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Launch a Startup Like a Rock Band at SXSW

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Ex-band manager Rebekah Campbell explains how she used the lessons she learned launching bands at SXSW to generate a ton of buzz for her startup on a shoestring. 

By Rebekah Campbell (Founder & CEO, Posse.com)

Before starting work on Posse.com I spent ten years managing rock bands. Most of the artists I represented were successful in Australia, but the big dream was to crack America. And the best place to launch a band is the SXSW festival in Austin. Each March, the world’s industry and media influencers assemble there to discover the Next Big Thing. The challenge of launching a band at SXSW is the competition: thousands of others have the same idea. There’s noise everywhere and you are operating with limited cash and resources.

Between 2003 – 2010, I came to SXSW four times; each visit launched a different artist. My job was to set up a stunning show – the best sound, lights and vibe – and ensure it was packed with influential people, folk who’d write about the band or sign them to a record deal.  Each trip cost the artist a wad of money, so I had to work out how to make an impact cheaply.

The Posse street team at our stand (made from items bought at Wal-Mart!)

This year I’m back at SXSW, launching our internet company and app. I applied many of the tactics I learned in music, and we had amazing success at securing media coverage and traction. I can safely say that Posse is one of the ‘buzzing’ companies people are talking about after the conference. Check out this Best of SXSW wrap up in AdAge this morning.  Here are six tricks I learned in music that I used to launch Posse at SXSW this week on a budget.

Get Influential People Talking About You Before the Festival

In music, we focused on being heard by high-profile producers: these guys are great talkers and they aren’t pitched every day. For the Posse launch, we worked out which US tech influencers love SXSW and asked them to share their five favourite places to eat, drink and shop in Austin. Everyone likes to share places they’ve discovered; it was easy to get the lists. We secured big names like Elspeth Rountree (NBC & Fox), Maya Baratz (ABC News) and David Tisch (Boxgroup) asking them to contribute – and turned it into a ‘Tech Elite’s Guide to Austin’. We published the map on our site and distributed printed copies around the festival.

We posted blogs featuring the list of a different influencer daily in the two weeks leading up to Austin, all of which were retweeted by the featured people themselves, their businesses, media and the retailers they recommended.  There was already demand for the complete map when we published it the day the festival started.

Timing Is Everything

Bands save releasing records until right before SXSW.  Every company has an interesting story to tell – the kind that could be covered in TechCrunch or Pando Daily. When something awesome happens (like you release an App or secure a round of funding) don’t write a press release straight away. We saved our App launch and funding announcement so we could land a major press story right on the eve of SXSW. We offered an exclusive to TechCrunch who ran this awesome article on Friday. This meant Posse was top of the mind for any other tech reporters covering the festival, as everyone reads TechCrunch.

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Guerrilla Marketing Works – But You Have to Be Clever

Every pole in downtown Austin is covered by 9am each morning. Big companies spend thousands designing and printing fancy-looking posters and then hire people to cover the poles. The most effective posters are simple, and if you’re on a low budget like us, you must find a way to stand out. Today, plain blue posters all over town say ‘Where is Biffy Clyro’?  They had a lot of people talking. It’s a conversation starter – ‘what ever did happen to Biffy Clyro? I wonder if he’s here?’

We ran a super-effective campaign promoting our Austin Map. The notices were designed like handmade ‘Lost’ posters, and then we found the ugliest and funniest looking animals we could and put them in the middle with a prompt for people to find the best places to eat, drink and shop at posse.com‘s Insider’s guide to Austin.  We printed 100 posters at the UPS store and stuck them up ourselves the next morning at 7am.  By 10am everyone was talking about the posters and we were even mentioned in Mashable.

Hustle All Day and All Night!

If you come to SXSW launching anything, you have to be prepared to hustle from 7am to midnight every day. I brought Jen from our office; there was just the two of us from Posse here but it’s safe to say we met thousands of people. We were on the streets handing out stickers and our maps of Austin, lurking in hotel lobbies where influential people might stay, meeting people and spreading the word. We were at all the parties we could make – if you’re influential and you’ve been at SXSW, there’s a good chance we spoke to you and tried to get you to download our app. Opportunities were everywhere – on the first day when everyone was waiting to register, we combed through the queue meeting everyone and offering cupcakes to anyone who signed up on the spot.

The reporter’s still holding the stickers we just gave him!

Hustling pays off because you get to meet some amazing people! Jen and I were getting out of a cab on Saturday after buying stuff at Wal-Mart to build our tradeshow stand. We handed stickers to two guys as we stepped out of the cab door. They happened to be journalists for NBC and asked to interview me for the evening news. Five minutes later, I was being interviewed on the street and they filmed us handing out stickers and sprucing our company. That night, we were the lead story on NBC News in Austin!  The next day our tradeshow stand was packed with people who saw us on TV the night before. We’ve met too many amazing, helpful people to mention while hustling, but it’ll all lead to media, speaking opportunities and partnerships in time.

Get a Street Team

You can only cover so much ground by yourself. To maximise your impact it’s important to try to get as many people as possible representing you at the festival. A month before, we advertised on the University of Texas jobs board for student volunteers to help launch our startup at SXSW.  Students would have the opportunity to help promote Posse for four days over SXSW, to learn how to launch a company at an event like this and would get a letter for their resume at the end. Astonishingly we were the only company to advertise for volunteers at UT and we had an influx of awesome applications. We chose a team of enthusiastic marketing students who did an excellent job signing up users, distributing maps and helping run our tradeshow stand.

Randi Zuckerberg was at an event we hosted!

Tie Yourself to Other People’s Events

The key trick of SXSW for a band is to get on the bill at an event where everyone is going to be.  If you try to put on your own show, you have the near-impossible job of promoting the show to a large group of people you don’t know and who already have a plan of events they want to go to. One of the most successful launches I ran at SXSW was when I managed to get Operator Please to play at the NME Party.

It’s the same for an internet company. SXSW will try to convince you spend $10K to throw your own party. Don’t! We don’t have that much spare cash; even if we did, I know it would be hopeless to attract the right people to our party. For Posse the people I really wanted to get behind us were influential women in technology. So we teamed up with a Women in Tech advocacy group called ‘Change The Ratio’ who were already throwing a power women’s brunch. We paid a very small sponsorship fee (even a startup like us could afford it) and they brought all the power women along. With virtually no effort and very little cost we got to own the hottest women’s event of the festival, and people like Randi Zuckerberg and Cindy Gallop were at our event!

I’m writing this blog on the last afternoon of the festival while waiting to get a cab to the airport. Before I came to SXSW this year, I read a lot of blogs warning startups to avoid it. ‘There’s too much competition,’ they said and ‘you can’t make an impact unless you’re prepared to spend up big.’ We decided to give it a shot, and I’m happy to report that we did make an impact.  We signed up more than 4000 new users this week, raised our profile in the US considerably, enjoyed a ton of press, made a lot of amazing connections and we did it all on a budget of less than $10K.

Jen and I are exhausted, but we’ve had so much fun. I’d definitely recommend SXSW and other trade shows like it if you want to make an impact, so long as you’re prepared to work incredibly hard to make it all happen.

This post was originally posted at rebekahcampbell.com

About the guest blogger: Rebekah Campbell is the founder and CEO of Posse.com, a social search engine that helps people find the favorite places in their social network. She launched Posse in June 2012 and it already has more than 17,000 stores. Prior to Posse, Rebekah founded Scorpio Music, one of Australia’s most successful artist management companies.

Women 2.0 readers: Do you have any other tips and tricks for getting the most out of SXSW?