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Asheville bringing back the buzz and business from Austin

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3/12/2012 - Asheville bringing back the buzz and business from Austin
by Dale Neal - Asheville Citizen Times

 GTT -- "Gone to Texas." You used to find that shorthand scribbled on the doors of abandoned cabins across the Appalachian mountains. People down on their luck in our hardscrabble hills went to Texas to find their fortunes in the 19th century.

 I've gone to Texas myself this weekend -- Austin, actually -- along with a couple of dozen Asheville entrepreneurs and economic developers in town for the massive SXSW Interactive conference where everyone is looking for the next big thing in business.

SXSW, or the South by Southwest conferences in film, music and business, have grown over the past 25 years into massive, must-attend events. Each March, thousands of entrepreneurs, leading thinkers, artists, musicians, gamers, social media mavens, techies and others crowd into Austin -- the city from which we stole our unofficial slogan "Keep Asheville Weird."

Asheville boosters here in Austin are hoping to trade on our unique vibe, spotlighting our mountain metropolis before the world as not just a unique place to come ride mountain bikes, drink craft brews and eat good food, but as a vibrant place to start a company and do real business.

Venture Asheville, the Asheville Chamber of Commerce's new campaign to brand our city as a entrepreneurial magnet, will host a reception Monday night at the Soho Lounge in downtown Austin. During the five-day Interactive festival that's packed with hundreds of panels, presentations, product launches, book-signings, film screenings, it's the parties that draw the real buzz and crowds.

Entrepreneurs network and hobnob with venture capitalists and each other. It's that networking that's the lifeblood of new business.

And Asheville has already built some buzz for tomorrow night's reception. More than 1,000 participants have RSVP'd, eager to sample French Broad Chocolate Lounge truffles, snag a hammock made by Eagle Nest Outfitters or win a theremin door prize donated by Moog Music.

"We want to articulate the vision we have for an entrepreneurial society we have in Asheville," said Christine Sykes Lowe, a marketing specialist who's been an active organizer in the Hatchfest and Ignite Asheville events. "We have a lot of great companies who've made it in Asheville and have a great story to tell."

Troy Tolle of Digital Chalk, a booming software company in Asheville, recalls bumping into Werner Vogels, the technology guru behind Amazon, at SXSW last year. They sat down and had a 45-minute face-to-face conversation -- the kind of contact that entrepreneurs crave.

"I couldn't call up Amazon's office and ask to talk to Werner Vogels," Tolle said.

But at SXSW, venture capitalists and leading tech thinkers are eager to hobnob with up-and-coming entrepreneurs. It's no coincidence that dozens of startup companies will be announcing their new products and services all weekend down in Austin.

SXSW has a history of launching the next big thing, like Twitter -- the social media service that has spread like wildfire with more than 300 million users worldwide.

So will Austin be all atwitter about Asheville after Monday's party? We'll see.

Ben Teague, executive director of the Economic Development Coalition, and Pam Lewis, the director of entrepreneurship, hope to bring that buzz back to Asheville. Perhaps like pied pipers, they can beckon a line of startup companies and entrepreneurs who want to call Asheville home.

Instead of GTT, that old shorthand for "Gone To Texas" that spoke of a migration away from our mountains, the new abbreviation, suitable for our Twittering times, would be A@A -- "Achieve at Asheville."

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