STARTUPS

SXSW’s Vegas spinoff touts Sin City virtues

Conference on Strip to focus on city’s startup scene and downtown revitalization project.

By Omar L. Gallaga OGALLAGA@STATESMAN.COM

At South by Southwest Interactive in Austin every March, startups go to great lengths to get noticed and sell their nascent product or service to a large group of digital creatives.

At the inaugural SXSW V2V conference, a spinoff of SXSW Interactive that begins with a welcome dinner and opening party Sunday in Las Vegas, many of the locals attending will be trying to sell the city itself.

Announced in October, V2V — which stands for several things including Visionaries to Vegas and Vision to Venture — is to be more focused on startups and entrepreneurship than the big-tent sprawl of the long-running Austin event.

Compared with SXSW Interactive’s attendance, which hit 30,621 for 2013, V2V is expected to bring in about 1,000 attendees to the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. Many attendees will be members of a burgeoning Vegas startup scene that is forming around a $350 million effort to revitalize downtown Las Vegas.

That “Downtown Project” is being led by Zappos founder Tony Hsieh, who has charmed SXSW Interactive attendees at past events and will serve as the first-ever keynote speaker at V2V on Monday. The other keynote speakers are Steve

Case, AOL co-founder and Revolution Ventures chairman and chief executive, and fashion entrepreneur Lauren Bush Lauren, founder and CEO of the Feed Foundation.

Christine Auten, event producer of SXSW V2V, said the initial idea of bringing the flavor of SXSW to Vegas has morphed into finding ways to find common ground between the two tech cultures.

“Our first conversations were, ‘How do we bring Austin to Vegas? SXSW is Austin. At some point, the planning changed to, ‘What if we involved the Vegas community and made V2V Vegas-Austin-centric?’” Auten said. “It’s been an interesting shift to understand that what can make an event is the local community that supports it as well. The startup community that we’ve engaged with is really similar to early Austin, which is really cool.”

One of the reasons for expanding SXSW Interactive to Las Vegas in the first place was that the crunch of Austin’s limited downtown infrastructure — a lack of hotel rooms, most significantly — created growing pains for the festival. V2V was a way to o›oad some of the focus on startups to a city that could easily accommodate it. But SXSW organizers have also said that the rapid transformation of the startup scene in Las Vegas was also appealing. SXSW Interactive wants to be on the ground floor of an exploding new scene, as it was when Austin’s digital industry began to flourish in the late 1990s.

John Lynn, a co-founder of the blog Vegasstartups.com who also works in the medical IT sector, said that even Vegas locals have had trouble keeping up with how many startups have emerged over the past two years. “We started with a list of 20 companies and figured there must be another 20 we don’t know about,” Lynn said. “It turned out it was closer to 200. Now we’re wondering if there are 200 other companies we just don’t know about.”

Lynn said SXSW V2V was announced as the startup scene was starting to come together through social media and meetups as well as interest in the Downtown Project. “What Tony (Hsieh) has done is take that community and shoot it up with steroids,” Lynn said. “The infusion of cash, energy and coverage has really been a boost to the community. SXSW V2V is just another step in that progression.”

SXSW V2V takes place just after a monthly Vegas Tech Week event and Startup Weekend Las Vegas.

While the daytime programming is at the Cosmopolitan on the Las Vegas Strip, evening events, including music showcases and a film screening hosted by Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League, will happen near the downtown area, where Zappos is moving its 1,500 employees. It’s where the vision is that startup employees will work surrounded by coffee shops, hip restaurants, art spaces, production studios and lofts.

Chris Charles Scott, a public relations director for advertising firm the Glenn Group, has already moved. His company relocated one of its offices to a former bakery in the downtown area and will be promoting at SXSW V2V “#1DollarOfficeSpace,” a contest to award 1,000 square feet of its office space to a new startup. The rent will be $1 for a year.

Scott, one of four Glenn Group employees attending V2V, said he believes the conference will be a good fit in Las Vegas for years to come. “This is a big thing for us. To me, Las Vegas and the whole SXSW brand matches. Could we be a tech hub? If you go downtown, you see for yourself firsthand. The revolution in Vegas is very real.”

Scott described V2V as the Las Vegas startup community’s coming-out party.

“We just want to introduce the innovators and the tech geeks and all the people coming from Austin and Silicon Valley to this era in Las Vegas,” Scott said. “Hopefully some of these people who attend can start to see themselves in Las Vegas.”

Contact Omar L. Gallaga at 512-445-3672. Twitter: @ omarg