The most interesting speakers at SXSW


With over 1,000 sessions at SXSW Interactive this year there was a lot of competition for attention. Here Douglas Nicol outlines the three speakers he got the most from at this year’s event. 

You get wonderfully judgmental about each presenter pretty quickly at SXSW, you sort of know if the speaker is going to be good within 10 minutes, and if they’re a dud you quickly switch to another concurrent session. But if you’ve done your homework you strike gold most days.

Here are 3 of the people who I found pretty damn interesting and inspiring:

The Disrupter – Jennifer Hyman, Founder and CEO, renttherunway.com

On a panel about the future of retail I came across the CEO of ecommerce player Rent the Runway a super successful start up that has seriously shaken up the crusty world of fashion retail since its launch in 2009. Her business rents out high-end fashion to its 4m customers, not just for special occasions but also increasingly for day-to-day events like meetings and presentations.



You share lots of information about your size and taste with the site and as you rent it gets better and better at predicting which of their 50,000 outfits you will like. Stylists are available on email and social to help guide you. Then it’s mailed out to you and you return after using.

The catalyst for the business has been social media where women get their outfits documented on an all to regular basis. This has driven a need for not wanting to be seen wearing the same outfit or worse still be seen borrowing someone else’s outfit.

What I liked about her was her tenacity and vision but also for the first time bringing a data driven approach to the industry. A significant benefit is RTR share their data with the fashion designers to help them improve the relevance of their offerings. I also liked the fact that she really understood the motivators of her customers – it’s not the old chestnut about the insecurity of women who have issues with their body, it’s about a new generation of confident smart women who have no problem explaining the amazing dress they are wearing is rented.

Oh yes and she is now the biggest dry cleaning operation in the US and has developed her own IP in better handling of dry cleaning chemicals. A true disruptor and a rock star for the sharing economy.

The Brat – William Goodhall, 13 year old from New Jersey and consumer of the future

In a session run by teenagers we heard about their real digital and tech habits, dividing fact from fantasy. One of the most interesting was a 13 year old who I think possibly represents tomorrow’s mainstream consumer, the big change being they have significant skills in coding and tech and simply want to adapt things that are currently standardised by brands.



Customising their phone for example.

The concept is to ‘root’ your smartphone, which basically allows you to control the operating system, adapted for whatever purpose and configurations you want. He told the story about how a girl he knows is using Evernote as the basis of her own private social network.

Participation in Fan Fiction where teens create new versions of books they love, where the characters do different things to the book. The only time Facebook was mentioned was as a facilitation device for signing in to apps like Spotify.

This generation is going to be the adaptive generation if he is anything to go by. What will apps become when anyone can build one?

He was an intriguing  (if a bit geeky) glimpse of tomorrow’s mainstream consumer who is outpacing marketers who try desperately to catch up to sell something to them.

The Visionary – Martine Rothblatt, CEO United Therapeutics



Rothblatt is 61 and the highest paid female executive in the US, earning last year a tidy $38m. Her business makes pharmaceuticals but also is a leader in biotech and is well on the way to creating an unlimited supply of human organs for transplantation. These are being grown in pigs and increasingly created from scratch (seriously).

Her business has a longer-term goal, which is to create mind clones that basically are computers with a conscience, and she really believes she is getting close to cracking real Artificial intelligence. Believe me she’s convincing. In addition she is transgender and was reassigned as a woman in 1994. Her wife is called Bina and her most recent experiment was to recreate Bina as a clone with something verging on human consciousness. ‘Bina 48’ is the clone’s name and seeing video of the real Bina and ‘Bina 48’ talking to each other was extraordinary.

She is interesting because she feels so good yet so evil at the same time, she’s on a mission and we have no idea where it can end and whether mankind will be better off. A fascinating person you would kill to have a beer with and discuss life and immortality.

  • Douglas Nicol is creative partner at The Works

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