Russ: Welcome back to The BusinessMakers Show, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business. Coming to you today from a Lego table at the 2015 South by Southwest Interactive and I’m very pleased to have as my guest Hugh Forrest, the Director of South by Southwest Interactive; Hugh, welcome to The BusinessMakers Show.
Hugh: Hey Russ, it’s great to be here, thanks for having me.
Russ: You bet, absolutely. Well tell us about 2015 Interactive here at South by Southwest.
Hugh: Well South by Southwest Interactive is five days of panels, presentations, trade show, exhibits, networking fun. It’s a way to bring very, very creative people together who mostly work in the tech space. Bring them together in a very, very creative city, Austin, Texas, have them do a variety of things together and kind of sit back and watch all the new connections that are made, all the new brainstorms that come out of this, all the new partnerships that form, all the new relationships that form and it works pretty well for us.
Russ: Cool. Well, and here we are at day 5 so does that mean you’ve gone through four sleepless nights to this point?
Hugh: No, not really sleepless nights. We work really, really hard in the seven months leading up to this event and that’s with the understanding that once the event starts its got a mind of its own and there are a lot of fires that need to be put out but there’s a lot of things that we just simply can’t control. So I actually get more sleep during the event than I do say in November or December and so that’s a good thing.
Russ: Okay, well you kind of answered my next question; this is your day job, right?
Hugh: This is my day job and sometimes my night job, yes.
Russ: Okay and you said seven months so does that mean you get five months off?
Hugh: No, no, no. The event ends in March, we pat ourselves on the back for a couple weeks, we then start reading feedback and start preparing for the next year. So we will start taking speaking ideas in late June and continue that through July, we’re starting to program stuff as early as August so it is a long cycle. And we have some very long days and long nights in again November, December and January and that’s in the hopes that we can get as many details together onsite so that we can have more time to deal with the unexpected fires that pop up.
Russ: Okay. So you’ve been with the company for 20, 25 years, the head of Interactive since it started as multimedia in the beginning.
Russ: And from everything I’ve read it didn’t take off right in the beginning at all.
Hugh: Correct. We started in 1994, at that point we were called South by Southwest Multimedia. We had about ten years where we really struggled to find our voice; we would not have survived if there was not this big South by Southwest music thing that was being billed. I often say that that’s evidence that you don’t quit your day job. You know, you have something that pays the bills while you’re doing something experimental. Low and behold about 2004 we started doing a little more social media stuff, this new thing that was social media. And we ended up being in the right place at the right time on a lot of social media stuff and a lot of startup stuff and enjoyed a really strong ten year grow cycle. And from that period in 2004 to where we are now South by Southwest Interactive has become the biggest industry portion of the event, much bigger than film and much bigger than music. In some ways that reflects our hard work, but it also is a strong reflection of just the general way our society changes – has changed; everything is a technology business now. Whatever business you’re in you have to know technology, you have to know social media; you have to know all these different technology skills and we’ve certainly benefited from that change.
Russ: Well I read something even that said Interactive is bigger than music and film combined; is that true?
Hugh: That’s correct.
Russ: That’s amazing.
Hugh: But a lot of the growth – I mean realize that a lot of the growth that we’ve had is people who were previously coming to music or film who are now coming to Interactive because they needed the technology skills to push their business forward. So again, the whole landscape is shifted in so many ways in this last ten or fifteen years in ways that I never could have imagined and I never could have imagined that it would get as big as it has gotten now. Big is good for my ego although we always say that quality is better than quantity.
Russ: Absolutely. And so, but big this year, I mean there’s been growth year over year in Interactive, is that going to happen again this year?
Hugh: We’ll grow a little bit this year but we’re – I think we’re removed from the – we had four or five years where we were having double digit growth and that’s really fun and looks really neat but it’s really hard to do. So we’ll have a much smaller growth this year and hopefully smaller growth allows us to pay more attention to a lot of the user experience issues and create an even better event.
Russ: Okay. So I’m a technology guy from way back. I tricked IBM into hiring me in 1973 so I look at the history a lot too and Multimedia in the beginning, I mean what was that, CD ROM?
Hugh: Yeah, CD ROM, yes. When we started CD ROMs were the state of the art stuff, that’s what our panels were – 2/3 of the panels were about developing CD ROMs; what kind of content you could put on it, what were the latest tips and tricks to make it a, you know, more flashy. And then this thing called the internet started gaining popularity and that kind of put the CD ROM stuff on the back burner. I can remember years here where we were actually teaching people how to log online and that just seems so foreign to us now. But there was a time when it wasn’t that strange, you were actually showing people what this internet thing is and we have panels this week, lots of panels say on something like Bitcoin and maybe ten years it will seem that strange to us that we had to teach people what Bitcoin or some other virtual currency is. So, you know things change and that’s a feature, not a flaw.
Russ: I contend Hugh that as human beings here in the United States, we don’t appreciate enough the magnitude of what’s happened in the digital world. I mean we just sort of take it in stride and to think about the internet, to think about sharing giant spreadsheets with people in Australia back and forth and back and forth, is just far beyond our imaginations back in the early 80s and stuff, even in the PC era.
Hugh: Right, right.
Russ: And this place kind of demonstrates how far we’ve gone, but it does seem like you don’t look back you know. I recently saw your video about geeks are now the rock stars. Well I remember the movie Revenge of the Nerds about twenty years ago and that’s the way I interpreted it, but have you ever considered having any of the historical figures here? Andy Groves, Dan Bricklin – VisiCalc, Rod Canion, the Founder of the fastest high tech startup in the history of business still to this day – $111 million in the first year – or would an event like that, a panel like that, not even attract?
Hugh: No, no, I think that it’s great to remind our audience and our community how much this stuff has changed, some of the history makers who’ve been involved here. You know, he’s not speaking this year but the last couple of years we’ve had Tim Berners-Lee at the event and he’s very popular and still has a very strong message. So lots of those early pioneers have been involved with the event and we’d love to get more involved in the future.
Russ: All right, so enough about the history lesson, let’s look at today and kind of the rock stars that you have. I know Astro Teller’s this afternoon we’re going to see him but tell us more, give us an overview of what’s happened here so far in the first four days.
Hugh: Lots of stuff has happened Russ and most of it I don’t know about and that may be a good thing but we’ve had some great speakers. One of the ones I really enjoyed yesterday was Jonah Peretti from BuzzFeed and hearing how they integrate data and news and branding is fascinating, scary in a lot of ways. That’s it, I think the most popular speaker so far was out keynote on Sunday March 15th, this is a woman named Maritine Rothblatt, she is the highest paid female CEO in the U.S.
Russ: Hot topic right now.
Hugh: Hot topic, flows well with our attention to diversity, she’s the Founder of Sirius Radio, she works at a health tech startup now called United Therapeutics, but the big focus of her talk was that she’s built this robot that has a clone of her mind and how you can create a kind of immortality by cloning your mind. And it’s the kind of outside the box perspective that hopefully we provide at South by Southwest and just following the social media on that it looks like a lot of people really enjoyed that which is interesting because, you know, in past years – in recent years we had some keynotes that have been more kind of straight down the middle that go over well also but great to hear that her message was so well received.
Russ: Yeah. Being in the digital world for so many years – and I’ve already referred back to the old days and stuff – but the new, young generation which really power drives the whole thing – and I watch it and I do my best to stay up to date – but I’m also in the regular business world too, not just the digital world and I’m contrasting them all the time. And I noticed that, you know, the digital world, the young people have really latched on and benefitted a lot from this social community; you get your information from the community. But there’s two things about that that I go wait a minute; you never hear at a – I don’t think you do – at a conference like this, there’s never the focus on leadership within companies; company leadership. It’s almost like it doesn’t matter anymore. What’s your perspective on that?
Hugh: Well, yes and no. I think that we do a lot of sessions and there’s a lot of interest in Holacracy, this idea of eliteless company or, you know, co-working spaces; that said, some of our most popular sessions have been, for instance yesterday we had a session with Megan Smith, the U.S. CTO, and Eric Schmidt from Google and, you know, them talking about the leadership qualities that they’ve brought. This was a session organized by Walter Isaacson who wrote that new book The Innovators, so there’s always these two kind of polar opposites of do you allow this complete independent, non-structured work space or do you have a powerful leader who by force or by charisma pulls together their employees? And I think that just from looking at the content we’ve offered we skirt back and forth between those polar opposites quite a bit.
Russ: Which seems like what you should do. Eric Schmidt’s pretty interesting though that here was this startup young guys and there’s a lot of people I know that gave a lot of their initial credit to him, they brought in an outside guy. I got to – I attended the Zeitgeist one year and he talked about this a lot, it was really a topic at the time but it’s really interesting. The other thing about community and social is that I sort of think it’s now jaded. I don’t think it works like we thought. I mean there’s the whole Yelp thing, there’s the pay to play thing now, there’s the service companies that would jack up your Facebook likes for you, that’ll comment for you; do you talk about that here at South by Southwest?
Hugh: Well I talk a lot about what I fell is our most important and strongest asset which is this power of community. I believe strongly in that, that the community is a lot smarter than the organizers and the more we can listen to those people, the stronger we can become.
Russ: But I think you have a pure listening deal here. I don’t think you have people hired to, you know, you need to get out there, you need to tell Hugh he needs to do this. You have a real community.
Hugh: Well, I think as well one of the ironies an event like South by Southwest is that on the one hand we are focused on new technologies that allow us to communicate in different ways with different devices and all that good stuff and that’s certainly a fascinating topic of conversation here; on the other hand, the power of an even like this really reflects that people still enjoy face to face meetings.
Russ: Yes, absolutely.
Hugh: They enjoy having breakfast with someone, having lunch with someone, having coffee, having a beer and it’s much easier to understand someone that way and look someone in the eye and decide if you want to do business with this person; if you want to do some kind of project with this person, if this is someone you want to be involved with. And it may be that in three years, in five years, in ten years we create some kind of technology where I can be sitting next to this machine and it seems like I’m sitting next to you now but we’re not there yet.
Russ: Right, right, right. No, I know. And in fact you make a good point about face to face, you probably get straight As, in fact this is probably the world class organization for face to face.
Hugh: I don’t know about that but thank you for the nice words.
Russ: I think it is, I think it is. I couldn’t help but when we were talking I remembered our discussion before we started and that we were talking about Astro Teller and you ultimately said, you know, he’s got a real good job; a lot of people think you have a real good job. Now it’s always a little different when you’re there but you’ve probably bored to that; maybe you yearn to be bored, but it seems like you have a great job.
Hugh: Well it’s fun to be in a place where we have more and more industry leaders, innovators, creative thinkers, however you want to phrase that, who want to be involved with South by Southwest and they’re returning emails that they weren’t returning or calls that they weren’t returning ten years ago. It’s fun to be in that position and that’s neat; that said, the bulk of what we do at South by Southwest – me and my staff do – is just grind, grind, grind on details and details and details.
Russ: This is his usual.
Hugh: So the other person’s job always seems sexy, in real life it is details and details and details and what I am best at is getting up early in the morning, staying up late at night, answering emails after emails after emails and beyond that I’m barely technical enough to turn on my own computer but there you go.
Russ: Sure. Well Hugh, I really appreciate you sharing some time with us.
Hugh: Thanks Russ, it’s great to talk to you.
Russ: You bet.
Hugh: Welcome to South by Southwest, have a great time.
Russ: Thank you very much, thank you very much. And that wraps up our discussion with Hugh Forrest, the Director of South by Southwest Interactive. And this is The BusinessMakers Show, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business.
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