Chris and I just finished up our first trip to South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, TX. Anyone interested at all in film, music, or the Internet needs to go to “South by.” Unfortunately, SXSW is pricey. You want to get the most out of your money, or not spend any money at all. Here are a few hacks to keep in mind for SXSW 2009.

It’s possible to do South by for a whopping $0, but you have to do it right. You’re conscience might also get a little dirty in the process.

Don’t Buy a Pass

Let’s face it, $450 is an obscene amount to pay for a pass. Even the early bird rates are in no way conducive to students. (FOWA, on the other hand, has great students rates: $50.)

Thankfully, all of SXSW can be hacked into being free. Chris never had a pass. The Austin Convention Center is huge. No matter how many volunteers you have, it’s impossible to enforce consistent policies. The volunteers are usually college students, too.

Between schmoozing and befriending enough volunteers, Chris was able to get around the center and into any talk that he wanted. Just engage in legitimate conversations with them. You’ll make some friends in the process, learn about Austin, and get in to whatever panel you want to attend. While you won’t have that fancy SXSWi pass, your wallet will be considerably thicker.

If you want to keep your conscience clean, see if you can temp for a company with a booth. Get in touch with them early before they start talking to temp agencies. It’s cheaper for them and you get free a pass! Check out my earlier post on how I got my SXSWi pass for free.

Get a Twitter Account

With the way that Twitter is used at SXSW, you would think that it was founded by Alexander Graham Bell. Twitter is necessary for keeping in touch and figuring out what’s going on. The best parties aren’t planned, they’re Twittered.

Before you get to Austin, start following and replying to all of the “Internet famous” people you want to meet and hang out with. Once you get there, stalk their Twitter feeds. Don’t stalk them to meet them; stalk them to know where the parties are. If they are Internet famous, they will always roll deep with a fun crew.

And for goodness’ sake, don’t update people about your breakfast or cute cat. Chris Brogan, blogger extraordinaire, puts it best, “I don’t answer Twitter’s question ‘What are you doing?’ Instead I answer the question ‘What is interesting to me right now?’” Twittering about interesting stuff makes people think that you yourself are interesting.

Use Frequent Flier Miles

Now is the time to cash in on frequent flier miles. Flights will generally be more expensive because of SXSW, so use that ticket you’ve been saving for awhile.

Know How to Approach People

South by Southwest is not the forum for pitches. What you’re doing is interesting to you. If you start talking to someone and pitching them, they will lose interest fast. If you have a legitimate question to ask regarding something you’re doing, ask it. Keep the pitching to a minimum.

Everyone is in Austin during SXSW to party. If business deals are made in the meantime, so be it. Internet famous people are especially not looking to be swamped with pitch after pitch.

Matt Mullenweg, the pimp daddy of WordPress, also had some great advice: Don’t interrupt conversations. You’d be surprised how many times it gets done. Be polite, courteous, and genuine. All attendees have their insincerity radars cranked to 11. Be careful.

Don’t Pitch Yourself Unless Asked

Following the last point, there is a time and place to pitch at South by. That time is when someone asks, “So what do you do?” Switch into pitch mode, but only for a minute. If they aren’t interested in what you do, switch back into normal conversation mode.

Party Like a Rock Star

‘Nuff said.

Get into Bars If You Are Underage

This is one of the more difficult things to accomplish. The bouncers are thick-skinned. You’ll need at the very least a fake or a friend’s ID. If you are busting into a 21 bar and you are underage, the reason for doing such should not be to just drink. That’s what dorm rooms are for. If the law gets in your way of doing (smart) things, break the law.

If you haven’t got a piece of plastic proclaiming your age legality, you have to play hard ball. Figure out where the parties later in the week will be and go start chatting up their bouncers. The bouncers in Austin are nice and tame compared to LA bouncers. They are friendly southern folk.

There are a few strategies for getting in underage:


    • Show the bouncer your real ID anyway. They might not care if you come in, but their boss is watching.


  • Show up early. Many of the spots around Austin are restaurants during the day and become the bars at night. If worse comes to worse, hide in the bathroom for an extended period of time. If it’s a smaller party, they won’t kick you out.



  • As always, there’s sneaking in through the back, having a celebrities get you in, or throwing the bouncer a 20 dollar bill.



Don’t Go to the Panels

Well, go to some of the panels. A panel’s awesomeness is almost always determined by who is on it not what the panel is about. Every once in a while, a panel with an awesome topic will also have awesome people on it.

A few of my favorites are: Kathy Sierra (Creating Passionate Users), Gary Vaynerchuk (WineLibraryTV), Tantek Celik (Microformat/Body Optimization Extraordinaire), Kevin Rose (digg), Leah Culver (Pownce), Ben Huh (, Cal Henderson (flickr), Bre Pettis (etsy), Zadi Diaz (EPIC-FU), Matt Mullenweg (WordPress), and Justine Ezarik (iJustine).

Befriend Bouncers

Whether you are underage or the party will be packed, meeting the bouncers of a venue a few nights before is usually a good idea. If they’re friendly and remember you, they’ll let you in to that killer party.

Write Your Follow-Ups Drunk

If you’re looking to make a splash at SXSW, you need to be on your A game. We’re big fans of Keith Ferrazzi‘s Never Eat Alone book and blog. One of his pillars of good networking is following up. The sooner, the better.

I usually write my follow-ups the night of meeting the person, so it’s the first thing in their email box in the morning. Given the nature of conferences, that means I’m usually slightly intoxicated. Call me Hemingway, but I can write a decent follow-up after a few beers.

And you
should too. Don’t follow-up if you’re blacked out (duh). Do follow-up while the details of the conversation are fresh in your mind. No matter how much beers either of you have had, you’ll be able to vaguely recall your conversation about developing using Adobe Flex. Bam, you will just have solidified a connection and have a friend to ask the next time you have a question or need some help.

Check Your Day Bag into the Nearest Hotel

The last hack of SXSW is one I didn’t learn until the last night. Some parties won’t let you have bags. That’s a problem for me with my cool hipster Chrome messenger bag. The solution: Just find the nearest hotel and drop it off with the concierge. Just remember to pick it up after the party.

How Do You Hack SXSW?

Let us know in the comments!