RSVPster and SXSW: A Match Made in Heaven
As Lucille Ball said, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.” No one proves that old adage true that better than Jennifer Sinski, especially in the months leading up to the rapidly expanding SXSW (pronounced south by southwest) Music/Film/Interactive Festival. From January to March, Jennifer juggles being a full-time publicist and running RSVPster, a website she co-founded in 2011. RSVPster is an online service that gets customers on every unofficial SXSW party guest list with one click of a mouse and $30, saving users grueling hours of filling out forms, deciphering CAPTCHA codes, and hunting down the best free parties.
In the afterglow of another successful year for RSVPster, Jennifer sat down with CW Highlights to discuss how she managed to launch her startup for next to nothing, how she and her team handle registering thousands of people for hundreds of parties, and what the future holds for this innovative service.
What were you doing prior to dreaming up RSVPster?
When I first started RSVPster in 2011, I was juggling a busy schedule of internships, freelance writing, freelance public relations work, and waiting tables to pay the bills. At the time, I was trying to figure out how to work in public relations full time, and creating RSVPster allowed for many doors to open to eventually get hired at an agency. I also learned a lot about running a small business – RSVPster taught me the basics of marketing a small business with a short turnaround, how to measure ROI, and social media management. Currently, I work at lookthinkmake, a brand communication agency based in Austin, as a publicist. I use all of the skills I honed while launching RSVPster, such as developing marketing campaigns that use social media, traditional PR and events in combination to tell the story of a brand, company or product.
What inspired you to launch RSVPster?
I’ve been attending SXSW since I was in college, and knew a great deal about the RSVP system. I was always the person to RSVP my friends to events since I kept up the most with social media, entertainment websites, and music blogs. I was freelancing for an entertainment website, and my editor at the time mentioned how even with a badge, he didn’t have the time to sort through RSVPs and make a schedule for the conference. The idea to RSVP people to events sparked, and my co-founder, Miles Dahmann, built a website and we launched three days later. One press mention the first year, and we had about 300 users. The site content, social media presence, and number of users has grown dramatically since our initial launch, and we had over 2,500 users in 2013.
How did you fund developing and launching your own business?
RSVPster is in a unique situation; since we offer an online service that is free to do, the only expense we had to cover was establishing and building the website. We had only a few low overhead costs to launch mainly due to the fact that I worked with close, talented friends to establish the company. The company co-founder, Miles Dahmann, designed and built the site, the graphic design logo work was done as a favor, and we do all of our own marketing, social media, advertising placements, and business development. There is a certain number of users we need to cover our expenses and to grow the company, but the initial funding came from spending hours and hours of our time without getting paid to build the brand.
You have a background in public relations and social media, and Miles Dahmann’s background is in media production. How did you two develop the site for RSVPster? Was there a lot of learning along the way or did your backgrounds prepare you for developing a site from scratch?
Miles and I both learned along the way how to make the site work better for the needs of our users, and we’re still very much in a learning phase to improve the user experience. In addition to being in media production, Miles is a WordPress developer, so his skills are key to figuring out how to make both the website function and how to make the actual RSVPing process run quickly and smoothly. We’re still looking for ways to improve and expand the idea beyond RSVPster, and hope to grow the site beyond RSVPing to only unofficial SXSW shows, if possible.
Were there any online resources you used a lot while developing the site for RSVPster?
We used Tweetdeck and Hootsuite, which are social media management tools, to promote the site, and many, many different WordPress development guides. We also used Google Adwords and Analytics to optimize the site for online marketing and monitor RSVPster’s traffic.
You work full time and run RSVPster on the side. What are your tips for other entrepreneurs on staying organized and motivated when launching a business and working full time?
First of all, be realistic with yourself when it comes to your expectations and time management. There were many points while working on RSVPster when I was running on very little sleep and had to take a step back to change my vision of what I thought I could get done in one day. Most importantly stay organized – don’t be afraid to delegate tasks, always write to-do lists, make a list of goals, and find ways to make your life easier by using a project planning program/software, such as Zoho, Wrike, or activeCollab.
I will add that it helps to have a supportive employer -working at a company that supports working on a creative side project plays a huge role in my ability to run RSVPster and work full time. I’ve very lucky that lookthinkmake encourages their employees to pursue creative interests.
How did you spread the word about RSVPster when you first launched?
When we launched RSVPster, I learned very quickly how to run a grassroots, word-of-mouth public relations and marketing campaign. We provided company background information on the website, made ourselves available to press, and kept an active voice via Twitter. The first press we received came from a mention on the Austin edition of Thrillist.com. Since SXSW is such a hot topic, we were lucky enough to have press interest early on. I also always suggest hiring outside PR to handle writing a media kit, press releases and other materials. It can’t hurt to have input on the best and most effective way to tell your story.
Do you still use those methods now, or have you expanded your marketing arsenal?
We’re still very social media focused to spread our message. We also took on advertising partnerships, which allowed for the cross-promotion of RSVPster on various media outlets. We’re very excited that RSVPster became part of the story of SXSW, and worked to keep our marketing efforts grassroots by sharing user testimonials and press interviews.
You had so many customers this past SXSW that you took on new employees to manually register users for parties. In what other ways are you adapting to such rapid growth?
We’re adapting to the growth by finding the right people to provide content for the site and working with developers to make the RSVPing process easier. We have such a short time to actually run the company – the majority of our work takes place January through March – so we’re looking forward to working on the site during the downtime and starting the user sign-up process sooner for next year.
Where do you see RSVPster going in the future? Do you plan on expanding beyond SXSW?
I still see SXSW as the ideal music festival for this site and service, mainly because a big part of the appeal of the site is that Miles and I are based in Austin. We have a local voice, and we’re able to find out about many parties because of our local connections. It’s also one of the few festivals that takes place in several venues instead of a single location, and one of the few that has so many unofficial events that require an RSVP. We are very much open to the idea of where RSVPster can go, and hope to make the site even better for 2014, but we haven’t found the right fit as far as replicating the service beyond SXSW.
Thank you so much for your time, Jennifer! One last question: You built a business around SXSW, so clearly you love the festival. What would you say you love most about it?
I love how random the festival can be; this year, I went from Al Gore’s panel, to a party, then a recording studio, then to Andrew WK, and finally to The Roots all in one evening!
Though overall, I’m much more into the DIY shows and day parties over the huge events with massive lines.
Just like a true Austinite. CW Highlights would like to thank Jennifer again for taking the time to chat with us. RSVPster plans to open registration this coming December; if you plan on using the service for SXSW 2014, we suggest putting a reminder in your online calendar – we certainly will!
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