8 Notable Startups at SXSW in Recent Years That Were Breakouts or Busts

A year ago, livestreaming app Meerkat made a splash as one of the latest major startups to break out at South by Southwest Interactive. But with growing competition in live video from behemoths Twitter and Facebook, the company is pivoting to become a video-based social network, Re/code reported last week.

“The year started on a high note. … But over the year, it became rougher waters,” read an email published by Re/code that Meerkat CEO Ben Rubin sent to investors. “Mobile broadcast video hasn’t quite exploded as quickly as we’d hoped. The distribution advantages of Twitter/Periscope and Facebook Live drew more early users to them away from us and we were not able to grow as quickly alongside as we had planned.”

Indeed, SXSW’s reputation for launching successful startups has shifted in recent years. And if a company is able to break through the tech conference’s noise, what happens next?

Here’s a timeline of where eight of SXSW’s hottest startups ended up after debuting in Austin, Texas.


Twitter: 2007

Digital of life - 8 Notable Startups at SXSW in Recent Years - Twitter
Digital of life – 8 Notable Startups at SXSW in Recent Years – Twitter

Twitter is perhaps the biggest SXSW startup success story. After launching in 2006, the microblogging site ran an activation in 2007 that positioned it as a new type of media platform.

Nine years later, the San Francisco-based company goes toe-to-toe with Facebook as marketers’ go-to platform. But Twitter has struggled to keep up with Wall Street’s expectations, primarily with regard to growing its user base.

To draw new consumers to the platform, Twitter recently started testing an algorithm that reorders its news feed according to tweets most likely to interest users. It also ran a TV campaign last fall.

Foursquare: 2009

Digital of life - 8 Notable Startups at SXSW in Recent Years - FourSquare
Digital of life – 8 Notable Startups at SXSW in Recent Years – FourSquare

Two years after Twitter’s breakout, Foursquare launched at SXSW with its app that let people check into restaurants and bars in Austin.

As with Twitter, observers have criticized its slow user growth, although the app continues to dissect its location data in interesting ways for marketers.

In 2015, brands like Samsung and Coors Light started testing Foursquare-powered, cross-screen advertising. And in February, it launched a “potentially game-changing” tool that promises to measure the effectiveness of digital ads in-store.

Gowalla: 2009

Digital of life - 8 Notable Startups at SXSW in Recent Years - Gowalla
Digital of life – 8 Notable Startups at SXSW in Recent Years – Gowalla

Fourquare competitor Gowalla also launched at SXSW in 2009 as a location-based app that consumers use to check in and share where they are with friends.

In 2010, Gowalla beat Foursquare for best mobile site in the SXSW Web Awards, but it has never gained the traction Foursquare has.

In December 2011, Facebook acquired Gowalla before shutting down the site in March 2012.

Foodspotting: 2010

Digital of life - 8 Notable Startups at SXSW in Recent Years - Foodspotting
Digital of life – 8 Notable Startups at SXSW in Recent Years – Foodspotting

 In 2010, Foodspotting launched as a photo-sharing app. According to CNN, the app had 700,000 users and raised $3 million in funding by 2011.

But as the photo-sharing foodie scene heated up, OpenTable acquired the company for $10 million in 2013

OpenTable’s then CEO Matt Roberts told the New York Times, “If you can have a rich menu with images instead of just words and recommendations of dishes you may like, it really broadens your experience and helps diners get the most of their evening out.”

Color: 2011

Digital of life - 8 Notable Startups at SXSW in Recent Years - Color
Digital of life – 8 Notable Startups at SXSW in Recent Years – Color

Launched with $41 million in funding a few days after SXSW in 2011, Color promised to be a new sort of location-based photography app.

But a year later, CEO Bill Nguyen ditched the idea to reposition Color as an app that shoots and uploads short videos. Later the same year, Nguygen left the company, TechCrunch reported.

GroupMe: 2011

Digital of life - 8 Notable Startups at SXSW in Recent Years - GroupMe
Digital of life – 8 Notable Startups at SXSW in Recent Years – GroupMe

Also in 2011, Skype-owned GroupMe launched at the conference with a stand that gave out free grilled cheese and beer.

Billed as an app that creates hubs for text messages, the startup had a presence at SXSW for the next couple of years before deciding not to attend in 2014.

GroupMe continues to add new features—the ability to add events to a calendar, for instance—but no doubt likely has new competition from Snapchat and a plethora of other messaging apps vying for consumers’ attention.

Highlight: 2012

Digital of life - 8 Notable Startups at SXSW in Recent Years - Highlight
Digital of life – 8 Notable Startups at SXSW in Recent Years – Highlight

Highlight was the buzziest startup in Austin during the 2012 conference. Unlike Foursquare and Gowalla, Highlight was designed so people don’t need to check in to share their location.

Instead, the app discretely used consumers’ GPS to keep tabs on everyone they pass by every day.

Privacy concerns aside, the app has slowly faded, although it can still be downloaded for iPhone and Android. It was last updated in January 2015.

Meerkat: 2015

Digital of life - 8 Notable Startups at SXSW in Recent Years - Meerkat
Digital of life – 8 Notable Startups at SXSW in Recent Years – Meerkat

After a dust-up with Twitter-owned Periscope going into last year’s conference, Meerkat was used by SXSW attendees to document sessions, live music and parties around Austin, amassing more than 30,000 users.

Since then, Meerkat has competed with Periscope, Facebook and YouTube to make livestreaming “a thing” for consumers and marketers. In March, it plugged a livestreaming feature into GoPro cameras, and in June, it inked a deal with cable channel CMT and Mountain Dew to stream a performance by the country band, Florida Georgia Line.

The company is reportedly now moving away from livestreaming to focus on “smaller, group video chats with people you know versus strangers tuning in,” Rubin told Re/code.

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