The Festival Effect
Taking a page from food and the arts, the tech industry is turning to festivals as a way to increase exposure and generate revenue
You’d think with the growing portion of our lives we spend online that festivals, which necessitate face-to-face interactions, would be on the way out. But these events are in fact exploding in popularity, creating huge business and marketing opportunities (thanks, social media!) and pumping money into local communities. Giant music festivals like Chicago’s Lollapalooza continue to smash ticket sale records, and the appearance of new (and steadily growing) fests like Summer Set in Somerset, Wisconsin, prove there’s still room for more. Then there are those film festivals, which also generate mega sponsorship deals and media coverage. And now tech is getting in on the festival fun. Austin’s South by Southwest festival arguably started it all with its Interactive branch, which showcases the latest and greatest in emerging technologies. In the twenty-one years since the first SXSW Interactive, the geeky-cool conference has grown immensely, inspiring tech communities nationwide to create their own iterations. Madison’s four-year-old Forward Technology Festival is one of them. While the startups and apps and software on display at these kinds of conferences are exciting, increasingly it’s the hybridization of the festivals—the inclusion of craft beer, local food, great music and big ideas—that really draw the crowds and impact the host city, in both tangible and intangible ways.
START SMALL, GROW BIG
When Hugh Forrest, the director of SXSW Interactive, was in Madison last fall to keynote the launch party for Madison Magazine’s inaugural M List, he talked about the now-colossal tech conference’s humble beginnings. It was traditionally the smallest segment of SXSW’s three branches (the others are music and film), and it took a while to catch on. But for these kinds of conferences, that’s a good thing. “These events are strongest when they grow organically,” Forrest told the M List crowd.
Local tech conference organizers are pursuing that kind of grassroots growth as well. Jen Remsik launched Sapling Events, a company that organizes conferences for programming and design enthusiasts, in 2010. The company is responsible for such events as Madison+ Ruby—a three-day conference during Forward Technology Festival covering the open source programming language Ruby—and Madison+ UX—a three-day user experience and design conference that took place in July. Sapling’s conferences have become a destination for developers around the country, but it wasn’t because they started big. They started small, but were well executed and word got out.
That’s the kind of growth Forrest was talking about.
Co-founder of Capital Entrepreneurs and COO of mobile gaming company PerBlue Forrest Woolworth talks Forward Technology Festival
How did Forward Technology Festival start?
It started in 2010. Nate Lustig (a serial entrepreneur now based in Chile) and Matt Younkle (co-founder of Murfie) were talking with Bryan Chan (founder of SupraNet) about starting a conference focused on entrepreneurial and technology topics. As plans were coming together, they wanted to build buzz and make it more than just a conference. Preston Austin, Murfie’s other co-founder, suggested linking up some other events happening around that time, and the idea of the festival was born. It was built in a very grassroots way. Now Capital Entrepreneurs is a big organizer of the event, so it’s very much by entrepreneurs, for entrepreneurs.
How has the festival changed in the last four years?
It’s becoming more of a regional event. We wanted to increase the scale and increase the reach to make sure we were touching a broader community. We also wanted to raise the profile of Madison—to have this be a showcase of the cool tech and entrepreneurial stuff happening here. When I’m talking with people outside of Madison, whether it’s in the region or out in Silicon Valley, they say, “I’ve heard good things about Madison. When’s a good time to visit?” I say during Forward Tech Fest.
What kind of impact does it have on the Madison community?
People see the physical-ness of the startup community. There are open houses where people can see co-working spaces and startups. It also impacts people who are not as familiar with the tech scene but want to know more.
Any impact outside of Madison?
When I’ve talked to people around the country about startups, I keep hearing them say they’ve heard something interesting is happening in Madison, and there’s this perception that the scene is starting to gain a critical mass, and a lot of that traces back to Forward Tech Fest, whether they’ve been there themselves or heard about it from someone else.
Is community impact something you think about when planning the festival?
It’s become more top of mind recently as we’ve wanted to broaden the impact. We’re working on ensuring the tech and entrepreneurial community is accessible and keeping barriers to entry as low as possible. People should feel welcomed and encouraged to join in.
Forward Technology Festival takes place August 21–28 throughout Madison. Visit forwardfest.org for more information.