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The Microsoft BizSpark Accelerator Finalists

The second annual Microsoft BizSpark Accelerator is a two-day competition where companies in four categories compete for thousands of dollars worth of prizes and, of course, the prestigious SXSWi Conference recognition.

The four categories are Innovative Web Technologies, Entertainment Technologies, Business Social Media, and Personal Social Media. A spokesperson for each of eight new companies in each category pitch their business to a critical panel of internet business luminaries who grill the representatives mercilessly about the advantages, benefits and shortcomings of their product. I was quite surprised at how aggressive the panel was. But such rigor is probably the best option, because it at least keeps the interviews entertaining.

Sponsored by Elance, Microsoft BizSpark, Level 3, Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati, and .BIZ Domain, the whole idea is to uncover and promote creative new ideas and talent in each category.

I attended the Innovative Web Technologies and Entertainment presentations, which ran concurrently with the two social media categories.

Gary Vaynerchuk’s 7 Secrets of Social Business

A large crowd welcomed Gary Vaynerchuck Monday at his lunchtime keynote at Monday's SXSWi conference. Some people know him as the wine guy and others just as @garyvee on Twitter. For anyone that hasn't heard of Vaynerchuck, he is a New York Times bestselling author, WineLibrary.tv video celebrity and owner of the Wine Library, an online wine retail store

Vaynerchuck became a wine expert after reluctantly joining his family run liquor business and soon found passion by equated it with his childhood passion of selling baseball cards. In 1997 he launched an online retailer under the newly branded name: The Wine Library. Wine Library TV was launched 9 years later and branded Gary as "changing the wine world" with a more low key approach to a traditionally stuffy industry. By utilizing the social web, he started with constant interaction on blogs and forums then expanded connections and consumer reach through Facebook and Twitter. The Wine Library grew from $4 million to $60 million in revenue, branding Vaynerchuck as an expert social marketer.

Four Hour Book Signing

Tim Ferriss, the author of The 4-Hour Work Week, spent some time hanging out at the Elance SXSW tradeshow booth to promote the idea of outsourcing your life. Ferriss is the poster-child for outsourcing tasks to specialized talent in order to obtain a short workweek. Ferriss is a huge advocate for cutting down the number of working hours by utilizing websites like Elance, but when it comes to his followers, interaction with them is a task he refuses to outsource. The original timeslot he agreed to for the signing of the new edition of his book was one hour. The turnout to meet Ferriss was larger than expected. After the first hour, the line still curved across the entire Tradeshow floor. Ferriss, a dedicated supporter of his fans, wanted to personally greet everyone in line. After, coincidentally, 4 hours of book signing Ferriss had to cut the line short to get to his next event.

The 13th Annual SXSW Web Awards

Drawn by the promise of free beer and food, I headed over the road from the Austin Convention Center to the Hilton hotel 6th floor ballroom for the annual SXSW Web Awards. The place was packed with people who'd found similarly selfish inspiration well before I did. I really need to start twittering, or tweeting, or whatever you call it, fourspacing, and all the other socially connective technologies that define the fast-paced, modern lifestyle I somehow appear to have neglected to immerse myself in.

The Future of Green is Zero

SXSWi is the place to find out what tomorrow holds in the technology, film and music industries. Innovations in these huge fields raise questions about how they will impact other movements. Today I attended a panel on the future of green to see how the technology and interactive space are positively influencing sustainability. The core focus of the panel was on Zero waste. Zero waste is the concept of producing the same, if not more, energy than you consume. The idea of consuming less energy felt a little out of place at a conference scattered with recharge stations and swag bags loaded with paper waste but everyone has to start somewhere.

Tim Ferriss Gets to Hang Out With Me

I wondered how long it would take one of the people lined up around the block to ask Tim Ferriss, author of the New York Times bestseller "The 4-Hour Workweek" when he was bringing out the 3-hour version. Because that was also my initial question. Fortunately, I managed to edit myself before I blurted it out. Thus, I feel entitled to thumb my nose at the person that did.

I turned up at the Elance booth this afternoon for Tim's book signing, and the people were already lined up around the block. With a nod to the Elance crew I set up shop behind the man himself and speed read his book. You can see my ear in the pic. I know, I should have read it earlier but that's the advantage of speed-reading, right? What an amazing story. Tim basically travels the world, creating businesses and outsourcing the work requirements through the internet. Genius. And judging by his reception at the SXSW Interactive Trade Conference, everyone else thinks so too.

The ideology behind "The 4-Hour Workweek" is minimizing one's personal physical baggage, exploiting travel deals, and committing to mobility in both career and lifestyle. By the use of Elance, Tim is able to hire people around the world to complete his work requirements.

Online Film Distribution

The first South by Southwest weekend is shared between the Interactive conference and the Film conference. The organizers have made sure to separate the two distinct crowds with either a neon green lanyard for Interactive only attendees or a black lanyard for Film only attendees. The benefit of hosting the two conferences on the same schedule is the opportunity to cross-pollinate ideas. Today I attended a joint Interactive and Film event entitled “Nobody Wants to Watch Your Film: Realities of Online Film Distribution.” The event brought together filmmakers and tech geeks together to debate the best way to solve that filmmakers want more viewership and online providers want more content but users want everything to be free and easy.

The biggest question posed by moderator Efe Cakarel of The Auteurs, was “What do you think will be the most dominate way to make money in film in the future?” Despite the title, the panel was setup to address that consumers are interested in new films but smaller films have a hard time getting their content in front of a paying crowd. There are websites that offer access to a range of different movies but memberships are required across numerous sites to access multiple movies. There is not one single platform that has successfully enabled small and large filmmakers to profitably deliver their content. Netflix streaming is a great example but the scale of demand they need to support smaller movies is hard for new filmmakers to reach.

One of the most exciting new opportunities for the future of online distribution came from Sarah Pollack of YouTube. In celebration of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, YouTube launched a limited number of full-length feature films on the youtube.com website on a pay-per-view basis. This is huge news for filmmakers. YouTube has the second most popular search bar behind Google and millions of views a day. The core assets of the YouTube platform are what companies like the Auteurs aim to replicate: ease of use and a large community.

Beyond a great infrastructure, if YouTube decides to fully launch their pay-per-view model they want to give content producers options. Filmmakers will be able to choose the cost of their movies and the length of time the viewer can access it. The initial pilot has proven successful. There was great feedback on getting access to the movies in a simple format but there were also user complaints about paying for content on a website built on free video. In both instances, it opened the door for the filmmaker to start a conversation with the community on the comment board. The filmmakers responded to questions and shared more insight into why they made the movie. It brings creator and consumer closer together. Plus utilization of YouTube’s video analytics tools helps better identify a filmmaker’s fan base.
Pay-per-view videos on YouTube may not be the end solution to online distribution but their move to get involved is a great opportunity for filmmakers. In the meantime, any online platform that helps content creators easily and profitably deliver their content to customers is well positioned to be a future success.

How To Make A Living Blogging

Companies like tumblr.com and wordpress.com are making it even easier for anyone with an internet connection to start a blog. Some people have had huge success and turned a writing hobby into a full time job. However, the Perez Hilton’s of the world are far and few between. Today at SXSWi I listened to the founder of Nerve.com and many enthusiastic audience members share their tips on how to make money by blogging.

Advertisements. Adsense is one of the easiest ways to add a revenue component to your blog website. Most websites can make money but very few can make a living through advertisements alone. In reality, you'll be in a good position if you can make a few hundred dollars through click-through advertisements a month. As web users become savvier they are more likely to ignore irrelevant side banner advertisements. More targeted advertisements have higher rates of success. Websites like AdBrite.com and OpenX.com provide the tools to post more tailored advertisement solutions. Great if you have a smaller fan base or want more control over the advertisements posted on your site.

Guest writing. A blog is a great platform to showcase your writing ability and the subjects you're passionate about. Online and print publications are constantly seeking passionate experts to freelance or contribute content. Writers can seek out paying freelance opportunities on broad or niche topics on websites like Elance or directly on a publication's website. In some cases, if your blog has a large or very targeted following a content publisher may reach out directly to request your writing. Although the articles you write are not published on your blog they still add to your blogging brand.

Sponsorship. Blog brand building is essential as your readership grows. Once you've packaged what differentiates your blog from others it is easier to make the case for stronger advertisement and partnership support. For example, HerBadMother.com is a parenting blog from a busy Mother's perspective written by Catherine Connors. Connors’ was able to leverage her large mother fan base as a selling point for advertising sponsorships. She pitched a story about taking her children on a trip to Disney World and landed an advertising sponsorship from a vehicle company that supplied use of a car and monetary compensation to be included in Connors’ coverage of the trip.

Write a book. People start blogs as a way to write or share about a topic they’re interested in. Growing the fan base of readers and views shows proof that the writing and topic are interesting to attract an audience. This proof of concept is a great jumping off point to expand coverage of a topic into a book. If you have a large user base or an interested publisher than it will be easier to get your book into stores across the country. If you’ve got something to write about for a smaller or more niche market then selling an online e-book can be another monetary option. Even better, you can use your blog to further promote your book or e-book to new customers.

The Power of Responsibility

If you read my first blog from SXSW Interactive, you’ll know I barely escaped a horde of rampaging technogeeks by rolling, Indiana Jones-style, into the Screenburn Panel discussion With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: The Future of Video Games, hosted by Discover magazine’s Amos Zeeberg and co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

As I smoothly collapsed into a chair, heaving and sweating, the discussion commenced as if they‘d been politely waiting for me (a somewhat pleasant fiction). A row of highly-intelligent-looking folks began sounding off about the work they’d done in video games, and a very impressive group they were too; Tiffany Barnes, Ann McLaughlin, Jim Bower and Lucy Bradshaw.

For an hour, as the discussion evolved, it became apparent this was a get-together designed to rag on the politicians, parents, clergymen and other interfering busybodies who deign it necessary to disparage the fine pursuit of video gaming and the participants thereof.

Now, I’m one of those participants. There’s nothing I like better than meeting new people in an artificially-created online environment and blowing them up with high explosives or viciously dismembering them with a bladed object. And it appears I wasn’t alone in the room.

The academics on the panel scoffed at the perpetual layman’s claim that video gaming creates mindless automatons with lacking social skills. Indeed, they suggested quite the reverse. Online gaming actually gives people with underdeveloped socialization abilities an outlet that, without video games, would be unavailable. The panel created compelling arguments with reference to their gaming work involving children and the elderly. The gist of their point was that people learn by play. We’re psychologically geared towards doing so. It’s natural. The concept (and conceit) that real people should actually learn from books is a relatively new one that’s only been around since the invention of the printing press 600 years ago. This tiny blip on the human learning history oscilloscope pales in comparison to the legacy of the interactive play we’re supposed to be engaging in, and did so for the preceding millions of years (and continue to, albeit now under duress from the busybody crew). Sure, they didn’t have video games then, but play is play; our toys are simply slightly different.

While gamers may look like all they’re doing is staring blankly at a screen (which is, frankly, where the technophobes derive their objection), there is actually a whole hive of activity frenetically buzzing beneath the surface, sharpening such things as reaction times, hand-eye co-ordination and spatial awareness. Skills are being acquired. The nature of the skills is not as important as one might think; the sheer act of acquisition keeps the brain ticking over and is particularly useful in preserving the neural pathways of the elderly.

The discussion moved onto the advent of internet gaming and social media sites such as facebook and twitter, and veered towards the social (albeit online) interaction such platforms encourage. A question was asked of the audience if any members felt they had been made socially awkward by online interaction. While a somewhat facetious question, no one raised their hand. This was not an indication of audience apathy, you understand, as they were quite lively throughout the discussion. A poignant and fitting result at an interactive conference, all in all.

Build a Web Company - No Experience Necessary

SXSW Interactive (SXSWi) pulls together some of the brightest minds and most-promising businesses in the technology field. Although almost all attendees seem to know their way around an iPhone or a MacBook, most of the players in tech start-ups are not programmers. Sahadeva Hammari and Suzanne Xie are two great examples that you don’t have to know how to code to build a successful online company.

Hammari is a graphic designer, the creator of the successful PrintSociety.com, has been featured in BusinessWeek’s Best of the Web but he doesn’t know to code and did not start with a Tech Co-founder. Xie on the other hand was an ex-wall street investment banker who founded Weardrobe, the largest online fashion community for street style and fashion photos, without any knowledge or experience of the tech world. How could they create a successful web business without any experience? The answer is sourcing project-based talent.