The XOXO Festival

This past weekend, I spent four days in Portland, OR at the XOXO Festival. Billed as “an arts and technology festival celebrating disruptive creativity,” it brought together 400 minds in one space to share and discuss our work.

The conference talks and themes have been thoroughly and thoughtfully covered by Anil Dash, the NYTimes, BoingBoing and WIRED, and some great commentary has been published by folks like @kottke, Jon Lax and Eric Holscher.

The consensus from everyone is that in a sea of uninspiring tech conferences at [insert convention center] in [insert major city], XOXO was an inspiring and refreshing anomaly. It celebrated the city of Portland, OR from the venue itself (the restored YU Contemporary) to the local food trucks providing lunch, and the crowd in attendance was everything you’d want — smart folks from different industries who listened to presentations instead of tweeting, and were open to having a conversation with anyone. Whether you were talking to a visual artist, industrial designer, developer, CEO, blogger, filmmaker, consumer advocate, or game designer, everyone was interested in talking about and learning one another’s craft and how it’s evolving.

Since returning home, I’ve had a few days to decompress and digest my days at XOXO. And the more I think about it, the more I find myself coming back and revisiting these three themes.

1. Artist-controlled distribution is the new norm. For years, artists of all types have been digitally distributing content themselves. This isn’t news. But I do believe we’re at a tipping point where it is becoming the default option, and for many creators, the only way they will ever consider distributing their content. Digital channels have democratized distribution, the tools to distribute media are getting easier to use and the distribution channels themselves are taking smaller percentages of sales. As this trend continues, the legacy distribution companies aren’t going to die overnight, but just like we’ve seen in music and television, they will continue to viciously fight over a pie that’s getting smaller and smaller.

2. The best marketing is word of mouth. Again, not a new concept, but in this à la carte distribution model, the greatest success stories are coming from individuals and companies that have engaged their audiences on a very personal level. This open communication and transparency allows artists to talk directly to fans, and fans in turn feel more comfortable paying for content knowing that their dollars are going directly to the artist. This is the new value exchange for consumers.

And this value exchange applies to businesses as well. Yancey Strickler from Kickstarter mentioned in his talk that Kickstarter has a staff of 40 people — 20 people devoted to building the website and 20 people devoted to community and outreach. For an entire company, that’s a 1:1 ratio of product development to marketing. Is this the new staffing ideal? To date, Kickstarter has been the channel for over 300 million dollars in successful project funding and they attribute much of their success to their direct communication with their audience. I would love to hear examples from other companies that have similar staffing ratios.

3. Giving is inspiring. For those of us in attendance, the entire conference felt like a gift. Organizers Andy Baio and Andy McMillan conceived this conference out of passion for creativity and technology and pitched the idea to the Internet via Kickstarter. Once funded, they worked tirelessly to create something wonderful, and I don’t think a single attendee was disappointed.

When you’re a recipient of a gift like this, it’s inspiring, and it makes you want to give something back. Attendees’ default attitude was closer to “How can I contribute?” versus the more cynical “What do I get out of it?” For instance, in the weeks leading up to XOXO, the pre-conference updates were so exciting that I took some time and built an electronic hat that lights up when you tweet the #xoxofest hashtag. Consider it my salute to the work that Andy and Andy did. But the hat itself wasn’t original, it was inspired by the open source gifts provided by numerous other hardware and software developers including Lilypad, Amarino and Twitter4J. This act of giving and inspiring is crucial to creating great work, and if there’s anything I took away from XOXO is that we as a creative and technical community need more of acts of giving like this conference.

But now comes the hard part. How do we take all this inspiration and channel it back into our work? How do we translate these ideals into something that we can use everyday? How do we make something like XOXO be the everyday? How do we give, but in a way that also sustains a business? I don’t know the answers, but I do think I met about 399 other folks this weekend and together we can start figuring this out.