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5 lessons from the Amplify Philly crew at SXSW

A Philly group rented an Austin bar to welcome SXSW conference attendees. Here are highlights from a series of talks.

The crowd at the Amplify Philly House at SXSW 2018.

(Courtesy photo)

Other cities have come and gone in their SXSW activations.

In recent years, when tens of thousands of innovators, both celebrated and self-anointed, descend on downtown Austin annually, they’ve been courted by an array of cities, regions and countries. Often led by economic development groups, they rent out a bar or cafe for a few hours or several days, splash it with branding, and lure attendees with programming, branding and free food and drink. The goals range, from the transactional (court business expansions) to the philosophical (forming collective identity).

The growing Philadelphia contingent is by no means the first. But “we’re the only ones doing it like this,” boasted Dave Silver, the scrappy mixer of music and tech by way of his creative collective REC Philly. Along with his cofounder Will Toms, he’s been a consistent agitator for a unified message to the buzzy global innovation festival. Silver and Toms, with events production shop Witty Gritty and a cavalcade partners, are driving Amplify Philly, now both a shared branding effort and a SXSW campaign.

After two years of collective efforts, this year the coalition rented a house, decked out with the Eagles Super Bowl victory on loop, La Colombe coffee and flown-in Tony Luke’s cheesesteaks. Including an all-call, SXSW-style party headlined by the one and only DJ Jazzy Jeff and a Comcast NBCUniversal “pitch elevator,” the two days of programming featured a slew of panels on a range of topics.

Here are some of our favorite lessons:

Ask black and brown women to speak on expertise


Liz Brown, the founder of the recently split Webjunto, wants to be asked to speak more on her UX work and less on broad diversity issues. A black woman who worked for her once said she wanted to talk publicly about diversity, an issue they both cared deeply about. “I told her that she’s a black woman, in this world, that conversation is going to follow her,” said Brown. She encourages people of color and women to focus also becoming known as a subject matter expert on something beyond diversity.

Vying for tech talent means caring about mission

Once a best-available-option technical cofounder turned celebrated tech founder, Bob Moore knows about sourcing technical talent. He’s the volunteer Philly Startup Leaders chairman and former RJMetrics founder. (We also hear rumors he’s working on a second startup.) RJMetrics, its eventual acquirer Magento and spinoff startup Stitch are all related to nerdy data-focused enterprise services. Moore noted that he always took serious the mission of servicing customers that have real economic impact. But he recognized that “in a healthy tech ecosystem in which developers have options” many do make decisions based on mission. “It’s then not about dollars and equity,” he said.

Software is due for a “do no harm” pledge

The world is facing a reckoning with the power and influence of big tech companies. A new generation of tech companies can influence what and how they build products, software and otherwise. Informed by the doctor’s Hippocratic Oath, Dr. Bon Ku, the Thomas Jefferson University dean for health and design, asked where is technology’s pledge of doing good?

They may look different but every city, of any size, needs its tech cluster

After this reporter, who was moderating, nearly demanded a universal pledge to never allow another Silicon Valley–inspired branding campaign, this panel ranged through hot takes of how innovation clusters are built and branded. Among the threads was on how realistic it is to have pervasive tech ecosystems. “The rate of change and growth is what is now important,” said Rick Nucci, the bearded Philly tech startup anchor now leading Guru.

For founders, the work is never done (ever)

Always a good reminder for entrepreneurs: the stress and striving never goes away. That’s the word from hometown hero Todd Carmichael, the outspoken traveler and founder of La Colombe coffee. Whether you have one employee or 1,000, “Nothing’s ever finished,” he said. Carmichael is still doing business development — sweating the details of a deal with 7-Eleven, managing a team and understanding how he should leverage his public persona.

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