The other day, Steve pinged me to ask if we could download the videos on offer from the XOXO Festival. My policy has always been: If the team makes a request for something to learn and be inspired from — be it a book, video series, or an event — I'll happily oblige.
The XOXO Festival first came to our attention when it was posted on Kickstarter back in May. At the time, we considered attending but decided to hold off and see how the first year panned out. Poking around the site, I would venture a guess that it was a huge success. In fact, it's precisely the kind of event in which I want us to be participating. It even had me waxing nostalgic about the first major event Plank attended: South by Southwest Interactive, 2002.
SXSW 2002 was, put simply, an incredible event. There were multiple panels and more people than I could ever hope to meet in four days, yet I got to have conversations, debates, and beers with respected web builders from all over the globe. I left having acquired some genuine friendships, some of which are still active today.
As of 2005, we were regularly sending a third of the team to Austin every March. Within a few years, everyone at Plank had had the chance to experience SXSW and they always came back energized. I returned in 2009 and, while I had a great time bonding with my team, I didn't get the same sense of community as years prior. Closing in on 10,000 attendees, it had become overcrowded, sprawling, and dizzying. Those numbers doubled in 2011; the audience, as one might expect from such growth, had completely changed.
In 2002, SXSW brought together a community that was passionate about the web and where it was headed. That small group of people was actively shaping the direction of technology and design. By 2011, the focus of the event had shifted from those who were building the internet to those who were selling it — the marketers, executives, and entrepreneurs had taken over, for better or for worse.
It had grown too big in other ways as well. I attended each day from 9am until 2am and still felt like I had missed out on 95% of the conference. There was no one hub; no small, informal events. Hotel prices had doubled and rooms sold out within days of tickets going on sale; not weeks or months, as before.
I acknowledge that SXSW lives up to its moniker of "Geek Spring Break" — the masses that will descend on Austin in March will no doubt have a memorable time. I, myself, have memories of unparalleled conversations, mind blowing presentations (NASA was incredible in 2011!), and exciting parties — but the present day SXSW no longer offers the same opportunities, either for myself or for my team. We chose to sit it out for 2012; the same will likely apply in 2013.
We are already looking forward to events like the XOXO Festival in 2013, and we are going to continue to focus on smaller curated events like this in the future.
If you can recommend any other conferences that might fit this criteria, we'd love to hear from you, too.