Joe Downtown

Joe Downtown: Connections made at Vegas’ SXSW conference worth its cost

Power player: Tony Hsieh addresses the SXSW V2V conference.
Photo: Steve Marcus

Thousands of millennials around the world are working right now on apps and websites to promote an idea that they think will appeal to the masses. Probably none will attain the monetary success of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Zappos’ Tony Hsieh or any of the other tech giants who built their fortunes using the Internet. A few will make a little money or break even, but most will fail. In fact, some liken trying to make money by developing an app to playing the slots—very, very few will ever make a dime.

Sitting among the coders and app mavens at the South By Southwest V2V conference this week at the Cosmopolitan, however, there are glimmers of hope. Guests tell stories about how they made it and offer pitfalls to avoid, helpful tips and invitations for questions or more talk.

The “kids” here at SXSW V2V are mostly in their 20s and 30s, though they come even younger, like 19-year-old Noor Siddiqui from Virginia, who is developing an emergency medical app for Google Glass. Out of thousands of applicants from 40 countries, Siddiqui won one of 20 Thiel Fellowships for her idea, giving her two years and $100,000 to work on the project.

Still, the odds aren’t great, which plays on the mind of the typical, mistrusting Las Vegan, myself included. What’s the point of spending more than $1,000 to attend a conference like this one, knowing your line of work isn’t exactly the best way to make ends meet?

Hugh Forrest, director of the SXSW Interactive Festival, which brought V2V to Las Vegas, chuckles at the question. The value comes from meeting people.

“It’s about making connections, despite the virtual world we live in,” he says, pulling out his smartphone for emphasis. “It’s really about meeting face to face, having coffee, a drink, talking to each other. Maybe your idea isn’t a success, but someone else’s might [be]. And they might know you from here, and down the road that may be valuable to you.”

Value can be quantified in many ways, of course.

Espree Devora, who is interviewing attendees with a tiny video camera for and whose background in the social media world began sometime between Friendster (founded in 2002) and Myspace (2003), acknowledges there’s a debate about the value of conferences, because much of the information is similar.

For startups, she says, the value comes from the information and shared advice among the participants. Around midway through a career, the value comes from hearing the same tenets and practices repeated. After that has sunk in, she adds, what stands out are the people you meet.

“I make lifelong friends at conferences like this,” Devora says. “That’s the biggest value-add.”

So what’s in this for Las Vegas? Tourism dollars, of course, but maybe there’s more. This conference is bound to grow. SXSW in Austin started small and is now a two-week affair that brings nearly $200 million to that capital city. Even in its early stages, a conference like SXSW V2V introduces educated, driven and innovative young people to Las Vegas, knowing some of them might decide they want to live here. (In 2010, Nevada had the lowest percentage of college grads in the country, at 28.4 percent.)

True, the Cosmopolitan is not representative of Las Vegas, and at the start of the week, it seemed only a handful of attendees knew Downtown Las Vegas even existed. But after the seminars and mentor meetings, dozens if not hundreds of them visited Downtown for parties and tours. Come Tuesday morning, some raved to me about what they found.

Maybe that was the hangover talking. Or maybe we’ll see stories in the not-too-distant future about some 20-year-old who fell in love with the place, set down roots and gave Las Vegas a chance.

Despite the low odds, it has happened before. Maybe it can happen again.

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover Downtown, he lives and works there. He is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded Downtown journalist, stationed at an office in Emergency Arts. His work appears in the Las Vegas Sun and Las Vegas Weekly.
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