The South by Southwest Interactive Accelerator competition showcases the most enterprising minds developing the next big thing in digital technology. With successful alumni like Twitter, Bump, and more, Accelerator is akin to the X Factor for technology start-ups. Participants in the competition are “companies who are setting the trends in technology” according to SXSW Accelerator Director Chris Valentine. Accelerator is highly competitive, with hundreds of applications submitted each year. Finalists are invited to the Accelerator event during SXSW Interactive where they make a 5-minute pitch to a panel of judges. Past judges include Craig Newmark of Craigslist, Chris Sacca, formerly of Google, and more. For emerging tech start-ups, Accelerator offers an unparalleled opportunity and “allows them to have visibility unlike ever before” said Valentine.
Accelerator brings start-ups in front of an international audience of industry experts, press, and investors. Garret Dodge, CEO and co-founder of 2011 competition winner Roqbot, described his SXSW Accelerator experience as “the combination of high visibility and great reward—the visibility from investors and the media that almost no other event has for startups.” The exposure at SXSWi Accelerator has been instrumental in high-profile business Roqbot has landed. “The Gap and Cisco actually found us through a Google search, which is really the result of the press we received out of SXSW,” said Dodge.
The stakes are high for Accelerator finalists, many of whom are presenting before such an important audience for the first time. The pressure to preform well and to take advantage of the exposure is a formative experience for the start-ups. Alexa Andrzejewski, co-founder and CEO of Foodspotting, social tool for restaurant recommendations, describes the Accelerator process as providing focus in the early life of a start-up. “SXSW helped us better communicate our product and refine our vision for the company,” said Andrzejewski.
The reputation of Accelerator finalists is highly regarded, so much that firms experience a new level of recognition just by participating in the competition. 2010 Accelerator competitor GameSalad got their first break before they even went before the judges. The Austin-based company received its first investment check from an angel investor after a brief conversation at the Tech Cocktail Party, a SXSWi networking event. “We couldn’t believe we had a check in our pocket before the competition even started,” said Jonathan Hunt, Director of Marketing at GameSalad. Hunt credits the expansion of GameSalad to Accelerator “before the competition, we had 6 employees in Austin and only supported iOS and Safari browser. Now we have a staff of 40 people in Austin and our product supports all devices and HTML 5.”
Whether seeking funding or not, firms benefit from the experience as they move forward with new opportunities. Accelerator was vital in finalizing the acquisition of 2010 finalist NutshellMail, a tool for monitoring social media for small businesses, by email marketing company Constant Contact. Before the competition, the two companies had been in preliminary discussions, but the Accelerator competition provided Nutshell Mail with an opportunity to showcase that they were a good investment. “Our performance at Accelerator gave them comfort that we had the right plan, the right product,” said co-founder Mark Schmulen. Within two months of the competition, Constant Contact announced the acquisition of NutshellMail.
For Accelerator finalists, the opportunity to engage tech leaders and to earn the respect of their peers is a once in a lifetime experience. The highlight of Accelerator for NutshellMail’s Schmulen was going head to head with 2010 competition judge Chris Sacca, who questioned why the service was based in email. “I was really proud of myself for being able to have intelligent debate with someone I respect so much,” recalled Schmulen of the Q&A portion of his presentation. “It was a great challenge, and he kept me on my toes.”
Beyond press and funding opportunities, being chosen for the Accelerator competition is an honor for participants and a chance to make bring their vision to reality. “Validation to be selected as a finalist” was one of the most rewarding parts of participating in SXSW Accelerator according to Kenneth Cho, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Spredfast. “Accelerator helped me focus on what was really important to the company in 2010 and also made me think a lot about developing that vision for 2011 and beyond,” Cho said.
For 2012 finalists,NutshellMail’s Schmulen advises that being passionate about your work is the key to a successful Accelerator presentation. Future Accelerator competitors must understand that “people want to see somebody that has identified a problem, created a solution, and is passionate,” explained Schmulen.
Melissa Miller, Ryan Stewart, Paige Wilkerson, and Joe Vasquez contributed to this article.