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Massive Indy startup group heads south for convention

March 10, 2011

More than 100 local technology entrepreneurs will depart Thursday for what some call the Super Bowl of the startup world: the South by Southwest Interactive Conference.

Many in Indianapolis’ contingent—more than 10 times bigger than the local group that went just four years ago—are attending the five-day event in Austin, Texas, in the hope of building business contacts and learning from the dozens of panel speakers.

But the overall mission is bigger: promoting the city’s profile as a startup hub in order to attract money and talent.

The sheer growth in attendees from Indianapolis shows the local tech startup scene is growing.

Four years ago, Kristian Andersen, a local angel investor and entrepreneur, hosted a crawfish boil—one of many social events at the conference—for all the Indianapolis attendees at South by Southwest. It drew 12 people.

Last year, more than 70 from Indianapolis attended the crawfish boil, and this year, 100 people signed up on the Web—the capacity point at which Andersen took the list offline.

South by Southwest organizers couldn’t immediately provide the exact number of Indianapolis attendees for this year’s event. But they said the Indianapolis interest was so strong that they picked the city as one of 15 “tech hotspots,” along with places such as New York and San Francisco. The designation earned Indianapolis the right to host a pre-party, which it did in early this year.

“There are literally so many people going now from Indy, there’s this infection point,” Anderson said. “We’re in a good position to broadcast what’s happening in Indianapolis to the rest of the country.”

Events such as the crawfish boil help acomplish that. In the South by Southwest hierarchy, hosting a social shindig is a sign of startup clout. So is speaking on a panel, as Andersen and a few other locals are doing.

Throughout the event, attendees spend their time listening to panels on topics ranging from “Branded Entertainment” to “Being Young and Rocking It.” Outside of the panels, a nonstop stream of social activities provides a venue for constant networking, which many say is the real draw of the conference.

Matt Hunckler, director of marketing at locally based startup Slingshot SEO Inc., said those organic connections can lead to business opportunities.

“It’s having those conversations with the influencers in the industry,” said Hunckler, who also leads Verge, a local startup networking group. “It’s not a sales pitch of what you do—it’s just what comes out when you’re having a conversation with somebody.”

Such efforts at past conferences appear to have had some payoff for local firms. Locally-based Internet search engine ChaCha boosted its profile with a marketing splash at the event. Social networking site Formspring.me, which started in Indianapolis and has moved to San Francisco, had its coming-out party at South by Southwest. And local startup Pocket Tales was launched in a competition there.

Some locals say the event isn’t just about national recognition. It also helps members of Indianapolis’ startup crowd—many of whom already are linked through social networking sites such as Twitter—connect in person and forge relationships they can take back to Indianapolis.

Jeb Banner, who owns locally based SmallBox, which makes and markets Web sites, said he’s seen the local impact of the connections made at last year’s conference, the first he attended.

“Looking at the confluence between the different companies in town, a lot of that can be linked pretty directly to conversations and relationships that were firmed up during that week [of South by Southwest],” Banner said. “It’s a chance to take those relationships you started on Twitter and take it to the next level.”

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