Hugh Forrest, SXSW Interactive's Director, on Geek Growing Pains and Massive Success

Rusty Hodge

South By Southwest is fast approaching, kicking off this Friday for the 27th time with the tech-centered and wildly popular Interactive. Austin's ever-expanding conflagration of culture and business is often referred to as the sort of spring break you might actually want to attend.

These days, nearly every tech story has the potential to affect the music business, as forward-looking music players like Troy Carter have been trying to make clear to their peers as of late. As such, Interactive is of much interest to us at .Biz.

"As with most things in life, there are lots of positives but there are also some negatives as well." That's the diplomatic way that Hugh Forrest approaches his job. This will be Forrest's 25th year working for and with South By Southwest. He's been with the geeks since the days, long past, that Interactive -- launched in 1994 -- was being bankrolled by the more popular music portion, long before the mid-aughts brought us the products and applications (you can likely think of a couple) that have transformed our world... and Interactive right along with it.

Billboard: So, how long are your days in the weeks leading up to the fest?

Hugh Forrest: It's not a whole lot different now than it's been for the last oh, I don't know, three or four or five months. The volume of emails is a little increased, but myself and most of my team have been doing this long enough that I think we realize that the more work you can do early the better you're prepared for the crush at the end. There's some long days leading up to the event, but not a whole lot different than what we've been doing since the early Fall.

It's your silver anniversary with South By Southwest, we'll have to get you a locket or something!
Been here for much too long. [Laughs]

Basically every tech story is a music story at this point, is it not?
Like our friend Marc Andreessen said, 'Software is eating the world,' or something like that.

Are there product activations, big-banner product activations that you know of coming up?
I think that the question, or one of the issues, of an event like SXSW is that if they create buzz at SXSW, does that buzz eventually extend to a larger audience? You can draw some parallels there between the music side of the fest, where there are often buzz bands at SXSW that you never hear of again or never really make it to a mainstream audience. Sometimes it's hard to figure out the rhyme or reason of how that works.

Can you remember any apps or products that had a big SXSW which never really crossed over?
Our tipping point, our turning point, our biggest success story is Twitter in 2007 -- which didn't actually launch at SXSW, it'd been out for a while -- but it was their first big push, and increased [their] user base significantly. But to what i was just referencing, I was there in 2007, and Twitter was really really neat. It was really cool. But anyone who, in 2007, thought that Twitter was gonna go on to revolutionize how so much of the world communicates... you couldn't possibly imagine they were going to grow to that scale, that people outside this insulated tech community would catch on. And I think that's one of the hard things about tech releases at SXSW or, again, even bands or films, is that it really may take two or three years before you go 'Oh wow, that was something that was released at the 2013 or 2014 event.' There's often a long incubation period in as fast-paced a world as we are in today.

What about sponsorships for this year -- I'm sure some of them go across SXSW, but Interactive specifically?

Interactive has been lucky enough to gain more sponsorships over the last few years as the event has grown in size. I say lucky because sponsorships help us do a lot of things, not the least of which is help us to hire more people here to help manage the growth. There's certainly some challenges and problems and headaches that come with sponsorships, but by and large they help us do a lot of things that we couldn't do before.

The music portion of the fest is supposedly stepping back a bit on the big, name-brand sponsors -- I'm wondering if there is a similar story with Interactive.
I think that, as you said at the beginning of this conversation, so much of everything is just moving to tech. In recent years, Interactive has become bigger than music in terms of industry participation, so we see more of that growth there and, you know, by and large, these tech companies have a little bit more money to spend...

... than the music business?
Yeah... [Laughs] ... the music business that's getting eaten up by the tech companies. We've been fortunate in that regard. But you know, it's interesting; I always say, and it's completely true, that Interactive spent about ten years, maybe longer, trying to figure out it's voice and figure out what it's doing. And we finally did. But during those very lean years we would not have survived if Music had not been -- if South By Southwest Music was not essentially paying the bills and supporting us. If it was a standalone event I don't think it would've survived. But things change, industries transition and at this point, in 2014, I can't imagine that tech is going away.

You said that there was about a decade where South By Southwest Interactive was finding it voice, which parallels how the internet matured as well during that period..
Sure... that period of us finding our voice in some ways encompassed the dot com boom, which we benefitted from to some extent. But again it really wasn't until 2003 or 2004, where we started to gain a better idea of what we're doing and really started growing.

It was kind of codified by that time, in a way.
Maybe not by 2007, but again, when Twitter got such a buzz here by doing -- even when the tech industry got so much buzz by what they did in 2007, it really opened up a lot more of the doors for other companies launching or trying to launch at South By Southwest. Two years later, we had Foursquare and Gowalla launching on the same day, by coincidence, at South By Southwest. And Gowalla is no longer and Foursquare... I think it falls into that category of a darling of the tech crowd but hasn't quite ever transitioned into the mainstream.

I remember a girl I dated was crazy about Foursquare, and then kind of realized "I don't know why i'm using this."
[Laughs] In one sentence a complete indictment of the company!

Sorry Foursquare. So... are there any secrets you can tell me?
Secrets to the event itself? I think that the people who are best at leveraging an event like South By Southwest are people who do a pretty good job of preparing for it beforehand. It's gotten so big -- there are a lot of great things about that growth, but also a lot of negative things. If you don't prepare for the event beforehand it's easy to get overwhelmed.

Other secrets I mean -- we still have a couple more big announcements. Those will happen next week, I'm very excited about those. [A presentation by Edward Snowden was announced this morning.]

How's South By Southwest's relationship with Austin? Rosy?
[Laughs] Maybe from your perspective it's pretty rosy. [Laughs] The city... [pause]... government as well as the chamber of commerce understand how much money the event helps bring into Austin and how much of a spotlight it puts on Austin and has made a lot more people aware of Austin, and that's a good thing. That said, as with any relationship, if you dig a little deeper there, there are challenges. There are things we want to do that the city doesn't want us to do, there are certainly a lot of people in Austin who may enjoy live music or may enjoy tech or movies but aren't particularly fond of the traffic that's here during the event. So again, it would be too much of a generalization to say that everything is rosy. As with most things in life, there are lots of positives but there are also some negatives as well.

I know that for the Music portion it's very common for people to forego a badge and scoot by on unofficial showcases or parties. Is that as common for Interactive?
We're certainly seeing much more of that on the Interactive end, and for the same reasons that people are doing it on the Music end. There are so many unofficial events that are springing up. As a programmer, let me say that we always try to make the event as strong as possible such that people will want to buy badges and attend the programming because 'Oh I absolutely have to see this person.' But the nature of the event, or the nature of the space, as much stuff as you do officially, there's always going to be unofficial stuff... and for a lot of attendees it's hard to tell what's official and what's unofficial. It's all part of this hopefully fun and beneficial experience that they call South By Southwest.

That actually, just to prove my geek creds, reminds me of a "Star Wars" quote.Princess Leia says to Grand Moff Tarkin 'The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.'
That's exactly what I was trying to say.

I read in an interview you did a couple years ago that was the fest was moderately poriftable in recent years. Has that continued? I would assume it has.
We had a very, very long incubation period where we were not profitable. The event has been fortunate to grow a lot in the last ten years and I think has become more profitable in that time period. That's neat, to see that growth and be part of that growth, particularly after having been around for many years when it wasn't growing. We've been able to get more sponsorships, more companies involved in the trade show and various other things. It's allowed us to go from three rental houses to an actual office building, so that's good. But I think, you know, that most people who work here are in it more because they enjoy the sense of community and the ultimate product as opposed to just for the end profits. I think there's probably easier ways to make a dime than staying up for 16, 18, 20 hours at a time answering emails. [Laughs]

In 2011 there was apparently over 11,000 attendees, there were roughly 28,000 last year... so what's the estimate for this year? 75 million people?
95 million, get it right! Last year the official total was about 30,000, and it'll be about the same year, maybe a little bit of growth. I think we've begun to hit the limits in terms of what the city can absorb, in terms of out-of-town visitors. We've also consciously tried to slow the growth down a little bit on Interactive. One of our strategies was launching this event in Las Vegas, kind of gently pushing some of the growth there. This will probably be, percentage wise, our least-growth year of any year in the last ten. Which is fine, we've always talked about how the event should be measured in terms of quality not quantity, and not growing as much this year gives us a little more breathing room to try and work out some of the rough edges.

That said, 2015 will be a slightly different story. We've got a couple of new hotels going up downtown, in part as a response to events like South By Southwest or Austin City Limits or Formula 1. We'll be able to accommodate more people here next March, and that'll change the dynamic of what we're able to do.

You could move the fest to the middle of summer.
All the people who think that Austin is the greatest place in the world would immediately understand that it completely sucks during that time. Austin's a great place, except for about July 15th to about August -- make that November -- 15th. It's about 100 degrees every day.

Can you give us three things you're most looking forward to?
Sure. Particularly excited about -- I think one of the big trends for 2014 at South By Southwest across the board for tech companies is wearable computing, whether that be Google Glass or some iteration thereof, or the next generation of smart watches, or even beyond that; the shirts that we'll be wearing pretty soon that immediately broadcast all your medical information to (hopefully) your doctor.

It's also exciting that we're seeing a lot of growth in international participation. Last year we figured that there were people from 57 different countries in Austin for Interactive and this year it'll be up to 74. So strong growth there, which is neat. I've always wanted to have as much diversity as possible at the event -- and that's diversity of gender, diversity of opinion and certainly diversity of geography.

And third: I'm particularly excited about the Chelsea Clinton keynote on Tuesday, March 11th. She'll be talking about social good and how people can use their technical training and expertise to try and impact some of the challenges in third world countries. And I'll be introducing her, which is always fun.

I thought that last one was going to be Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Well him too. That's kind of a given, right?

I saw the billboard that you tweeted out.
[Laughs] I stole that from Reddit, as I do most things. It was getting love on Reddit.

What do you think has been most instrumental to the success of Interactive?
The more and the better we can listen to the community the more and better the event has become. Most of the best ideas that we have and have implemented at South By Southwest Interactive are ideas that we've pulled from the commmunity. The health and strength of what we do is directly tied to these very, very creative people who come to Austin in march and that's always what's most exciting about the event, to interact with these people who are way smarter than I am, or we are.