An entrepreneur who runs a technology company meets me for coffee in the lobby of the JW Marriott hotel. He speaks extremely quickly and confidently about what his product is going to do and the problem it will solve, covering pretty much any questions or concerns I might have about how it will grow. Another founder taps me on the shoulder inside a trade show, pitches me his product, and bluntly asks me how we could work together. I’ve been feeling increasingly jaded by the Technology companies coming out of London, or the UK and Europe more generally. It’s my first time here, and inside the SXSW trade show, I’m very impressed by some of the startups exhibiting. The Technology part of SXSW has grown year-on-year, with an estimated 250,000 expected to arrive in Austin this year. The Entrepreneurs at SXSW, from the slick founders to the street drummers, magicians, and rappers hustling on 6th street, evoke the spirit of entrepreneurship and the American dream. It’s really inspiring to be out here amongst this.
Another founder asks me if there is an equivalent of SXSW in the UK. “Nothing, not even close” I reply. “The Websummit Tech conference in Dublin is decent but the quality of companies is about 1/100th of what I’ve seen here.”
When I arrived, I was given three Argos catalogue-sized guides to each part of the festival (Film, Music, and Interactive/Technology). The number of networking events, showcases, and parties was ridiculous, covering every aspect that could conceivable be discussed in these areas. Talking, performing at or attending these events were the people who will shape the future of these industries. There were attendees from around the world, but the implicit message I read was: America is 100% the place to be if you’re in business, in a band, or producing a film. I visited San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles last year, but SXSW was the first time I really felt the opportunity out here, mainly through the ambition of the people who were in Austin, Texas, all at the same time, sharing ideas. Many didn’t come with badges, just RSVP’ing their way around events and booking meetings with the people it would otherwise be geographically impossible to meet.
I have always been enchanted by the natural storytelling nature of the American people. Whether it’s recounting dark stories of their past or growing up, sharing when they were at their lowest points, past failures or successes, they have an almost poetic nature about the way they communicate who they are.
Whether knowingly or not, the way they frame the narratives of their lives is spellbinding, engaging and sometimes adds to that feeling that everything that happens while you’re in America feels like you’re in a film. Americans bear their souls and have an emotional sincerity I rarely see in British people. It’s a vulnerability which I suspect helps them build relationships with each other (Silicon Valley companies are famous for helping each other out with introductions, even amongst direct competitors). I really believe the inherent optimism of Americans is a major reason behind their cultural and business successes. Europe certainly has enough smart and talented people, but from my 10 years+ of being around creative people and 3 years in the startup world, I see many similarities and faults in the two groups. People in the UK, from their core, don’t believe they can be the best at what they do. You see great potential, particularly from young people, and then see it wasted through self-indulgence, laziness, or boozing too much. For whatever reason, the British mindset doesn’t have that clinical, take-on-the-world attitude I saw in abundance at SXSW this week.
I’m writing this on the plane home. I’m excited to get working on new ideas for my company (and possibly some side projects too). The fucked up part is it’ll take some bulletproof mental strength and bloody-mindedness to not feel this energy seep away over the coming weeks, surrounded by the attitudes of British people and British media. I’ve seen the same talkers not walkers in Tech City not going anywhere with their startups as I did boys in bands a few years ago (Previously I was involved with musicians both socially and working in the music industry). The work ethic required to do amazing things is something I feel is a lot stronger in America, even if it has downsides such as only being allowed 2 weeks of holiday per year.
Also, our media and culture rarely celebrates or encourages the successes the UK has. It reminds me of that brilliant Libertines lyric: “Even though we’ve something to be proud about, you come up the hard way and they’ll remind you every day, you’re nothing.” SXSW was a glimpse into a world where anything is possible. I felt it briefly while I was doing (accelerator program) Techstars last summer, but building an atmosphere – that empowers entrepreneurship and an “anything is possible” attitude that I felt at SXSW would be an incredibly powerful thing here in London. Anyone want to help me brainstorm?