March 18 2012 SXSW 2012: A Case Study
I just got back and finally recovered from my first SXSW experience. It was an incredible adventure that almost never happened. Since September 2011, I have been part of a small crew at Sawbuck working to build the most simple real estate app that you can imagine: HomeSnap - take a picture of any home in the United State to find out how much it's worth (and more).
Our original plan was to launch HomeSnap at the SXSW Accelerator but our application was summarily rejected. In fact, the rejection email incorrectly referenced a completely different startup. We doubled-checked but still, no dice. Our backup plan (sorry @Jason) was to launch at LAUNCH conference in San Francisco. After mutiple video-conference demos, HomeSnap was rejected once again. At this point, we were down but determined because our field testing had indicated that people enjoyed using the app.
We didn't have to look much farther than our own backyard. DC-based entrepreneur and technology journalist Frank Gruber was planning Tech Cocktail’s official SXSW Startup Celebration Event – a “Startup Showcase” mixer event that would take place on Saturday night at a 6th Street bar. I somewhat intentionally bumped into Frank at a TechCocktail event in February, had a quick chance to demo HomeSnap, and a few days later Frank and his team punched our ticket to Austin.
Inside the 2012 TeckCocktail Startup Showcase
The most daunting challenge was timing Apple's approval. We drew a line in the sand, put our collective nose to the grindstone and worked intensely to complete HomeSnap. The app was submitted to Apple 8 days prior to SXSW and approved with 1 day to spare.
While we waited for approval, we offered TechCrunch an exclusive opportunity to cover our story. We contacted Sarah Perez directly and queued up our story, complete with a 90-second demo video. Sarah installed HomeSnap before it hit the App Store and interviewed Sawbuck's CEO, Guy Wolcott, for about an hour. We were hopeful that Sarah enjoyed using HomeSnap but we really had no idea.
It took about 25 phone interviews to hire 6 motivated and competent brand ambassadors
Once we committed to SXSW, there was a lot of work to do. New business cards, promo cards, signage, etc. We decided early that we wanted to do more than just attend SXSW, we wanted to get something out of it. Since the trade show was already booked and our only scheduled event was the Tech Cocktail mixer, we decided to improvise. We spent the week before SXSW making phone calls to hire a street team, rent a 32' RV, find a parking spot, book rooms, book flights, reserve kegs, and finalize the details of a contest that we would run during our trip.
The HomeSnap tour bus rolling down 4th Street, between the Hilton and the Austin Convention Center
On Thursday, the first day of SXSW and while we were flying to Texas, TechCrunch published an article about HomeSnap. An upbeat, positive article that gave HomeSnap instant credibility. Thousands of people downloaded HomeSnap on the first day while we were busy trying to figure out how to park the RV among taco trucks in a tiny sliver of a parking lot on East 6th Street. In the wee hours of the following morning, Techmeme picked up the story, which provided another valuable shot in the arm.
On Friday morning, in the pouring rain, we assembled and trained the HomeSnap street team. The Sawbuck crew would be responsible for targeting and pitching key influencers, while the HomeSnap street team would make friendly introductions and woo attendees at-large. We used GroupMe to keep in touch, despite being dispersed throughout Austin. This was a key decision because days later I would be able to redeem a free grilled cheese sandwich for proving that I had GroupMe installed on my iPhone.
This is what a panel discussion looks like unless you get there at least 20 minutes early
Since it was raining so hard the first 2 days, the streets were empty and everything was taking place inside. The convention center was the main event but I quickly found that I was always sitting in the last row (or worse on the floor) because I was too busy to arrive 20 minutes early. My favorite hangout was the 4th floor of the Hilton hotel, where Startup America had set up shop. This was a great place to meet key influencers, including: Eric Reis, Alexia Tsotsis, Colleen Debaise, Eric Markowitz and others.
Startup America had an awesome agenda, with impromptu celebrity-judged pitch contests everyday
We ended up pitching HomeSnap on the Startup America stage 3 times. It was a great experience that helped HomeSnap gain additional exposure. We had no idea that we'd be able to pitch HomeSnap publicly and we were pumped about each serendipitous opportunity.
Guy hopped up on the Startup America pitch stage twice (pictured with Steve Blank and Scott Case), I got up there once
The Tech Cocktail Mixer was the first time that I comprehended the mainstream appeal of HomeSnap. The simplicity of the idea was powerful. Between the nine people that we had staffing the event, I'm sure we directly pitched the app nearly 1000 times - with very high positive approval. My expectation was that it would be a great networking opportunity, it turned out to be an amazing experience. After pitching each of the celebrity judges, HomeSnap won the "Most Innovative" award. Right after we won, Steve Case arrived and came right over to meet us. We got to hang out with him and his family for about 15 minutes.
Chillin' with Steve Case moments after winning "Most Innovative"
Finally, the weather cleared and we were able to venture outside. The collective attitude of the whole conference changed when the weather broke. The beer was cold, the sun was hot, and foursquare was played constantly at the Foursquare Court. I stopped by the Foursquare Court twice and as luck would have it, I got to hang out with Dennis Crowley twice. The first time I pitched him HomeSnap, the second time he grabbed me a bottle of water and posed for a picture.
Hanging out with Dennis Crowley at the Foursquare Court on 5th Street
Since everybody was talking about Highlight at SXSW, I had to give it a try. It drained my battery but did serve one important purpose: it revealed Robert Scoble's minute-by-minute location. I should have known, he was hanging out at the Rackspace booth inside the Trade Show. I cruised by, patiently waited for the right opportunity, and cranked out my best 30-second HomeSnap pitch. He seemed to get it.
For the best networking, you still don't need an app. I was fortunate enough to meet and hang out with a large number of startup founders and advocates, including: Lori Cheek (Cheekd), Lou Aronson (VOTIFI), Keith Casey (Twilio), Derek Holt (Startup America), Arne Horn (Gauss), Paul Sherman (Potomac Tech Wire), Danielle Weinblatt (Take the Interview), Lauren Wolff (Spotsi - who also taught me how to throw machetes), and many more. Pro-tip: Cardmunch works like a charm for keeping track of business cards.
A pedicab ride can save your life at 4am in Austin
By Wednesday, my feet were sore, I had a huge bruise on my knee that I don't remember banging, and I had charged up a serious sleep debt. I had been monitoring HomeSnap's App Store ranking but once it falls out of the Top 400 you lose visibility and HomeSnap was only hanging on by a thread. We packed up the RV, returned the empty kegs and hopped on a flight back to DC.
I was already thrilled with our SXSW experience but the final shoe had yet to drop. On my first day back, Apple featured HomeSnap on the front page of the App Store. Ever since, HomeSnap has been steadily climbing the rankings. As I write this post, HomeSnap is ranked #9 overall in Lifestyle. I'm guessing that I'll never know what turned Apple on to HomeSnap... Was it the TechCrunch article? Was it flagged during the review process? Did Apple have secret shoppers at SXSW? All I can tell you is that being featured by Apple is pretty much the best thing that can happen to an app.
Long story short, SXSW is an epic networking opportunity. I have read a lot of articles about which startup "won" SXSW. None of those articles have mentioned HomeSnap - but I feel like we won. On the first day of SXSW, less than 100 people had ever heard about HomeSnap. Less than one week later, HomeSnap is now the #1 ranked real estate app in the entire App Store (surpassing Zillow, Trulia, Realtor and others) and has been downloaded once every 10 seconds since we launched at SXSW.
I can't wait until SXSW 2013.
I'm Lou Mintzer, a web entrepreneur, programmer, designer and product builder. My blog is about website design and Internet technology.