting bigger. But… what exactly has it become? A place people the world over flock to meet with techies…. that techies-- at least at the senior level from the Valley-- no longer seem to go to.  

That’s a question I don’t intend to find answer to. I am not attending, and nor is anyone else from Pando. Every year we’ve sent reporters, they burn out, get sick, and frankly we don’t get much in the way of memorable stories in return, despite their best efforts.

Even more frequently asked by those still going will be this: What company will be the darling of SXSW this year?

My take on that annual question would be: Who would want to be, given the fate of recent “darlings”?

Twitter begat Foursquare begat Secret begat Meerkat.

Consider those former SXSW darlings in order:

Twitter was the first, and remains the most successful. It’s a multi-billion dollar, iconic public company, but one that that has struggled to get “mainstream” despite hashtags and @-handles on every show, every event, every political race, and every major sports game. It joins the ranks of once great, world changing Valley spawns that ultimately, well, tops out. TiVo, Yahoo, Zynga, Digg, and on and on. But it did go public. It created billionaires. It made a lot of people very rich and is still one of the most iconic companies of the social media era.

Then came Foursquare, which went from mega-hyped mobile first darling to struggles to now a solid company whose future may be more through its location service API than the checkins it was so known for. Its iconic founder Dennis Crowley has moved on to other challenges. It’s had to do down rounds to continue slug it out. Its investors are still bullish. It still has a loyal following of users. And Crowley is a founder the elite investors would still back in a heartbeat. But it fell considerably short of Twitter.

Then came Secret. We took issue with the moral implications of Secret, the fact that it was a breeding ground for bullying, abuse, lies, and potentially teenage suicide. But others took issues with the founders themselves. Cashing out some $6 million in stock well before the company was even a year old, buying fancy cars, and the like. Unlike Foursquare which has ground it out since its challenges struck, Secret returned the remaining capital and just quit. From a $100 million valuation for the nine-month old company to… gone in roughly another nine months. It was so egregious Google Ventures’ Bill Maris called the portfolio company out for its greedy actions, comparing it to “a bank heist.”

Sadly, Meerkat didn’t even do that well. Last week-- not even a year since its debut-- it announced getting out of the livestream business. In truth, the pivot began last August.

From Re/Code’s in depth piece:

So Meerkat, in true Silicon Valley fashion, is pivoting. Actually, it’s been pivoting since last August, when Rubin realized that his startup focused on livestreaming broadcasts was headed for a black hole.

Today the company has all but abandoned the livestreaming model we’ve become familiar with in favor of something new: A social network where “everybody is always live,” Rubin told Re/code in an interview earlier this week. (More on that below.) The Meerkat app still works, but its creators have shifted time and resources elsewhere.

“It was a fucking hard decision to say ‘it’s not going to work, thank you everyone for the support,'” Rubin said. “One-to-many [broadcasting] is not more than a feature on top of a platform, and if we want to be independent we have to change the course.”

Unlike Secret, Meerkat is still in business. But finding one thing that catches the zeitgeist is hard enough. Will the team be able to find two?

Ironically, as SXSW gets less insular, and more mainstream-- mainstream enough the President speaks at it-- the app crowned as its winner each year fares worse than the one from the previous year, and struggles precisely with the issue of becoming mainstream.

Perhaps it’s that the press has pushed too hard to crown a SXSW sensation. After all, many noted that Meerkat despite its hype coming out of SXSW didn’t rank highly in the app store. There were signs immediately that the hype may not be backed up.

Others will say that apps that shine at SXSW are those that are confined to a shit load of people all being in one place at the same time in an over-packed few days. Checkins, for instance, matter more in that type of setting, as do real time conversations.

Those are factors, certainly. But it may also be something more than that.

When SXSW was smaller, it was something attended as the work release trip for every mid-level developer or Robert Scoble style early adopter powering and evangelizing every tech company in the Valley. They may have struggled to latch onto something that could become the next Facebook. But so do a lot of the Valley’s investors. There aren’t that many, for one thing.

But they latched on to things that were distinct. Now, it’s in a mushy middle. A mainstream audience drinking free Coca-Cola and grilled cheeses, that’s trying to think like early tech adopters, grasping to find another Twitter or Foursquare to get excited about as part of the SXSW experience.

If I were building a new messaging startup, I’d wait until next month to launch. As Fred Wilson once said of Foursquare, “Hype is a drug.”