Ireland has plenty to learn from the SXSW Interactive festival

Ireland has plenty to learn from the SXSW Interac...

By Barry McCall. This article was originally published in The Irish Times and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

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Anna Scally of KPMG believes we can build a similar reputation to that of Austin.

“I was in San Francisco before SXSW and the similarities between there and our Silicon Docks in Dublin is striking,” says Ms Scally.

KPMG tax partner Anna Scally experienced the organised chaos that is the SXSW festival on a recent trip to the US and believes there is much Ireland can learn from it. It started as a country music festival in Austin, Texas but the first weekend – SXSW Interactive – has grown into a major event in its own right where the arts and technology sectors converge.

“The energy is amazing,” Scally says. “About 70,000 people converge on Austin for the weekend and the city comes together to accommodate them. The hotel where I stayed – the 1,012-bedroom JD Marriott– didn’t exist a year ago. It was seen as something the city needed to support its growth and festivals like SXSW, and the different stakeholders came together to make it happen.”

Scally says Irish attendees benefited from the fact this year’s festival took place the weekend before St Patrick’s Day. “There was huge interest in Ireland at the event. For example, Salesforce. com had people dressed as leprechauns showering people with ‘shamrocks of good luck’. Even companies which weren’t Irish went Irish for the weekend.”

The Irish were also very much in evidence. “Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland did a marvellous job promoting Ireland. Enterprise Ireland had 16 Irish companies on an Ireland stand and did a great job showcasing them. They organised an Irish dancing flash mob on the Saturday afternoon; it was very clever and it worked very well. They also organised a very well attended panel discussion on why Ireland is cranking out great technology companies. The weekend was a great opportunity for early-stage Irish companies to meet with potential partners and investors.”

This was the IDA’s first official appearance at the festival. “They have a great team in the US and they brought many of them to Austin. They hosted a really good panel event titled Help, I’ve Got Customers in Europe, What Should I Do? The discussion and the Q&A session afterwards were excellent. A lot of companies came to listen and with any luck they will be IDA client companies in due course.”

Party time

The scale of SXSW is hard to grasp. Anything up to 30 events go on in parallel and it is impossible to get to them all. Competition for attention is intense and the fact that the Irish events and stands were so well attended is a tribute to all involved. And then there are the parties.

“It is overwhelming,” says Scally. “The day starts early and you spend it trying to catch as many sessions as you can. Everyone is hugely engaged. The parties start at 5pm. All of the major companies host parties and two streets are closed off for party venues.

“There is a lot of serendipity to it. You never know who you are going to meet; it’s very much up to you to make the most of them. I met a chief executive who I had spoken to at the Web Summit in Dublin 18 months ago. He asked me to his party and while there, I met some serious investors who are interested in doing business in Ireland. Normally, you couldn’t get a meeting with those people if you tried for months. That’s the sort of thing that happens.

Learning from SXSW

“The chief executive of a healthcare company overheard me talking to a colleague and when he heard our Irish accents asked us about doing business in Ireland. At one point I was approached by a 22 year-old entrepreneur who asked me if I would listen to his pitch for a start-up as he wanted to get an international perspective on his idea. We have our own young people at home who are every bit as good and we need to encourage them.”

Scally believes we can learn from SXSW, not by trying to copy it but by looking at the spirit which underpins it.

“We are very lucky to already have the Web Summit in Dublin and we should look at how we can help it grow. Austin is the fastest growing city in America and it hasn’t achieved that position by accident. People can see that it’s a good place to do business and they go there as a result. We can do the same in Dublin.”

By that she means emulating the partnership she saw in action in Austin.

“The whole city pulls together to make it happen. It’s quite incredible the way everyone aligns to make SXSW happen. The public and the private sectors and the people of Austin all work together to make it a success. It can’t be easy to have your city taken over by 70,000 visitors for the weekend but they do it and make it work. What comes out of it is this fusion and intersection of arts, music and technology and it’s at that intersection that new businesses are spawned.

“We can see this in Ireland in fintech, health tech and agtech. There are great opportunities for us in those areas and if we can all pull together in Dublin to achieve that kind of convergence and collision between different sectors at events like the Web Summit we can help foster innovative companies in Ireland.”

The Web Summit isn’t our only advantage in this respect.

“I was in San Francisco before SXSW and the similarities between there and our Silicon Docks in Dublin is striking. A few years ago all of the tech start-ups were in Silicon Valley but they are now locating in San Francisco city itself and they are going there because that’s where the talent is.

“The companies like being near each other and this is quite similar to Dublin. They all have very positive things to say about Ireland and I think what is happening in the Silicon Docks is going to help us attract more of them to come here.”

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