Last time I emailed with them on Wednesday afternoon, Tommy Spero and Ray Archie were stuck in the Dallas airport. The jet for their 6:30 a.m. flight endured a bird strike. The smaller replacement plane didn’t have room for them.
So they camped out in the TGI Friday’s — still wearing the t-shirts for their startup that they have donned all week — and started sending emails to people they met at SXSW.
“No sleep!” Spero e-mailed me.
In the end, the best he could do was a flight to Philadelphia, followed by an Amtrak train to New York City, then an hour on the Long Island Rail Road to get home. It is a long end to a long week that Spero, Archie and countless other startups have endured — SXSW on the cheap.
They came to Austin like many others, low on cash and high on hopes that, at the minimum, SXSW offered the chance to make some connections and learn a thing or two. The know the upside is limited, they told me. The nature of their startup isn’t exactly a venture capitalist’s dream.
Archie and Spero, along with John Ousby, run a startup called Music is My First Language (MiMFL). Its goal is to create a self-sustaining music education program to serve to underprivileged youth. It was not the most innovative or original startup at SXSW, but they weren’t there to win a prize. They were there to make connections.
That’s both harder and easier than ever before. As has been widely noted, the SXSW interactive festival has changed dramatically in recent years. Fortune’s Erin Griffith noted that the 41,700 SXSWi attendees in 2013 is more than six times the number from 2007. Making it even harder to stand out is the fact that seemingly every major media and technology company in the world is there with installations and party (Mashable included).
So why do three people whose startup is only tangentially related to technology come down to SXSW?
Because the sheer scale of SXSW is, or at least is perceived to be, something that is not found anywhere else.
“The value you get here is immeasurable. For us to touch the number of people we have across so many sectors would have taken us a lot more time and a lot more money and travel,” said Ousby, president of MiMFL.
Ousby is a veteran, with five previous SXSW conferences under his belt. He previously worked for Virgin Radio and BBC Radio and Music. Those experiences were a bit more cushy than how MiMFL operated, he said.
Ousby lives in Dallas while Archie, the company’s CEO, and Spero, CCO, live in New York. Archie and Spero flew down on a budget carrier but booked late tickets that ended up costing around $500 — a cost they paid for out of their own pocket.
The three shared a room they found on Airbnb, a second bedroom of an apartment complete with a bed, air mattress and couch that cost them $400 for four nights. The apartment’s owner was someone they looked forward to stay in touch with. A new contact for them in Austin, they said.
On the upside, it was just on the other side of the nearby freeway, making it about 1.5 to 2 miles from most SXSW events. They said the weekend taught that that things can be farther away than they initially appear, especially when carrying video gear.
Works well for them, Archie said. They’re not spending much time in the room.
“We’ve been doing like 16-, maybe 20-hour days, so it’s just a place where we throw our bags down,” he said.
This “guerrilla style,” as they put it, has become a common part of SXSW as expenses for the event become too great for early-stage startups. The group did not purchase badges, which for the interactive portion run from $795 (if you buy early) to $1,195.
Aside from the cost of badges, marketing at SXSW can be relatively cheap as long as you have an idea that resonates with people, said Hugh Forrest, director of SXSWi.
“Great ideas rise to the top at an event like SXSW,” he told Mashable in an email. “Bottom line is that startups don’t have to have a huge marketing budget to be successful at SXSW.”
Despite cutting costs to the bare minimum, the trip still be a strain on their budget, they said.
“We would love to do the full two weeks with badges and everything when we can afford it. But it’s expensive and a lot of what we wanted to achieve now is not listening to people talk, it’s talking to people,” Ousby said.
Those people range from CEOs to publicists, like-mined music educators to music video directors. Hardly anyone at SXSW has nothing to offer MiMFL, although some certainly have more than others.
Aside from connections, there was not a tremendous amount from the trip to fall back on. Rackspace offered them some free web hosting, which will lower operating expenses. A lawyer they met during a startup event, Epic Office Hours, provided some valuable legal advice.
They did meet a person they feel could open various doors in the places they need. Far from money in the bank, but a lead is better than none.
“I definitely see that we’re going to have an ongoing relationship with him,” Archie said. “We’re going to stay in touch with him… a key contact within the education and music industry.”
They also connected with Matt Peterson, CEO of live music startup Set.fm, who provided advice on where to find funding and floated the idea of collaborating on an event.
But the concrete returns are minimal. They gained no funding and no media mentions (aside from this one). While the trip only cost around 3% of the company’s 2013 total spending, that can be crucial money for a startup like MiMFL that is entirely bootstrapped.
The social aspect, for some the primary reason to be in Austin for SXSW, is not lost completely for the crew. They went out at night and attend the parties, a chance to blow off steam while making more connections.
One night the ended up in a limo with about 17 other people, they said, which is a believable story on this particular weekend.
The vehicle turned up at the Spotify house where they were turned away.
(They ended up having a friend who got them into the party thrown by Mashable, which is how I met them, t-shirts and all.)
The relentless schedule meant by the time they headed home all were dazed and physically and emotionally exhausted. Still, they were glad they got the chance, even if it meant spending a week with few amenities.
In the end, after a weekend of living that would try most college kids, Spero described SXSW as having “exceeded our goals.” The money spent and the conditions endured had realistic goals — to meet people that could prove important to the startup’s development — which is what they spent the weekend doing. For some, SXSW is all talk, and that’s what they wanted.
Such is the draw of SXSW. No cost is too great, whether it be company funds, personal funds or hours spent in airports.
“There was no question that we would come here, so it was really just a matter of would it work?” Spero said.
UPDATE, March 17, 2014, 9:40 a.m. This piece was updated to reflect that MiMFL is a for-profit startup that will be starting a non-profit foundation.