AUSTIN, TEXAS — Dan Narvali alerts the crowd with one loud squawk from his megaphone. “Free pizza!” he shouts, causing a near-stampede.
It’s a humid Saturday night on Sixth Street here in Austin, closed to cars and crammed with thousands of young people walking between bars, looking for the next party.
At the centre of the free pizza swarm is Jim Moss, dressed as a large, fuzzy camera mascot. The crowd rushes to him as if he’s some kind of celebrity, asking for pictures, begging for hugs.
If Waterloo startup the Smile Epidemic came to Austin’s annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival to get noticed, they’ve succeeded. Their free pizza stunt, which was over in fewer than 10 minutes, was a ploy to draw more users to their new mobile app, with the hope it spreads virally.
But chief executive and co-founder Moss didn’t spend $35,000 just to hand out free pizza in Texas — for the tech startup, SXSW is his company’s best chance yet to break out in the crowded sector. Walking the streets and convention centre aisles here are potential investors with money to spend, all looking for the next big thing in digital technology.
Part spring break for Silicon Valley, part music, film and tech festival, a lot of business still gets done at SXSW in between all the partying. Foursquare, that geo-locational startup with 30 million users, was launched here four years ago. Now-ubiquitous Twitter was the star at the festival only two years earlier.
The Smile Epidemic — less than a year old and with only a handful of employees — came to Austin hoping it could bend a few ears with its baby-blue booth inside the cavernous trade show and a coveted 45-minute presentation on the main stage.
They also took to the streets with Cam, their mascot, for good measure.
“My job here is to get a lineup of potential funders so that if we decide to raise funding, we’ve left some good impressions. You don’t normally get a chance to have face time with people from Silicon Valley, and Austin and Boston, all in the same place at once,” Moss said.
People in Waterloo’s small startup circle may already know Moss’s personal story — how his struggle with an autoimmune disorder that ended his professional lacrosse career turned into an online gratitude journal, which became the root of the Smile Epidemic.
Two weeks ago, Moss and six others piled into an RV and headed south to Texas through Louisville, Nashville and New Orleans. Along the way, they visited an orphanage, food bank and homes for families with sick kids, evangelizing about the power of training our brains to be more optimistic.
But all that feel-good stuff aside, the Smile Epidemic still needs the business side of its operation to succeed to fund the non-profit stuff. They’re slowly inking contracts as happiness consultants who use specialized software they say can make employees more productive and more satisfied in their jobs.
“We need to balance the doing good and feeling good with the business side of it,” Moss said. “Business is still business.”
In Texas, their goal was to add 500 new users a day to their mobile app — a program that encourages people to share a picture of themselves with a note over their mouth explaining what they’re grateful for.
They had to compete for attention with the likes of Ashton Kutcher, tech behemoths such as Google and a feline web phenomena known as the Grumpy Cat, who drew a lineup that stretched around the block.
Most of the people in the Smile Epidemic are typical of many startups — they’re working for free, hoping for a return further down the road. They logged long hours of their personal time, and several cold nights in a cramped RV, to get here.
“It’s been a long trip and we’re all tired. But it’s a good tired,” said Jennifer Moss, who co-founded the company with her husband, Jim, and Greg Evans. “We’ve invested so much of ourselves in this, our own blood and sweat.”
The first morning they were in Austin, the group dropped in on the local Ronald McDonald House and left behind brown paper bags filled with snacks for families at area hospitals, sealed with stickers that read “You’ve just been smile bombed.”
The founders say the transition from a non-profit venture into a for-profit business wasn’t part of the original plan. But they say random acts of kindness like that will remain at the core of what they do.
“The business part came after we followed what we wanted to do from a personal standpoint. People attach themselves to something that feels right,” Jennifer Moss said. “We didn’t have any appetite to turn this into a startup. It just evolved into one.”
The following night, when the startup gave away pizza and passed out large stacks of cards drawing people to their website and mobile app, a reporter from Al-Jazeera caught it on camera. Mandy Dorans and the rest of the Smile crew worked the crowd, asking strangers what makes them smile.
The publicity stunt was so popular, a woman from Texas started handing out her own business cards, taking credit for organizing it.
In Austin, it’s always the weirder, the better. Hours before their pizza stunt, an all-zombie marching band drew hundreds to the same intersection. A group wearing giant pink moustaches offered free piggy back rides. Skipping competitions broke out in the street.
SXSW is the kind of place that welcomes new ideas and unusual pitches. Part of the Smile Epidemic’s arsenal of attention-seeking devices included a digital photo booth, created by Tim Muza and Narvali, built inside a papier mâché egg.
“(SXSW) attracts people who are building really cool things, and who want to discover really cool things,” said Alex Kinsella, manager of public relations and social media at BlackBerry.
“There’s no fear of trying something new here. That’s why you’ll see a lot of stunts. That’s because people are trying to get noticed, they’re trying to explain why the idea they have is something you need to pay attention to ... People are willing to take risks.”
During the festival, BlackBerry rented two homes and threw a weeklong house party with free food, drinks, a T-shirt press and live bands to promote the new BlackBerry Z10. The Smile Epidemic is a minnow compared to the Waterloo smartphone maker, so they had to settle for a more guerrilla-style marketing approach.
But SXSW is exactly where a company like the Smile Epidemic needs to be noticed, Kinsella said. Among the tens of thousands gathered here are some of the most influential people in the tech world.
“This is the right audience. The people who are here, they’re not jaded,” Kinsella said.
The Smile Epidemic is betting they’ve got the right people, the right product, the right pitch. After a long journey to get here, and a lot of money spent, they hope their little company is about to take off.
“It’s so exciting,” Jim Moss said. “I’ve been writing cheques for the last six months for this. It’s a big moment for us.”