How to Launch Your Startup at SXSW for $460


Originally, I wanted to call this article “How to Launch at SXSW on a Shoestring Budget,” but it wasn’t specific enough.

“How to Launch @ SXSW for $460” has a tactical, granular sound that resonates with what my mentor (see his book cover picture here) taught me about promotion at a real world event. It’s an example of “What They Will NEVER Teach You At Stanford Business School.” Having the thesis that it costs just $460.00 definitely puts me in the minority.

There’s talk about how there is a lot of noise at SXSW and how it will be too crowded to promote anything. That reminds me of the Yogi Berra quote: “No one goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” I find it funny that you expect to compete on the Internet, where there is much more noise than at an Austin conference.

But do not make the mistake that most people make journeying to Austin for SXSW. Showing up and hoping for the best is not a good plan. Whether you are launching, re-promoting, or just pre-entrepreneuring… Here are specific ideas on how to increase awareness at SXSW for $460 or less.

1) The Patented Afterparty Maneuver.

By patented I mean “an awesome thing you can exactly copy.” You take whatever existing event you like and you do your own event immediately after.

For example, back when Facebook was rising, they’d do a big party at Pangeae. I did an afterparty across the street. I didn’t do open bar and just had light food. The Facebook party was awesome, but people want a place to linger. The theme I used was “refresh and rejuvenate.”

Hosting a stand-alone event is hard, but an unofficial afterparty may be much easier and cheaper.

2) Hack Together a VIP Author Reception.

Getting a celeb to your informal gathering can be as cheap as $200. In this day when 13,000 books sold can get you on the New York Times Bestseller list, a few extra copies sold moves the needle.

For example, Guy Kawasaki is promoting a new book, Enchantment. If I were a startup founder with a $460 budget, I’d buy 20 used copies of Guy’s OLD book and hand them out March 13 (2 hours after he judges Accelerator). Plot spoiler: used books can cost as little as $0.01.

3) Infiltrate and/or Produce a SXSW Film Reception.

Overlapping the SXSW Interactive festival is the film festival. Getting a film celeb to an event is getting a real celebrity versus a welebrity.

The idea is the same as getting an author, except the cost slide scales up. Instead of pre-promoting a book, the actor is pre-promoting a movie. The last few years Edward Norton, James Marsden, Danny McBride have promoted movies in Austin.

4) Make Your Audience Pay You to Do Lead Gen.

This is the opposite for “pay-for-play.” It means get paid for play.

You do not need to just spend money… you can actually charge people while you build awareness. You can get paid to generate leads and awareness. Here is how: charge for admission and do not provide free alcohol.

A. Get a focus and a theme. Lets say you pick #csMajorCEO
B. Get an RSVP page up on Eventbrite and Facebook
C. Tie in a celebrity component
D. Do partnerships with blogs, startups, and personalities to help promote them
E. Get and control a venue and book a back-up venue

5) Pre-network.

In this age of “everything is faster” and Moore’s Law, I think you should get your ROI for the party/conference BEFORE you even go.

For example, you can drive the registrations through a Facebook groups page. Having people “Facebook fan” you is presumptuous. Getting people to write on a Facebook group wall (which makes them join) is social.

6) Get Local.

If you’re from California, the best thing you can do is get away from California people.

In producing an event for $450, you can enlist the help of local Austin-ites. If you’re charging, offer comp passes. If its free, offer comp demo booths so that companies can demonstrate their offerings but with the requirement that they pre-blog the event.

7) Pre-blog Your Own Event.

When someone asks me to blog about them, the first question I have is, did you blog about it yourself?

Pre-blogging is critical. If you’re only spending $460, preblogging once or twice before your launch is critical. For those founders who have never blogged or rarely blog, the bare minimum for a post is simply three paragraphs, two pictures and one focus. It relates specifically to event promotion because before you promote an event, you have to elevate you and your brand. An inexpensive way to do this is to pre-blog.

For example, freshman Stanford CS majors with zero budget were encouraged to blog as a way to engineer three internships in a row and gain access to expensive conferences. Kiki Garcia pre-blogged about Peter Thiel’s keynote at Stanford’s NextGen conference. John Yang Sammataro pre-blogged a venture capital conference. Both were offered comp passes to attend pretty expensive conferences.

8) Get Others to Pre-blog Your Event.

After your Eventbrite page is up, get someone else to pre-blog your event by offering a secret discount only for their readers.

For example, to woo the Austin startup community, I offered comp tickets to Bryan Menell’s group via his blog post.

9) Hack Up an Eventbrite Page.

The urban myth about hosting an event is that you need to have all your ducks in a row before you publish an invite.

This is a misperception.

Heck, you don’t even need a venue to get started. For example, WordPress is hosting a party March 13. They have a placeholder page up.

As of this time, they have invited some Dallas people, got the commitment of WP Engine and have a decent looking RSVP list.

*  *  *

The basic formula I use is


-Promote, and

-Value-addedly hijack.

This strategy helps to overcome two core problems startups face: no need (for your product/services) and no trust (people trust people, not websites).

Larry Chiang is CEO of Duck9 and teaches Engineering 145 as a Stanford Entrepreneur in Residence. He has a fund called "Larry Chiang Stanford G51 Fund of Stanford Founders." Follow @

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5 responses to “How to Launch Your Startup at SXSW for $460”

  1. Larry,

    Stick to basketball. I’ll teach you how to introduce a product cheaply. :-)


  2. Eric says:

    Great down to earth and practical advice Larry! I loved the article and I loved Guy’s funny comment even more :-)

  3. So do you think the best place to launch a new product and get worldwide attention is SXSW?

    FYI: I’m not based in US

  4. noah says:

    funny, i’ll see if Guy can cut me a discount on all those leftovers.