PandoDaily Bets on the South

Sarah Lacy & Gary Swart at Southland 2013

Sarah Lacy & Gary Swart at Southland 2013


Just a little while ago, media company PandoDaily announced a new partnership with the Southland conference in Nashville, TN. PandoDaily will provide the programming, and Launch TN, the public/private organization behind the conference, will provide the Southern culture.

I spoke with PandoDaily’s Editor-in-Chief and CEO Sarah Lacy by phone this morning, and it was obvious the Southern girl in her is excited to strike up a partnership in the region.

“I really believe there are some great companies in the South,” she said. “It may not be as dense as the Valley, but there are definitely great companies to be discovered.” (Of course, here at Nibletz we knew that, didn’t we?)

That sentiment plays out in much of Lacy’s career, both with her books and during her time at TechCrunch. Her second book Brilliant, Crazy, Cocky: How the Top 1% of Global Entrepreneurs Profit from Global Chaos¬†was all about discovering entrepreneurs in emerging markets, and her final project at TechCrunch was the historic Disrupt Beijing.

“Some of the companies we saw in China are some of the best companies I’ve seen anywhere,” she stated.

With that discovery in mind, Lacy was eager to talk about some of the innovations the Pando team will be making to the traditional startup competition. We’re all familiar with the endless pitching that happens at tech conferences. There are dozens of companies, but because it has little benefit to the audience, few of them stay to listen, effectively undercutting the most important moment for the startup onstage. There are also strange dynamics when an investor is expected to offer feedback on a company he or she’s had 5 minutes to understand.

At Southland 2013, startups in the competition had to go through a selection process to be chosen. Under PandoDaily’s direction in 2014, that process will be even more rigorous and will result in only 10 companies competing. Conference-goers can sit through 5 pitches a day, right?

To guarantee that, Lacy will also innovate the actual format. Startups are often at a disadvantage during a pitch, because when an investor asks a smart question, it can appear disrespectful or argumentative for the founders to argue a point. However, if they’re quiet, they don’t get to fully defend their company. At Southland 2014, each startup in the pitch contest will have a personal coach in the industry. This person will spend time with the startup and get to know their company. Then, they will join the startup onstage and act as an advocate during the judge’s questions.

There’s nothing more entertaining that 2 experts verbally sparring, am I right?

Lacy was also excited about some of the video and audio they plan to experiment with.

“The best things about conferences happen backstage, and those are stories that don’t get told,” she said.

So, at Southland 2014, there will be cameras rolling backstage to catch some of those stories for the PandoDaily team to use.

I asked Lacy if this signaled a shift in content strategy for them, and if the fundraising rumors were true. Of course, she wouldn’t comment on the fundraising, but it would definitely make sense for them to begin seeking capital from outside of the Valley. Because they’ve raised money from almost everyone in Silicon Valley, they are free from any one investor owning a large portion of the company. As a media company covering these investors, that makes it easier to be less biased in coverage. If they’re beginning to branch out, raising money from the big VC’s everywhere else makes sense for the same reasons.

As far as shifting coverage to outside of the Valley, Lacy kind of shrugged that off, too.

“We aren’t putting reporters on the ground in every region or anything,” she said. “But we do hope to uncover the best startups around the country and connect them with our audience.”

The truth is, the South doesn’t get enough love. We’re often connected with horrible statistics in racism, education, obesity, and poverty. But every Southerner, including Sarah Lacy, knows there’s more to the story. There are amazing companies down South, doing things only a Southern company could do.

And, they’re servin’ it up with a, “Hey, y’all!”

oDesk’s Gary Swart Has Advice for Startups Everywhere Else

Gary Swart, Sarah Lacy, Odesk, Southland

The Valley has done what the Valley is good at.

So said Sarah Lacy–native Memphian and founder of PandoDaily–during her Southland fireside chat with oDesk’s Gary Swart. This is great news for entrepreneurs everywhere else. While Valley companies have spent the last 30 years focused on tech, startups everywhere else think more about solving problems in every other industry. Families, healthcare, education, logistics, publishing. The list of industries ripe for disruption and innovation could go on. And, thanks to the tech created in Silicon Valley, those companies can build right where they are.

When asked if startups could legitimately stay out of the Valley, Swart encouraged entrepreneurs to take it slowly and really weigh the options. Depending on the company, moving to a tech hub could make sense. But, services like oDesk make it easier to hire workers from anywhere, and free tools like Skype and Google docs enhance collaboration. Gone are the days when people have to move across the country to work with one company. Now, according to Swart, “Work is not a place. Work is about finding the right people.”

And the perennial struggle to find investment outside Silicon Valley?

Paul Santinelli actually addressed that issue later in the day.

Stay put. Find great talent. Tackle a big problem. The money will follow.

Easier said than done, of course. Silicon Valley is a compact space, filled to the brim with entrepreneurs and capital. “Everywhere else,” on the other hand, is vast. It can be pretty difficult to find the best people, at just the right time, and an investor willing to take the risks associated with an early stage startup.

But, if–as Lacy says–the Valley is tech and millenial-focused and that market is saturated, there is huge opportunity out there. So, how do startups around the world make it happen?

Swart has some ideas:

  1. Don’t ride the rollercoaster. Entrepreneurship is full of extreme highs and extreme lows, often both within a minute’s time. In order to keep focused, entrepreneurs should stay even-keeled throughout the process.
  2. Ideas are great, but we all know ideas aren’t everything. Your big idea needs a big market and money, followed by great execution.
  3. So, what if you have all these things, but nothing seems to happen? External validation is important. Every idea has some naysayers, but if literally NO ONE is interested in what you’re building, it probably won’t ever sell.
  4. Always stretch yourself. Lacy said that early in her career, she purposely forced herself to “jump off cliffs” to keep herself uncomfortable. It’s the only way to keep your edge.
  5. Start as narrow as you can. Pick one thing and become the best at that one thing. After establishing expertise, then you can branch out into one or two other areas.

Lacy and Swart weren’t encouraging delusions. They both talked about how hard it is to be an entrepreneur, and any founder outside Silicon Valley can list the ways it’s especially difficult. But, it seems the tide is turning. Ecosystems around the world are thriving, and more companies are tackling big problems. Throw in some of the irrational optimism we entrepreneurs are known for, and it might just be possible to build the company of your dreams after all.

Here’s more Southland coverage at


Memphian Sarah Lacy Gives Away Big Omaha’s Secret At Tennessee’s Southland Conference

sarahgaryA refreshing side of Sarah Lacy returned to her native Tennessee on Wednesday morning to kick off the first Southland Conference. If you’ve seen Lacy on her best you know she can be a hard edged interviewer that commands respect in the room, after all with her storied career and climbing through Business Week, TechCrunch, authoring books and two children, she’s earned it. ¬†But Wednesday morning her southern Tennessee charm returned when she welcomed her interviewee Gary Swart, CEO of Odesk for a fireside chat.

Before the interview though, Lacy wanted to hand a secret over to the organizers and attendees of the first ever Southland conference. Lacy talked abut Big Omaha, the centerpiece of Silicon Prairie News’ “Big Series” and a must attend conference for entrepreneurs everywhere. “Do you know how they get big names at Big Omaha” Lacy asked the audience. Then she proceeded to show everyone.

First off she made it clear as southerners and entrepreneurs we were going to “steal” what Big Omaha does. After that she showed off Jeff Slobotski’s (the organizer of Big Omaha and founder of SPN) secret.

It was a huge warm welcome that made each of the speakers, big and small, feel like the biggest person on earth. “Pretend Gary is Oprah and she just gave everyone a car” Lacy told the audience as she asked everyone to practice the big welcome.

Although Southland is in Nashville it’s designed to celebrate entrepreneurship throughout the south east and with that in mind Lacy made plenty of references to her Memphis upbringing during her talk with Swart. Lacy made the trek from Silicon Valley with her 8 week old baby in tow.

Here’s some video

Check out more of our Southland coverage here.