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We Flew To SXSW So You Don’t Have To

Farouk Dossa

Farouk Dossa

March 17, 2017

Farouk standing next to the SXSW sign

SXSW is a film, interactive media, and music festival and conference held in Austin, Texas that draws thousands of people from all over the world. My colleague Joel Zien and I spent four action-packed days checking out the latest technology, meeting hundreds of people, and of course, having fun!

What drives thousands of people from industries spanning media, sports, music, television, and retail to this event? After chatting with hundreds of attendees, we started to notice a trend. They all wanted to know:

1. What is the latest technology and how can I leverage it within my organization?

2. How do I drive innovation within my organization to produce actual results?

3. How do we build products/solutions that engage the customer and deliver an amazing experience?

The tech industry has been saying for years that the right digital strategy will help you stay ahead of the curve, and SXSW proved that to be true. If you couldn’t make it, here are some interesting insights based on conversations we had and exhibits we visited.

Latest technology

We met many interesting people at SXSW and one of them was the head of digital innovation at a major performing arts organization in New York, where he focuses on digital strategy. His goal at SXSW was to figure out how to leverage the latest technology to keep people engaged in performing arts, and provide experiences to those who cannot physically be at the theatre.

When I was a kid in the eighties, I loved the performing arts and I would base my decision on whether to buy tickets to a show just by the poster. In the digital age, you have to look at new avenues to engage with your audience and that typically involves mobile. The question then becomes: what technology is the right one to invest in? And when is the right time?

I believe the most important deciding factor is delivering a solution that feels natural. If a technology makes sense on the roadmap, make sure it can also deliver quality software that people will want to use today. Engineer the experience so you can evolve the product.

For example, I participated in a VR demo at SXSW that was a retail shopping simulation. Although it was super cool, it seemed unnatural because it required a VR headset and two hand held controllers (which are not common household items). That being said, I could see the benefit for people who aren’t able to visit a retail location and I could see this possibly coming to life in the next 2–5 years.

Driving Innovation

Several big retail companies were present at SXSW in an exciting new way.

We spent some time at the Capital Factory Lounge, which was sponsored by Walmart for the first time. The Lounge had a workspace, small breakout meeting rooms, amazing Texas BBQ, and drinks. But most importantly, the space used technology demonstrations to showcase new shopping concepts at Walmart.

We met one of the heads of innovation at Walmart. She and her team had worked hard to convince their leadership that sponsoring the Capital Factory Lounge would be a good step in shifting the Walmart culture towards becoming more innovative. The goal of this sponsorship was to build a network of partners that can help Walmart innovate and deliver tangible results. This was the first time Walmart has ever provided complimentary drinks at an event, so it was a big deal!

We had the opportunity to speak to many organizations about driving innovation and the message is consistent: we have to bridge the gap between innovation and delivery. The entire organization has to be on the same page and needs to work together — from the birth of the idea to the actual delivery of better products. Working with partners who understand this can help accomplish this goal more rapidly. In our opinion, Walmart did a great job with Capital Factory and it will be exciting to see what innovative products come out of this.

Building Better Products

Everyone we talked to seemed to be trying to tackle the same issues of increasing brand awareness and engaging customers.

We talked to a CPG company that is trying to solve the problem of engaging with their customers when they don’t sell to them directly; they sell to distributors who then sell to retailers who then sell to the end user. How can they engage directly with their customers? Is the answer a community portal? A guide on how to use their products best? A VR experience? The answer lies in strategic thinking, great design, and ultimately with the end user. You have to involve the end user in the process in order to continually test and validate the hypothesis. This could be in the form of a proof of concept, prototype, or MVP, depending on what you are trying to accomplish.

The key to rapid validation is to have designers and engineers at the same table. Not only can you produce great validated results, but they are also feasible.

A great article by the Design Management Institute (DMI) created an index that quantifies the ROI when design thinking is leveraged through the product development cycle. The correlation between increased profits and design-conscious companies validates my hypothesis. To see how design thinking can impact your organization, read about a workshop Connected ran last month.

Diagram from the 2014 Design Value Index Results and Commentary (source)
Diagram from the 2014 Design Value Index Results and Commentary (source)


I believe the lesson here is that organizations have to shift the way they have built products historically, and take on a more agile approach. They have to be prepared to fail fast, validate often, and work with a variety of partners that can help them get the results they want.

Innovation used to be something that many companies didn’t heavily invest in; now it’s table stakes. For example, most people wouldn’t expect a performing arts company to have a head of innovation and a team of 15 people, but this is the reality. The question is not whether to invest in innovation, but rather how are you going to embrace it and get a positive ROI?

I encourage anyone that is interested in building better products and meeting other like-minded folks to attend SXSW. Couldn’t make it? Reach out to the Connected team at hello@connected.io. We would be happy to share some of our experiences with you and explore how they can impact your organization.

Farouk is a Senior Account Executive at Connected, where he partners with clients to drive business value through software engineering. He is passionate about technology and develops deep relationships with the people he works with. In his free time, Farouk is a beast in the kitchen.

Big thanks to Joel Zien for contributing.

Connected is a product innovation and delivery firm. Our mission is to build better products. We are digital natives and have helped ship some of the most disruptive products of the last decade.

Originally Published on Austin Startups

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