South by Southwest is a film, interactive and music festival held annually in Austin, Texas. Last week, in an effort led by Gabe Shepherd (who will also help build the inaugural SXSW V2V conference taking place here this summer, but more on that later), more than 120 members of the Vegas tech community made the trip out to Texas with one goal: to promote Las Vegas as the place to create and grow your next startup.
I spoke with Dylan Bathurst, founder of Rumgr and Used Gear Sale, and organizer of local community events Vegas Jelly and Startup Weekend, about his experience at the conference and the evolution of the Las Vegas tech scene.
What was the reaction of the SXSW crowd to the local push? What do you expect to come of it?
I think the reaction was pretty incredible. Vegastech was trending globally on Twitter, and the cocktail hour and other parties were completely overbooked the whole time. You couldn’t go anywhere without seeing a #vegastech T-shirt or poster. It was awesome!
Since this was the first time doing something like this, I didn’t really set any expectations. Like any first-time venture you just have to go big and put yourself out there, see what went well, what didn’t and what you can do next time. I think Gabe and the Vegastech SXSW crew gave us as startups an incredible stage to experiment with, and I think each of us came away with some great lessons learned.
What stood out in particular?
The trade-show booth. Each startup had a section of the booth to make their own and pitch their company from. It was a way for the founders of the company to talk to people one-on-one for three days straight. We received a lot of feedback from passersby in that time, and some, like Rolltech, even got featured in a VentureBeat SXSW video contest. (See url.driph.com/rolltech.)
As you mentioned, #Vegastech was the No. 1 trending topic for a while there during SXSW. How did you all pull that off?
Focus. Gabe and his crew weren’t down there just kicking back and letting everything they worked for the whole year before SXSW go down. They were all over downtown talking to people, tweeting, re-tweeting, setting up, tearing down and just hustling in general. It was definitely their effort that made everything go as well as it did.
ON DOWNTOWN LAS VEGAS AS TECH ACCELERATOR
Robot-builder Romotive’s announcement that it is heading to San Francisco is being pushed as proof that downtown Las Vegas can function well as a tech accelerator. Does Las Vegas have the resources to support such an environment, where folks come to town, capture local talent and investment, and then move to more mature tech communities?
Is brain drain a concern, where we’ll end up losing talented developers faster than we can rope them in?
The gist is that having successful and growing companies come out of Las Vegas is a win. Maybe not at face value, but it is. It gives us credibility as a legit accelerator city with a great culture that fosters crazy ideas like cell phone-powered robots.
In Romotive’s case, I think only one or two of their 20-plus people are actually from Vegas. Most were attracted here from around the U.S. That’s awesome! As far as capturing local investment, if Romotive and others get investment and then leave to go to SF or somewhere else where they think they can be more successful, that’s great. When they are successful, and their investors get 10 times their initial investment, a lot comes right back here.
So from your view, what does the downtown Las Vegas tech scene look like in 2013?
I think our tech scene is getting smarter. By that I mean that 2011 and 2012 was where a bunch of startups rose and fell, learning that you can spend all your time building a cool product and it doesn’t matter if nobody wants or uses it. We’ve all been learning what it takes to start a startup and have come together in different ways to help each other learn faster. “A rising tide raises all ships.” I think as the Vegas Tech Fund funds more and more awesome companies in 2013 for their ROC (return on community) as well as ROI, and that knowledge is shared among the rest of the community, we all benefit and get smarter.
LET’S TALK ABOUT DYLAN
Used Gear Sale, your newest project, is now live. How did your experience building and launching Rumgr affect the path you took getting Used Gear Sale up and running? Did you do anything different this time around?
It took us three months to get Rumgr live, and another nine months to learn some valuable lessons. UGS took us one week to bring live and one month to learn even more valuable lessons. We did everything differently. We’re still not done learning, and still not done changing. You just have to keep going.
Two efforts you helped found, Vegas Jelly and Startup Weekend, have been instrumental in bringing together the local tech community. What’re your suggestions for folks who are eyeing Las Vegas, or those who simply want to get involved?
I really like the way Brad Feld puts it in his book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City.
If people come asking how they can get involved, give them a task to do. If they do it, they’ll become part of the community and thrive. If they don’t do it, they didn’t really want to get involved in the first place. We saw that over and over again at the Jelly.
My suggestion for people who want to get involved is to get a lay of the land first. Find the other people who are doing things. See how you can help. Really execute on that, and then you’ll find your niche in the VegasTech community with other folks. It has to be a “give before you get” type of community. So embrace that and everything will be awesome.
CHRIS AINSWORTH is a native Las Vegan and tech dilettante. Find him on Twitter (@driph) or at driph.com.