Trying to make it at SXSW 

An Atlanta band, filmmaker, and entrepreneur hit up Austin's 2013 mega-conference. Was it worth it?

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Entrepreneur James Harris holds four Vinylmation robot figurines in his hands. He uses these collectibles, which originally belonged to his daughter, to demonstrate what N4MD's four content filters do when he gives a sales pitch.
  • Max Blau
  • Entrepreneur James Harris holds four Vinylmation robot figurines in his hands. He uses these collectibles, which originally belonged to his daughter, to demonstrate what N4MD's four content filters do when he gives a sales pitch.
click to enlarge SOUTH BY SALESMAN: James Harris pitches N4MD, a Flipboard publishing platform, to Unilever executives in a meeting at the SXSW Startup Village.
  • Max Blau
  • SOUTH BY SALESMAN: James Harris pitches N4MD, a Flipboard publishing platform, to Unilever executives in a meeting at the SXSW Startup Village.

SXSW Interactive: James Harris

At midnight on a blustery March weeknight, James Harris anxiously waited for his bus to arrive outside Atlanta's Biltmore Hotel. The 46-year-old serial entrepreneur, who launched the third-party Flipboard publishing company N4MD (pronounced "informed") after SXSW 2011, organized a startup-themed charter bus to take him and nine other young Atlanta entrepreneurs to Austin.

Round-trip tickets cost around $200 per person — far cheaper than a flight and housing. The luxurious charter bus sometimes used by touring hip-hop stars was worth more than $500,000. It slept 12, and had wood-grain countertops, satellite TV, and a full-blown entertainment console. And, of course, Wi-Fi, a key feature that allowed all the techies to work online while traveling.

"Our company was founded [following] an impromptu meeting with Flipboard at SXSW — that made us," says Harris. "[The startup bus] encourages other Atlanta startups to go be successful, bring back opportunity, build a big business, and stay in Atlanta."

When the charter bus arrived in Austin 950 miles later, Harris concentrated on his own business endeavors. Before founding N4MD, Harris ran an interactive agency for 17 years that worked with companies like Compaq and IBM. But at SXSW, N4MD was a small operation at a conference filled with major corporations able to throw money at events, exhibition spaces, and promotions. He spent time at several Blacks in Technology events — networking hubs for African-American startups. His most promising business leads happened in SXSW's Startup Village at the Hilton. The official room, open only to badge-holders, helped connect entrepreneurs with other established businesspeople. It also provided small startups with an opportunity to schedule short meetings with larger participating corporations. Harris scored a 15-minute meeting with several Unilever executives.

N4MD's content-aggregating publisher combs the Internet for relevant content — say, gardening tips for Home Depot, Harris' largest client — and saves companies the time and resources required to manually look for such articles. To explain the concept to the Unilever executives, Harris placed four colorful two-inch robot figurines, which he originally bought for his daughter, on a table. Each toy represents one of N4MD's four content filters. Harris moved them around to explain the publishing platform the way someone might shuffle restaurant condiments on a table to describe a location. At first, the approach seemed hokey, but it worked. "No one ever rejects them," he says. "One lady asked if she could keep [one]."

The collectibles allowed Harris to disarm business executives who had been bombarded with proposals throughout SXSW Interactive. Once he captured the Unilever executives' undivided attention, he gathered them around his 17-inch MacBook and walked them through his publishing platform. Immediately after the meeting, Harris felt confident that he'd hear from them in the future. "It took N4MD two years to get the point where we can put an idea on the table and companies say, 'Yes, we need that,'" he says.

Other in-person meetings with companies such as Pandora and Samsung fell through, but impromptu conversations with AT&T and Roku took place. On his final day in Austin, he grabbed drinks with a pair of employees from Scripps Networks, which owns HGTV, Food Network, and the Travel Channel.

Harris thought the mere chance to expose major corporations to N4MD was worth the several-thousand-dollar investment he made into his SXSW trip. It remains to be seen whether these talks translate into actual business. Even if nothing pans out for N4MD, Harris says he's walking away with a "motivation to move faster."

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