The morning had begun calmly enough. A buffet of ham and fried-chicken biscuits catered by Loveless Cafe spanned the lobby from end to end; a smiling Gov. Bill Haslam welcomed everyone to Tennessee's "bright technology future" in a pre-recorded video; and Launch Tennessee CEO Charlie Brock politely thanked the big-money sponsors before introducing the first event of the first Southland conference — an onstage interview of Gary Swart, founder of the international online freelance labor marketplace oDesk.
But then, before she posed her first question, interviewer and Memphis native Sarah Lacy interrupted herself to issue an unexpected challenge: Go crazy. Each and every time a new speaker or panelist is introduced, lose your ever-loving minds.
"Act like Oprah just gave away a car," she beamed.
Over-the-top enthusiasm, Lacy explained, is the secret of Big Omaha. It's what brings sought-after speakers to Nebraska year after year for the heartland innovation and technology conference. And if the Southeast wants to create that kind of traction, she said, we will have to bring the noise. Not "likes." Not hashtags, Storifies or turbocharged tweets-per-second, but rather: applause. Hoots. Hollers.
Everyone stood and cheered wildly as she introduced Swart a second time.
Lacy, herself an entrepreneur and founder of the Silicon Valley news site PandoDaily, smiled approvingly, while also warning she'd monitor audience reaction throughout the day and whip everyone back into shape if the energy waned. By and large, it did not, though Lacy did ascend the Cannery Ballroom stage midday to give another pep talk.
Telling a conference that had scarcely begun that it was in danger of not becoming the next big anything was a bar-raiser of sorts. And it helped set a tone for the two-day event — subtitled "Southern culture + technology," though a panel on "whiskey disruptors" notwithstanding, the focus was very much technology — that was itself attempting to serve as a bar-raiser of sorts. That message synced up nicely with another major theme: Be bold.
In a talk titled "Spreading the Silicon Valley Gospel," Ali Partovi, a startup founder and investor (iLike, Zappos and Dropbox, among others) emphasized the importance of embracing risk. Silicon Valley, Partovi said, is more than a place: "Silicon Valley is an ethos." One that trusts the best and brightest will do great things if given the means, even if they fail spectacularly at first.
Over the conference's two days, a roster of small Southeastern tech companies — all in early stages, but in many cases already in the market to some degree — pitched their ideas to the audience and a panel of "encouragers," including veteran entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. Nashville's burgeoning startup community (see "Tech of the Town," Feb. 21) was well-represented, both in the rapid-fire onstage pitch sessions — Evermind, Populr, Splitsecnd and Streamweaver were among the warmly received presenters — and in the third-floor Southland Village, where startups rubbed elbows with investors and shared exhibit space with local artisans ranging from Bang Candy Company to Sideshow Sign Co.
On Thursday, Mayor Karl Dean made an appearance in the Southland Village, hinting at the seriousness of the charm offensive underway to put Nashville on the tech-scene map. Before the conference opened, speakers got their Oprah-giving-away-a-car moment early, in the form of a dinner onstage at the Ryman that featured a performance by no less a luminary than Emmylou Harris. A soft sell this was not.
Interestingly, Hearst Corp. executive George Kliavkoff (a veteran of the team that developed Hulu.com, among other accomplishments), credited proactive government involvement with helping develop the tech startup ecosystem in New York City, now considered among the best in the country. Kliavkoff, whom interviewer and Moontoast co-founder Marcus Whitney called "the real deal," joined a deep bench of been-there, exited-that players. In an impressive big-picture keynote, IBM executive Dan Pelino showed the new role of the supercomputer Watson in dramatically improving the accuracy of medical diagnoses. "Fall in love with the question, not the answer," Pelino intoned — a graceful echo of Watson's Jeopardy win against two of the game show's super-champions.
The Southland conference arrived less than two months after the music-focused Google for Creators event (see "Pillar to Post," April 25), a week before the opening of the new Entrepreneur Center location in Rolling Mill Hill, and a little less than a month after the opening of the $585 million Music City Center (where, due to limited space on Cannery Row, Southland attendees parked their cars). The conference also segued — perhaps a bit abruptly, but certainly not by accident — into the opening hours of Bonnaroo, a bit of timing that could help eventually to build a version of SXSW. The Austin festival starts each year with its "interactive" component before transitioning to its sprawling musical main event. That wasn't lost on Lacy, who posted a widely circulated paean to Southland Monday on PandoDaily.
"The state has something other people would die for: Important people want to visit," Lacy wrote. "They love our music; they love our food. By playing on that and hooking it to the front end of a music festival, Southland is mimicking what SXSW Interactive did well. By focusing on the strengths of a region, it's doing what Big Omaha did well. If it combines the two, it could be the hot new emerging tech conference in a sea of ones getting stale."
Southland also arrived amid sometimes heated discussion of where the city's proposed bus rapid transit line, The Amp, could do the greatest good for the greatest number — and a growing sense among some in North Nashville that the city's latest surge of redevelopment is bypassing its neediest citizens. If Silicon Valley is as much an ethos as a place, as Partovi said, consider George Packer's recent observation in The New Yorker: "After decades in which the country has become less and less equal, Silicon Valley is one of the most unequal places in America."
Earlier this year, a veteran of the Nashville tech scene told the Scene that, given the right set of circumstances, it would be easy to envision how a trickle of interest from Silicon Valley — which attendance and ovation volume at Southland indicate has already begun — could grow if a few things break the right way here and there.
"And, y'know, in 10 to 15 years the town's ruined," the serial entrepreneur said with a laugh. "But we'll all have made a bunch of money."
At the very least, Southland appears to have loosened that spigot a bit more. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Even if Nashville can't be the next Silicon Valley, we can at least be the next Omaha.