Top 6 List: Getting the Most Out of SXSW

I know the excitement you felt the first time you decided to go to South by Southwest Interactive. I was right there with you a few months ago when I found out that the Kauffman Foundation was sending me as part of a joint program with Startup America Partnership. However, as my departure date got closer, I went from excited to overwhelmed.

Tens of thousands of people are coming to participate in more than 5,000 events. That's crazy. I didn't want to miss the most important parts. I didn't know what to expect. And I certainly had no idea how to prepare.

So I turned to the experts. I emailed and texted a wide array of "South by" regulars, each of whom imparted some very valuable wisdom. Their advice was so good that I felt like I had to write this article and share it with anyone else interested in making the most out of their SXSW experience.

In David Letterman fashion, here are my top 6 ways to get the most out of your SXSW experience:

6. Drink plenty of water. That's advice from Ben Milne, Founder and CEO of disruptive payments company, Dwolla. Here's how Ben described the SXSW experience:

"Year 1 -- you're going to be so distracted by the fact that all the food and beer you come across is free that it is unlikely you'll do anything productive. Remember, a water after every beer! Don't worry about getting things done, you'll be more productive next year.

Year 2 -- you're not missing anything by skipping the partying. Get some work done! Make a list of who you want to meet and what questions you want to ask them, then find out where those people are and go ask them questions. It's simple. You'll get answers and you'll win."

5. Never pitch your startup unless you are invited to. CTO and Co-founder of Startup Weekend, Franck Nouyrigat said, "Always listen, try to help as many people as you can there. If the times come for you to pitch your startup or get feedback, assume you will have 30 seconds and most likely a very noisy environment. Keep it simple, have your product on your phone or in your pocket, and get ready to line up some meetings for the next day. Mornings are great for meetings."

4. Don't over prepare. I got this advice from several people. Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos and the force behind the, said, "Don't plan anything. Just show up and let serendipity do its thing."

Similarly, Eric Reis, author of The Lean Startup, said, "I prefer to not get lost in the massive schedule but try and flow with whatever seems interesting in the moment. Often, the less relevant things turn out to be the most interesting. Oh, and don't forget to check out the Lean Startup track on March 9."

3. Hit the daytime events outside of the main show. Bob Gilbreath, Founder of the Minimum Viable Concept Test and author of The Next Evolution of Marketing, said "Skip the long lines for sessions inside and check out the many events that are happening in bars and restaurants around Austin. Several companies host informal talks and panels with A-players at these events. It's a great way to relax, listen and learn at one of the many long (open) bars."

2. Be prepared to cover a lot of ground. Austin native and principal of Blast PR, Lana McGilvray, gave me some very practical advice about getting around the massive geographic span of the week:
  • "Sign up for Car-to-Go in advance or take a pedi-cab from your hotel to your destination. Your friends with rentals will be jealous.
  • Don't stress about seeing music in the Live Musical Capitol of the World. Every legitimate networking event will have a great DJ or music performance.
  • Have fun. It's Austin. It's weird. It's smart. It's creative. You are off the coasts.
  • Boots not heels + empty water bottle are your best travel companions."

1. Keep track of your takeaways. Author and godfather of the Lean Startup movement, Steve Blank said, "Network, listen for trends, and make sure you learn 10 new things."

I don't know about you, but after reading through this advice, I feel ready to hit the ground running in Austin. Do you have any additional advice to offer? Please use the comments section to leave your suggestions.

And don't forget to join me at Startup America LIVE, and let me know how your SXSW experience is going.