Things in Austin got weird. There was carousing, there was trespassing, and yes, there was even laser tag. But after seven crazy days in Austin, my SXSW adventure is over. Instead of sharing a small Austin house with ten people (including two different bands), I’m now just sharing a house with my parents as I visit the Bay Area for some meetings.
SXSW was definitely fun, but it was also probably a waste of time. I probably could have seen that coming – one of the clearer lessons of my time working on LinerNotes is to be very skeptical of conferences. I’ve been to several of the bigger ones (mostly because I managed to snag free tickets), and none of them have delivered enough value to clearly justify the time it took to attend, much less the the jaw-dropping ticket prices (two thousand dollars for TC Disrupt? Seriously?)
Still, out of all the hundreds of tech conferences SXSW retains a somewhat mystical reputation for “serendipity,” i.e. that simply by walking around and talking to people one might encounter the investor or business partner one needs to “kick it up a notch.” That’s a tempting offer, since I do believe in serendipity (or rather the darker flip-side that many endeavors will be destroyed by the absence of serendipity.)
My skepticism almost made me follow Danielle Morrill’s advice and skip SXSW, but a few things fell in place at the last minute (i.e. I found a place to stay for free) and so I decided to take the plunge.
And…I was disappointed.
Serendipity did not strike. I’m sure that it did for some people, but I didn’t meet even one new person with whom I plan to stay in close contact. To be fair, I didn’t do much to maximize my luck surface – I only went for the last two days, I didn’t buy a conference badge ($800?!) and I only struck up conversations with 20% of the people I randomly stood next to in lines instead of 100%. Still, the conversations I did have didn’t give me the sense that my digital soul mate was just one forced conversation away.
The basic problem is with the odds. When SXSWi was smaller, it may have been viable to talk to a large percentage of attendees and either meet someone useful or meet someone who could introduce you to someone useful they just met. But now there are 30,000 people at SXSWi. Let’s assume that’s 1.5% of the entire startup world, and let’s assume that the population is representative of the general startup population. 
What are my (very rough) odds of meeting someone useful? Well, I’d estimate that there are probably less than 500 viable co-founders and 500 viable investors for me in the whole world, and LinerNotes is not really at a point where I’d benefit much from any business development relationships or marketing hires. If 1.5% of those people are at SXSW, that’s approximately 30 people at SXSW worth meeting.
If I’m there for two days, I probably come into physical proximity with 300 people in a day or 600 in total. That’s 4% of the conference. 4% of 30 is 1.2, meaning that in the whole two days, I was probably near someone useful about twice.
Now how many conversations with strangers can I reasonably have in a day? If I’m really forcing it, maybe 20. So that’s (approximately) 40 dice rolls with a 599/600 odds per roll of not meeting someone useful. That’s an 93% chance of failure, which implies a 7% chance of meeting someone useful, if I’m aggressively social and if the population is really representative (which it probably isn’t).
So after all that expense, travel, and foregone working time, the odds of serendipity striking are about 1 in 15. Compared to everything else I could do with those resources, going to SXSW for networking is pretty clearly not worth it.
So why does SXSW continue to have a reputation for magical serendipity?
Simple, because only the 1 in 15 people who benefit bother to write about it or tell their friends. No one likes a party pooper and so other than me and Danielle Morrill, few people want to loudly admit to wasting their time in Austin.
To be clear, I don’t regret going. The main purpose of my trip was actually to go to SXSW Music and do market research for LinerNotes, and it was worth sacrificing a weekend of work to have some fun and confirm my suspicions about SXSW. And I did meet up with a few old friends at SXSWi and got to strengthen those relationships.
There are some people for whom SXSW still does make sense (specifically startups that sell to marketers or app makers, or VC’s and later stage startup employees who just want to relax and party.) But now I can say from experience that there are better ways to make new friends than shouting at strangers at a loud, crowded Taco Bell sponsored party.
 This post only applies to SXSW Interactive. The dynamics of SXSW Music were much different and probably need their own blog post.
 This is obviously a rough calculation. These numbers are mostly made up with the goal of being ballpark correct and having errors cancel out. And even very generous assumptions don’t change the overall picture much.