The Big Small Business Event at SXSW

Forget the film premieres and live concerts. Startups and entrepreneurs have taken center stage at the South by Southwest (SXSW) extravaganza in Austin, which runs March 11-20. Twitter got its buzz going here in 2007, Foursquare did the same in 2009. What will be voted the next hot startup this year?

Whatever it is, it will be decided at Accelerator, SXSW’s version of a beauty contest for small businesses. From March 14 to 16, 32 startups in social media, mobile apps, and web entertainment pitch themselves to high-profile judges and a live audience. The winners get tech-related goodies, press interviews, and a toe in the national spotlight, but according to Chris Valentine, producer of the Accelerator producer, all participants get to make valuable connections and boost their careers.

We spoke to Valentine about the event.

ISBB: What’s the big deal about Accelerator?

Valentine: It really is a high-profile event for startups to pitch themsleves to venture capitalists, industry experts, and the media. Consider the judges — Chris Hughes is a co-founder of Facebook, Craig Newmark created Craigslist, and Paul Buchheit developed Gmail. They’re there to offer feedback and guidance… and you may never get that chance again.

We know about Twitter and Foursquare, but how have other companies done after their turn at Accelerator?

Of the companies that participated in the first two years, 41 percent have received funding, totaling more than $85 million. Ten percent of the companies have been acquired by companies like Google and Apple. So we’re choosing the right companies to participate, and finding what are the next trends out there.

Not only are we offering opportunities for companies to find investors, we’re creating opportunities for them to be in front of companies that want to acquire them. One finalist last year told me it was already in discussions to be acquired but the buying company wanted to see how the team did on stage, and see how they coped with high-profile action. They did well, and it was one of the key reasons they were acquired, because they were a good addition.

Is there more than just the judging face-off?

We always kick off the event with Tech Cocktail; it’ll be on Sunday, March 13. This is the shaking-hands opportunity with judges and investors. Even if you’re not involved in Accelerator, there’s no reason why you can’t network with them during that time. One finalist last year met an angel investor there and after five minutes of conversation, the guy texted his contacts saying, “I’m investing in this company.” The check was between $50,000 and $100,000. So you never know where the opportunities are going to be.

Besides Accelerator, what else can small-business attendees take advantage of?

Accelerator is not the lone event for entrepreneurs. There are also panelists, after-hour networking events, and a level of programming unlike other conferences. As we got bigger, we didn’t want to lose our core base, so we created campuses for each track instead of throwing everyone together in the Convention Center. The Hilton Hotel is the campus for the “Business of Technology” track, so that’s where most entrepreneurs and small-biz owners probably want to focus. Even as SXSW grows every year, we aim to have a more singular focus so there’s still an intimate feel, and you can get the most out of the conference.

The competition is tough. In 2010, we had 200 entries, and this year, we had 420. Each year, the level and quality of companies get better and better. The way they think outside of the box, you believe these companies will do well because they’re all incredible.

(The deadline for SXSW Acclerator in 2012 will be at the end of this year; details will be on SXSW’s website).

About Vanessa Richardson

Vanessa is a freelance writer in San Francisco who writes about small business and personal finance. She has been a staff writer for Money and Red Herring, and now writes frequently for sites like Bankrate, Entrepreneur, MSNBC and Money.
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