A tall rocker dude with a passing resemblance to Dave Grohl ambles into the Austin Four Seasons, hardly standing out among the flannel-wearing, phone-staring digerati during the first week of South by Southwest scattered across a lobby festooned with the requisite displays of cowboy boots and stag heads on the wall. It’s late Sunday afternoon and it looks as though Williamsburg (as in Brooklyn, not as in Historic) has invaded Southwest Texas, only with a few more notches of “you-mean-you-haven’t-tried-that-new-app-yet?” arrogance and earnestness.
Inside the hotel’s packed bar area, a mix of hipsters, nerds and the odd gray-haired exec clinks glasses and swaps observations about an even more digital future.
The Grohl doppelgänger, accompanied by a smartly dressed “bodyguard,” apologizes for being a few minutes late. “It’s South-by,” he says, an excuse everyone here uses. He is Chris Kantrowitz, founder of Gobbler, a cloud-computing service designed to enable musicians to share and store their files.
Kantrowitz tells the story of how, at the age of 14, he hustled his way into a job as a tester of video games for the original PlayStation by stalking the company’s executives at the Consumer Electronics Show. “My mom,” he recalls, “used to pick me up at school at 3 p.m. and drop me off at Sony.”
It is through moments like these that you get to experience the real SXSW, a destination where many attendees never seem to make it beyond the panels, keynotes—and the parties, of course. It’s in the lobbies, on the patios and bellied up to the bars of the Four Seasons, the historic Driskill Hotel, the Omni and the Hyatt where one tends to find the really important meet-ups, pitches, brainstorming sessions, and yes, deals being made—before the open bars and jammed parties sponsored by The App of The Moment kick off at happy hour and rule the night.
At the Four Seasons, Kantrowitz orders a Bloody Maria. It’s 4:30 p.m., and somewhat late for the start of cocktail hour at SXSW. Every two minutes, Kantrowitz spots somebody he knows and our interchange comes to a halt.
“Hey man, how are you doing? Happy South by Southwest. Awesome.”
Kantrowitz then spots his buddy Rob. “He runs digital for Bruno Mars’ manager,” he tells us. “Hey, there’s my girlfriend. You should totally talk to her. Amaryllis! Amaryllis! Sorry, you need to sit right there.”
The interview has officially been hijacked. We never even get the opportunity to talk about Gobbler.
Rather, now we’re on to Mulu.me. Amaryllis is Amaryllis Fox, Kantrowitz’s girlfriend, who spoke on three different panels in Austin and is CEO of the year-old company that helps make digital editorial content shoppable. Mulu has already partnered with Hearst Magazines, Condé Nast, The Huffington Post and the XO Group, proprietors of TheNest.com and TheBump.com.
Think of Mulu, which launched at SXSW in 2012, as empowering native e-commerce advertising. Its technology scans the words on a page and pulls out products that are then featured as ads within Shop This, a white-label shopping guide product built right into a site’s content. Advertisers can use Mulu to sponsor specific keywords. For example, if a whisk is called for in a recipe, then Williams-Sonoma can run an ad for the implement just below the text.
Fox says despite their recent push into e-commerce, magazine publishers still need a lot of guidance. “Hearst and Condé have had kind of a dire response to Lucky and ShopBazaar, to the point that a giant buzzer would go off in the entire building if someone bought one thing,” says Fox. “Up until now, they’ve only been able to do commerce monetization through affiliate partnerships—which is pretty incremental, to say the least—and then they have to send people away from the page, and then they lose the display revenue.”