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Asheville hosts its debut party at SXSW in Austin



3/13/2012 - Asheville hosts its debut party at SXSW in Austin
by Dale Neal - Asheville Citizen Times

AUSTIN, TEXAS -- It's just a few minutes before the happy hour begins up and down Sixth Street, Austin's historic stretch of music clubs and pubs. Pam Lewis is already happy.

The director of entrepreneurship for the Asheville Chamber of Commerce, Lewis has been spearheading Asheville's networking efforts at South by Southwest 2012. That hard work paid off Monday night.

Asheville hosted its debut party at SXSW at the Soho Lounge on Sixth Street, eager to show off not just the natural beauty of our mountains, but the energy of our best minds in business.

Companies and communities come to Austin to show off their wares and assets during SXSW, the annual festival that turns the Texas capital into an annual mecca for the brightest minds in business, the arts and pop culture.

On Monday night, Lewis expected 200 or more party-goers to crowd the Soho, eager to sample S'mores from French Broad Chocolate Lounge, get a hammock from Eagle Nest Outfitters or win the door prize of a theremin donated by Moog Music. The party also gave Asheville a chance to compete in the global economy for talent and new business.

During the past few days, Lewis and other Asheville Chamber of Commerce staff and entrepreneurs have networked with their peers in the interactive panels and after hours at some of the 500 parties scheduled in town.

"Asheville is an early adopter being here at SXSW," Lewis said. "We can play in this arena."

Findig out what women want

Bryan Lhuillier, of Seattle, was rushing to get to his booth Monday before the opening of the SXSW Trade Show, hoping his company, Shiftboard, can catch a little of buzz that rubs off in Austin. Shiftboard is an online scheduling service that can line up shuttles, temporary staffers, whatever you need. "Can you get us a shuttle from the hotel tomorrow?" I ask Lhuillier who laughs.

The SXSW trade show boasts more than 300 startup companies, communities and countries setting up display booths, hawking new social media apps, services, products and devices.

The California company, a database miner of social media, has a catchy promotional campaign, asking the age-old question "What do women want?" It has developed sophisticated algorithms to sift through more than 90 million bits of data from tweets, Facebook postings, microblogs and other Internet sources, helping companies understand how customers respond to their wares.

 That kind of technology would hardly be applicable without the explosion in social media and smartphones, said marketing director Lisa Joy Rosner. "Twitter gave customers a voice, and companies and governments have to listen," she said, pointing to the Planned Parenthood/Komen Foundation flap or the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt.

But how to be heard amid a million tweets? And if every new company comes to SXSW, won't their voices be lost in the din on the convention center's trade show floor, dampened by aisles of red carpet?

"It's not just all the crazy startups," Rosner said, pointing to bigger players like HP with a booth next door. When big companies are coming to SXSW, more businesses are sure to follow.

So, what do women want, according to Netbase's analysis of the data flowing out there in cyberspace?

Ice cream, it seems.

And what do men want? Not what you might think.

Try a car.

Playing on the big fie ld

Down in Austin, Ben Teague is a changed man.

Teague, executive director of the Economic Development Coalition of Asheville Buncombe County, has swapped his workaday attire of coat and tie for the SXSW casual blue jeans and T-shirt.

I bumped into Ben in the upper levels of the endless Austin Convention Center, and we catch up and compare notes at a coffee stand by the escalators.

Economic development has changed dramatically over the decades. Teague started his career in Mississippi, where the strategy of attracting new industry and new jobs was very simple: offer the cheapest land and labor.

Land is neither as cheap nor flat as in Mississippi. With its Asheville 5X5 Jobs Initiative, the Asheville chamber has thought through a strategy to build on what Asheville already has in abundance -- good people working in key sectors. Knowledge-based entrepreneurs is one of those sectors and a target for recruitment and growth.

Chamber staff and other Asheville champions are down in force this year at SXSW Interactive, eager to plug Asheville as a place as cool as Austin to attract entrepreneurs.

"When you're in Asheville, looking through the knot hole in the fence, you only get a limited view of the playing field," Teague says. "Down here, you can see the whole 1,000 acres of talent."

Teague and his team also get a sense of the competition out there, not only with the crush of events here at SXSW, but all the communities worldwide eager to attract the same talent to their towns.

Berlin, for example.

The German metropolis took out a full-page ad in the Austin American-Statesman, inviting SXSW to its sponsored lunch later this week. And you hear plenty of German spoken around Asheville, along with a dozen other languages with business folks from Japan, South Korea, Europe and South America.

Teague said he's been getting good feedback from entrepreneurs and developers he's been chatting up.

No one is confusing Asheville for Nashville as they did in conversations only a decade ago. In fact, one guy asked him how did Asheville get such a buzz about itself.

"It takes years to be an overnight success."

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