Tech companies try to stand out at SXSW

Houston Chronicle, By Purva Patel
Hc-sxsw-150x150-3-10

AUSTIN — Last year, Travis Skweres shelled out a few hundred dollars to attend South by Southwest, hand out T-shirts and let fellow techies know about the fledgling startup he co-founded.

This year, he hired someone to dress up as a panda and wear the company T-shirt outside the convention center where the digital media conference and music festival is being held.

“It’s a fun way to get our name out there on a low budget,” said Skweres, who hoped the buzz would help direct people to the Werkadoo Web site, which touts itself as a matchmaking site for employers and freelancers.

Tech companies such as Houston-based Werkadoo have descended upon Austin trying to catch the attention of early adopters and receptive geeks. It’s a chance to get in front of an influential audience of tech taste-makers and trendsetters. Attendees became enamored of Twitter in 2007 and helped it go mainstream.

This year, several apps that tap into the GPS feature of smart phones are already getting a lot of buzz.

But vying for attention can be tricky, especially for low-budget startups competing with hundreds of other companies, big and small, vying for attention.

“Companies have to find innovative ways to go where people are,” said Grace Rodriguez, who helped organize a party to showcase Houston companies at South by Southwest. “Doing something odd is in tune with geek culture.”

Houston’s Favitt, a site that lets users customize search pages, plans to start tagging the city in chalk with its company logo. Founder Bobby Stark will evaluate the campaign’s success by measuring Web traffic later. Photo sharing site Natuba included a sticker and pin in a bag of goodies handed to conference attendees.

Recycle Match, a Houston company that help companies find buyers for their waste materials, landed a spot in a business competition started last year to highlight promising startups. It not only puts the company in front of lots of press, but also potential investors and business partners.

There’s plenty of competing noise at SXSW, with companies handing out T-shirts and candy to touting “exclusive” parties that eventually let just about everyone in, said Prentice Howe of Door Number 3, an Austin advertising agency.

The most successful marketing at SXSW comes from companies that engage attendees by giving them something to do or giving them something useful, he said.

Twitter did so in 2007 by giving attendees a way to keep up with each other.

There are also ways for brands that aren’t official conference sponsors to get an audience, he noted, from handing out drinks on hot afternoons to shuttling tired conference-goers around as Toyota did in 2007.

“You need a way to get people engaged with the brand in a way that’s not just disruptive but useful,” he said. “That will keep people talking about it.”

This year — taking a page from Twitter — smart phone apps like Foursquare, Gowalla and Foodspotting have turned their location-based apps into games sending people on hunts around the conference venues.

For all the companies here, there are still plenty that opted not to join the marketing noise in Austin during the digital media part of the gathering, which ends Tuesday. Some came to meet potential investors and business partners. Others set up meetings with the press and will use the rest of their time to attend panels.

Houston-based Cachinko, which has an online employee referral site, opted to pass on the conference and work on new business instead, though the owners may come to Austin to network with other startups.

“We’re a growing company and thought it was better to focus on our current customers and work on getting new ones,” Felipe Villaseñor said. “But we love Austin, so we might still come.”