March 13, 2010 4:21 am

Scramble to become the next big thing

Technology entrepreneurs from around the globe will descend on Austin, Texas this weekend for the annual South by South West (SXSW) Interactive festival, with hopes of becoming the next Twitter.

But 10 years after the dotcom bubble burst, attendees at this year’s conference might find a worrying number of “me-too” companies seeking to ride on the coat-tails of today’s hottest trends – social media and the mobile internet.

“Everyone is looking for that needle in the haystack,” says Michael Priem, chief operating officer of digital marketing agency USDM, who will be there scouting for partners and new clients. “What’s most on display is that entrepreneurial spirit.”

SXSW, which attracts big brands and start-ups alike, became known as a king-maker in technology circles after Twitter, the micro-blogging website, drew widespread attention and moved into the mainstream during the 2007 festival. In the years since, hundreds of companies have come to Austin, hoping to emulate that success.

Though none have achieved the break-out success that Twitter enjoyed, that has not stopped SXSW from being the premier destination for hopeful technologists.

This year 39 companies from the UK are descending on the festival with high hopes. Organised by the UK Trade and Investment group, the so-called “digital mission” plans to introduce the best of Britain’s technology to the early adopters at SXSW.

Among the companies participating in the mission are AudioBoo, the start-up which lets people capture audio clips on their phones and publish them online; Cube, a social gaming start-up; and TweetJobs, which helps jobseekers use Twitter to find work.

At last year’s festival, Foursquare, the website which allows mobile phone users to broadcast their location in real time, garnered the most buzz. The service still has fewer than 1m users, but already it has inspired a host of imitators.

As many as a dozen similar services, such as Gowala, Toodalu, Loopt and UK-based Rummble, are hoping that they can at least become the next Foursquare, if not the next Twitter.

Anchoring the event will be several hundred public discussions and lectures. Evan Williams, Twitter chief executive, will give the keynote speech.

Members of Austin’s technology community say SXSW has outgrown itself. This year Tim Hayden, a partner at a local digital marketing agency, has started an alternative festival, in co-operation with the University of Texas at Austin. His goal is to provide a forum for a more in-depth discussion about the mobile internet and digital media. He hopes it will provide an opportunity “to have this other, more inclusive, intimate, deeper conversation about these topics”.

But Mr Priem says SXSW does serve as a valuable collective brainstorming session for the industry.

“When people come they bring that entrepreneurial spirit and let go of some of that cynicism,” he says. “They might not have market readiness, they might not be the next Twitter, but they show up and are willing to chat.”

Ian Hogarth, chief executive of Songkick, a UK-based website that tracks live music events, is attending the conference for the third time this year. He says it is a place to network and discover technology.

“It definitely is a bit of a frenzy for publicity,” he says. “But you get a concentration of early adopters all trying out new products, so for a short period of time you get to see what those products would look like if they were more mainstream.”

Like many others, he says that he converted to Twitter two years ago because it attained that “critical mass” in Austin, having previously been more dismissive of the micro-blogging service.

But Mark Rock, founder of AudioBoo, says Twitter’s launch has fallen into geek myth.

“Everyone now thinks if you launch at SXSW you’re going to be worth billions,” he says. “That is an untruth and it will shatter a lot of people’s dreams.”

AudioBoo is sending its delegation in order to increase awareness in the US of its service and for the “serendipity of potentially bumping into a VC or someone from Twitter”.

“It’s a jumble sale mentality – there might be good stuff there, but we don’t know what it is yet.”

One new service launching at the event perfectly captures the ironic banter, herd mentality and endless socialising that distinguish SXSW.

Called “Snark it!”, the application lets users who make fun of their friends on Foursquare earn free alcoholic drinks.

The tagline for the application says it all: “Ignore the people around you in favour of the people in your iPhone – it’s social media at its finest!”

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