Keeping it Real

Twenty-four hours before the SxSWi keynote with Mark Zuckerberg descended into chaos, Ballroom A was full with an audience too busy taking notes and paying attention to become unruly.Who was speaking? Jason Fried of 37Signals.

The reverence was punctuated with a single point of tension when Anil Dash of SixApart asked a very pointed question about limiting the ultimate size of a company by having people pay for web services. In what amounted to a Jedi mind trick, Fried side-stepped and moved on and it felt as if the audience was almost miffed at the silver-forked tongue of Anil for trying to get him off his game.

Know the audience. Unless you are talking about design, SxSW is not about sexy. Heck, Newsweek cover boy Kevin Rose was spotted vaulting over a wooden fence to get into the dive bar 16bit party that his own company was co-sponsoring!

It certainly isn’t about the money as Sarah Lacy learned when folks browned out with references to Zuckerberg’s net worth. In contrast, Jason Fried has mastered the art of wowing folks with stuff that is practical and useful. SxSW is all about knowledge and sharing; it is not about the news cycle.

Anil may have chosen the wrong moment, but he certainly has a point. 37Signals was born in a down market and one would think it difficult for them to accept valuations that have recently surfaced (Slide, Mahalo, et. al.), let alone the number Facebook has put up on the board. By all indications Fried isn’t budging. At a time when Jason Calacanis is crafting ways to keep people in the office, Fried is now trying out a 4-day work week because he has a hunch it will increase productivity. While others are looking for rock stars, 37Signals eschews resumes for folks who exhibit curiosity.

Clearly Fried knows his audience. I’d hazard a guess that were he to advise Mark Zuckerberg on speaking before folks in Austin, he’d have Mark sporting a t-shirt with Facebook’s PR message (“communicate efficiently”). That way Mark could focus on something the geek crowd could sink their teeth into like what inspired the original Facebook design or his thoughts on PHP. And with a small frost hitting the tech startup world, expect 37signals to remain as influential and relevant as ever.

One comment

  1. I was just writing about this experience myself – I think it was the best panel of the conference. Really well communicated and simple (like the 37Signal tools) and efficiently connected with the audience.

    It was my first year at SXSW and I wasn’t sure what to expect – but you’re right – it’s not about sexy. It’s about connecting and great work. Will definitely go back next year.

    Thanks for the great post!

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