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SXSW’s Forrest revs coastal entrepreneurs

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More than 50 entrepreneurs, business owners and industry leaders spoke during the first annual Coastal Connect Entrepreneur and Capital Conference Thursday, Sept. 4, organized by the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE).

The event’s keynote speaker was Hugh Forrest, director of the South by Southwest (SXSW) interactive festival, which takes place every March in Austin, Texas. The interactive festival is part of the larger SXSW Festival that also includes individual music and film festivals.

Forrest said his team has tracked SXSW’s impact during the past three years. In 2013 the festival generated $218 million for the city of Austin, which makes it the city’s biggest single economic generator. By comparison, Forrest said a Superbowl typically provides the host city with an economic impact between $400 million-$500 million.

However, SXSW Interactive was not always the success story it is today and Forrest said the music component paid the bills for around a decade. Interest grew steadily in the interactive component, which features tech startups and entrepreneurs. The big breakthrough for the festival was in 2007 when Twitter made its first big presentation to the tech community during that year’s festival.

Linking his experience with SXSW to new entrepreneurs and fostering the tech industry in Wilmington, Forrest said the most important things to have are patience and a plan.

“It is much easier to have a plan and ditch it the case of serendipity rather than waiting for that serendipity to happen,” Forrest said. “[SXSW] took 30 years to build so you need to grow something incrementally, and have patience and persistence.”

Alluding to Wilmington’s own growth, CIE executive director Jim Roberts pointed out the statistic that 100 new people move to Austin every day and asked Forrest what considerations need to be given to sustainable growth.

“I don’t know how long that is sustainable,” Forrest said. “We are in boomtown mode now and the same challenges of the city of Austin are the challenges of SXSW . . . staying true in spite of constant change.”

Following his remarks, dozens of entrepreneurs, business owners and industry leaders took the stage to pitch ideas, speak about innovation and discuss the homegrown industries rising locally.

The following Monday, Sept. 9, after the conference, Roberts said he was pleased with how the CIE staff of two people pulled off the event.

“I am pretty proud of what we were able to pull off with this event,” Roberts said.

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