Growing up, I shuffled between the varsity athletes, music heads, and computer nerds, but as I got older, these passions faded. My creativity was crisply ironed out like the suit I wore every day in New York City. I had gone from building computers and producing music to building financial models on Wall Street. What had happened to me? A few weeks before Spring Break, I decided to reignite my love for technology and entrepreneurship by purchasing a ticket to SXSW Interactive.
South by Southwest (SXSW) is a combination of three conferences that occur at the same time in Austin, TX each year. Starting as a music showcase (SXSW Music) back in 1987, SXSW has now grown into an event that also highlights technology and media (SXSW Interactive), entertainment (SXSW Film), and education (SXSWedu). Well over 150,000 people came to the city last year, to attend the conferences as well as go to the eclectic parties.
Here’s my first 24 hours.
1:00AM – Homeless in Austin
Apartment lobbies can be an interesting place at 1AM on a Friday night (Saturday morning). This is where I found myself camped after arriving in warm Austin from chilly Boston. Minutes before getting on my JetBlue flight, I texted a classmate for the address of an Airbnb where I’d be crashing for the night. His text response read, “Oh no. I thought you needed a place for next weekend.” (!!!) Not to worry though, a friend of mine from Atlanta lived in Austin, and after a short text exchange, he agreed to let me crash last minute. His only warning, “My phone might be dead when you arrive.”
Forty-five minutes after arriving at his place, there I was, a refugee sitting on the cold concrete floor with my bags. No one on the other side picked up my calls. As I waited for potential correspondence, I did what any good boyfriend would do. I woke my girlfriend out of her sleep (2AM in NYC) to let her know that I would be ok. Did I have everything under control? No. But she didn’t need to know that. As I contemplated Plans B & C, my phone rang. My friend had been asleep with his phone on silent. We caught up before both passing out around 2:00AM. In order to make the most out of SXSW, I would need to get up at 7:30AM.
10:15AM – Breakfast Tacos
I overslept. Shamelessly, I traded potential gains in knowledge from the early morning panels for a few hours of extra sleep. It was worth it. My day was planned, and I was almost ready to take on SXSW. Laptop – charged. Phone – charged enough. Stomach – on empty. My friend, who had not purchased a SXSW conference ticket, suggested that we eat something authentically Austin for breakfast: the breakfast taco.
We walked a few blocks from his apartment to a sketchy looking pair of food trucks. One had Mexican food and the other had Thai. The people in the truck were extremely friendly. As I leaned in to take a bite, I could feel my friend’s gaze. He knew what was about to happen. As my teeth sank into the floured tortilla and through the beans, eggs and bacon, I tasted a small piece of heaven.
Now with my day planned and my stomach full, we said our goodbyes, and I ventured off into the city on foot by myself.
3:30PM – Start it Now?
I was now fully checked in and a SXSW veteran with two panels under my belt. The keynote for the day: Max Levchin and his “Unstoppable Trends that are Changing the World”. As a serial entrepreneur and member of the esteemed “PayPal Mafia,” a group of early PayPal employees that went on to start YouTube, LinkedIn, Tesla Motors, and Yelp, Max is a legend in Silicon Valley.
Max spoke directly to me by saying the following:
“If you’re going to start a company, start tomorrow.”
Like many students in business school, I have plans to start my own business one day. That was one of my drivers for attending Harvard Business School. HBS produces tons of entrepreneurs – 17% of graduates go directly into entrepreneurship, either by working at start-ups or founding their own companies, and 42% of graduates start a business in their lifetime. Most of the people I know say they want to start a business at some point, but will that day ever come? We all hope it will, but life happens. Why not start it now?
Max wasn’t just talking to me. He was speaking to all us.
5:50PM – Intro to Computer Science
“I’m sorry. I should have called. You’re right to be upset.” – Boyfriend in Trouble (me)
Remember my call from the previous night to let her know that everything was ok? This wake-up call turned into the seed of my own destruction, watered by my silence throughout the day. As people lined up for a private party held by a prominent VC firm, I was across the street apologizing to my girlfriend.
Thanks to my good friend from undergrad who’s been crushing it out in the valley, I was able to attend a private gathering hosted by one of the top venture capital firms. The highlight for me was a graduate from Stanford GSB. A Mexican native, who had just graduated less than a year ago, and for about 45 minutes, took an interest in my development. He had worked in M&A for two years before leaving his job to learn how to code. With this new skill set, he started a company and sold it while getting his MBA. We talked about why understanding how to code could be helpful, but we also talked about the value of business school. There is no better time to build new skills; no better time to ask tons of questions.
He convinced me to take at least one computer science course. Not something I expected from this random encounter.
11:30PM – Bubble Proof
I found myself surrounded by previous investment bankers all telling me not to do investment banking. It was an intervention.
The venture capital event had turned into a smaller house party. A friend from New York that I hadn’t seen in years was now a partner at a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley. At least five years my senior, he was surprised at how little risk I was taking to reach my long term goal of running a business. He brought in past bankers to convince me against a career in professional services.
I countered by saying something that most would never say to a group of venture capitalists at a venture capitalist party, “VC funding and tech entrepreneurship is in a bubble right now.” Having entered the finance industry right about the 2008-2009 crash, I was (and still am) sensitive to chasing the next hot area for success.
This partner looked me dead in the eye and said, “With an MBA from a top school, you are bubble proof.” The statement knocked me back a little bit. He did not have an MBA, so his opinion was unbiased. He had reached tremendous success without one, and even with his success, he valued my degree more highly than I did. He viewed me as being positioned to take much more risk to get to my end goal.
“Whatever you do next is going to level-set you with other MBAs on the marketplace. You should make sure that your next move sets you apart. Don’t do something that everyone else can do. Use your HBS degree to make a real difference in your career.” – VC Partner
My first 24 hours in Austin had left me with more questions than answers. Should I take a computer science course next semester? Am I not taking enough risk to get me to my end goal? How could my girlfriend think I was dead if she saw me posting on Facebook? Where can I find breakfast tacos in Boston? There were so many questions after that first day.
Some were answered later on, yet many went unanswered. But by the end of my four days at SXSW, one thing was for sure: I would no longer allow my passion for entrepreneurship to be a slave to realistic ambition.
Terrance Rogers (NF) worked in Financial Services for 5 years before coming to HBS, and he’s passionate about figuring out how to use business and public policy to improve people’s lives. Born and raised in Georgia, he’s a proud public school kid who’s still figuring out how to tell people he goes to Harvard. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bigtrogers.
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