By Rhonda Abrams,

For tech entrepreneurs who dream of being the next big thing – or want to know what the next big thing is going to be – the place to be every March is the party known as South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. What started as a music festival has since added a film festival and an interactive conference. SXSWi (as the Interactive conference is known) is a key showcase for emerging technologies and hip tech companies.
 
Now, it happens that Austin is also the home of Dell (OK, officially it’s “Round Rock,” but that’s just a technicality). So what would you do if tens of thousands of the smartest, hippest techies in the world were coming to your town? You’d invite some of the best and the brightest to come together to kick off SXSWi, share what they’re doing and learn from each other, so you could learn from them as well.
 
That was the inspiration for Dell’s first Unconference on Social Media & Technology Trends in Small Business, held as a kickoff event for SXSW. The Unconference was by invitation only, bringing together an interesting and diverse group of American and international entrepreneurs. Some were startups from Endeavor Global, the international organization for high-impact entrepreneurs; others were from Startup America.

Instead of having a rigorous agenda, the “Unconference” allows attendees to create their own topics. After all, we’ve all had this experience: You go to a conference, and the sessions are fine, but what you really get the most out of is the networking – the informal conversations in the hallway, the engaged discussions over lunch, the amazing person you meet while getting coffee. Dell wanted to host a day where some of the most exciting, high-growth entrepreneurs in the world could explore what’s happening with social media, the cloud, mobile technology, other emerging technologies and global entrepreneurship.

Kim Hibler, Dell’s VP & General Manager SMB for the Americas, welcomed participants. Kim is one of the brightest people I know – totally dedicated to helping entrepreneurs succeed. Next came a kickoff panel with entrepreneurial thought leaders including John Jantsch (of Duct Tape Marketing fame), Ray Wang, me and others.
 
Then attendees posted topics they wanted to discuss. We broke into small groups and shared concerns, insights, ideas and questions. These small groups also gave us a chance to really get to know the folks in the room. It was a rich environment, and I know I went home with a stack of business cards of people I want to stay in touch with, maybe work with and definitely learn from.
 
Dell continued to have a strong presence throughout SXSWi. I got to reconnect with some women from DWEN. I even got to see the cool, new electric motorbike from Current Motors, a company headed by a woman and backed by angel investor Lauren Flanagan, a DWEN member.

One of the key lessons of the Unconference is that even in a high-tech world, face-to-face interaction is invaluable. Let’s hope it becomes the “dying to get an invitation to” kickoff event of SXSW.
 
 Rhonda Abrams Rhonda Abrams is the author of more than 15 books on small business; her newest is Bringing the Cloud Down to Earth. Follow Rhonda on Twitter @RhondaAbrams, like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/RhondaAbramsSmallBusiness, and register for her free monthly business tips newsletter at www.PlanningShop.com.