Omaha entrepreneurs seek lift from South by Southwest Interactive

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Posted: Saturday, March 8, 2014 12:00 am

Omaha entrepreneurs are heading to Austin, Texas, this weekend, armed with plans to make the most out of their time spent at one of the world's largest technology festivals, South by Southwest Interactive.

Interactive, which includes a trade show, speakers, parties and a startup accelerator, is meant to showcase emerging technology, including some of the best new websites, video games and startup ideas.

South by Southwest started in 1987 as a music festival and in 1994 added film and interactive festivals. Registrations for Interactive exceeded registrations for the music festival in 2010, organizers said, and 30,000 attended last year's interactive conference.

Everyone hopes to get a boost the way Twitter did in 2007. The 9-month-old company placed TVs in the conference hall displaying tweets about the event. Daily tweets tripled to 60,000, making Interactive a place to launch social apps and other innovations. Last year saw an influx of big corporations taking part.

That's why Omaha entrepreneurs and investors want to have a game plan when they get there.

“If you don't have a strategy and a schedule, you're in trouble,” said Erica Wassinger, who owns ERW Public Relations, a boutique public relations firm in Omaha. “Too many companies go down to party. But at $1,300 for a badge, that is likely not the best use of funds.”

Wassinger, who manages public relations for some Omaha and Lincoln startups, is attending the conference this year to help launch an awards program meant to recognize marketers who have successfully bucked convention to draw in customers.

The rest of her time there will be spent at networking events and meeting with potential clients and media. “I wish I was exaggerating when I say that I have every 30 minutes from 7 a.m. to midnight accounted for,” she said.

Dusty Davidson, co-founder of web hosting startup Flywheel and Silicon Prairie News, has attended Interactive since 2008 and has seen attendance grow since then — in both startups and big-name brands.

He and Flywheel co-founders Tony Noecker and Rick Knudtson will attend, along with a handful from the Silicon Prairie News team. “It's pretty massive these days,” Davidson said. “Anymore it's so big you've got to really target the people you want to meet up with.”

For Flywheel, the time will be spent in one-on-one meetings — Davidson said he has about a dozen meetings booked already — along with attending a handful of panels and keynote sessions. “It's the one time of the year where everybody congregates in Austin and you get to see all your friends and reconnect,” he said. “But you gotta have a game plan.”

While the conference used to be about exposure for many startups, it's become so overwhelmingly huge that it's hard for startups to compete with major brands like Ford, Nike and Samsung.

“The thing used to be to make a big splash. For Flywheel, exposure for us is one on one,” Davidson said. “It's just gotten so big, it's hard to compete with (companies like) Ford for attention. ... That's not to say we won't wear our Flywheel T-shirts.”

A handful of other Omaha business leaders will be speaking on various panels and events. Kt McBratney, vice president and general manager at full-service advertising agency Phenomblue, will speak on a panel on quality assurance. The agency's CEO, Joe Olsen, will also attend the conference, said Kate Richling, Phenomblue vice president of marketing.

The agency also will launch to curate all content coming out of the conference, including tweets, links and discussions, for those who can't be there.

Nick Bowden, CEO of Omaha's MindMixer, will be speaking on a panel about public data and government. It will be Bowden's first year attending, although he's been invited to speak in the past.

“Every year the bar raises to get attention because you have so many different people there,” Bowden said. “You've gotta have some kind of reasonable budget to do anything of significance.

For investors like Michael Wetta of Dundee Venture Capital, there are potential deals to be found and connections to be made with other investors who can provide the next round of funding for Dundee Venture Capital's portfolio companies.

Wetta, who is attending for the first time, said he has about 10 meetings lined up with other investors, startups and marketing partners. “It's kind of an experiment a little bit, just to see how valuable it is.”

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