‘We launched that cat’s career’: The definitive oral history of Mashable’s SXSW parties
For some longtime SXSW attendees, it’s always been about Grumpy Cat. After all, thanks to Mashable, which a decade ago decided to invest in creating experiences for SXSW, petting the meme-came-to-life as an 11-month-old mixed breed was an attendee highlight for a few years.
Mashable’s experiential plays at SXSW have gone on for years, beginning with the Mashable Geek Games in 2011 and evolved into thousands of people waiting in line to pet Grumpy Cat in 2013.
This year, things are slightly pulled back: Mashable is for the first time canceling Mashable House, its multi-day installation that celebrities like Hulk Hogan (prior to Gawker) and now-presidential candidate Cory Booker would come through for photo ops. But MashBash, the one-night party that topped off the weekend of fun, is still on. This year’s theme is outer space — a tribute to Ariana Grande’s new song “NASA” and more.
Over the years, MashBash has become synonymous with SXSW, drawing a line on people waiting for hours just to get inside so they experience the internet IRL, at night, and enjoy some free booze. Former employees say they still get texts from SXSW attendees asking for help getting in.
Here’s the story of how it all happened, from the people who lived through it.
(Disclosure: The author worked at Mashable from 2016 to 2018.)
Adam Ostrow, former chief strategy officer at Mashable: We identified early on that SX probably more so than any other conference was where a brand like Mashable would have 100 percent name recognition, so I think that was an impetus for deciding that was a place where we would have a big presence. The idea was internet IRL. How do we take all the things that people in the internet culture world can relate to and create them. Now I think any experiential event type thing is designed to try to get people to engage on social media and Instagram it, but at the time it was pretty novel.
Stacy Martinet, former chief marketing officer, Mashable: For Mashable, we were evolving the brand. It started as the social media blog, and then it became known as a tech publication. We wanted to bring the brand to life. SX was the perfect place to do it because you had a mix of early adopters, Mashable community, and as the festival itself grew, you had more marketers coming to the show, like B-to-B marketers and expanding our book of business. It was a brand investment because we got return while we had the Mashable House we were hosting customers the whole time. For pipeline generation, it was one of our biggest things all year.
Ryan Lytle, former director of social strategy and partnerships, Mashable: The thing about the Mashable House that I didn’t fully appreciate until I was there was the impact and connection it had to SXSW, to tech, entertainment and pop culture. It was this place that was all in one. The ethos of Mashable was always community-first and people-first. You know Pete’s background: at home in Scotland, disconnected, covering a scene that was 1000s of miles away from him, and there was always the power with bringing people together whether it was on the blog or doing it in real life. When people ask, what is Mashable? the Mashable House was a perfect explainer.
2011: Mashable Geek Games
Ostrow: I remember the first year we did something called Geek Games, which was a NCAA tournament style competition with trivia and with Twister and all kinds of quirky games, and the reason it’s memorable for me is we hosted the actor Romany Malco. He became a good friend of mine and actually ended up officiating our wedding, so that was memorable personally.
Martinet: We were still at Buffalo Billiards then and had the Geek Games. I don’t think there was a memorable moment, though Facebook Live or whatever the version was before that launched, so we were doing streams at Mashable House with Facebook, and then we had a big party.
2012: CNN is rumored to buy Mashable
Martinet: We want to stand out and do something different, but we didn’t have that much money, so we did The Mashable Times, a print newspaper, and had a food truck. It was buzz marketing, and then Sunday night, it rained like hell, I went out to REI and got a rain jacket. People are on the border of sinus infections. Pete left the party, and I get a text message from Pete, and he’s like, “Can you call me?” and I did, and he was like, “I think there’s a rumor that we’re being acquired, and it’s going to published.” I looked at my phone, and I was like, “It’s already published.”
Ostrow: Another big moment was when Felix Salmon reported CNN was going to buy Mashable for $200 million. People started coming up to me [at MashBash] being like, “Hey, have you seen?” And then I accidentally, six or seven years ago, might have still been using a Blackberry, accidentally liked the story on Facebook. I think Brian Stelter wrote that. Unfortunately, [the deal] was not true.
Martinet: It was a series of events. We set up a war room, sent a note out to the staff. I was supposed to go out the next day, but my phone was blowing up from reporters. I had no voice; I was on the phone with reporters like Peter Kafka and Brian Stelter, and I was like, “Can I text you?”
2013: Grumpy Cat and Scumbag Steve
Martinet: The next year we wanted to go big. We want to build a house outside of Buffalo Billiards, and that’s when we had Grumpy Cat. We were just brainstorming what we could get that people would take pictures with. Jennifer Diamond tracked down the owner, and we found out it was a two-for-one deal as in we had to get Scumbag Steve too.
Ostrow: There were pretty random celebrity appearances, and internet celebrities. The same year we had grumpy cat, we had Scumbag Steve. I have no idea why. Grumpy Cat was probably the breakout moment for Mashable House. It was on CNN, the Today Show. People were in the line for four hours to take a picture with Grumpy Cat. It still blows my mind a little bit.
— Maria J. Verdugo (@MariaJesusV) March 10, 2013
Martinet: There was a line around the block. I remember this girl drove five hours on her 21st birthday. People brought their children. CNN showed up to do a spot with Grumpy Cat. We were like, “Quiet on the set so CNN can shoot Grumpy Cat!” I think we launched that cat’s career, and then part of the contract was [Scumbag Steve] got to do rap sets. It was so bad. The people who owned Grumpy Cat took the cat out of there for the fear it would die. The [House] cleared out.
Lytle: I started at Mashable in December 2012, but I didn’t go to my first SX until 2015, but I saw all the Grumpy Cat photos.
2014: The wrecking ball
Martinet: We moved into the garage, and we had Grumpy Cat again. That wasn’t as good, but the wrecking ball — that was the best party ever. DJ Mick spinning, the line [to get in] was around the block. The CTO of Amazon wanted to get in.
— HBO (@HBO) March 10, 2014
Ostrow: I might call peak Mashable House, peak digital media was when we had a real-life wrecking ball. AOL digital prophet Shingy [swinging] might be peak Mashable House.
2015: Hulk Hogan meets Left Shark and Meerkat everything
Martinet: We had the House again, and that year I remember Hulk Hogan, before Gawker, and Left Shark.
Ostrow: Left Shark was good.
— Mashable (@mashable) March 15, 2015
Lytle: We had the liger from the Katy Perry music video. Actually I’m not sure what it was. It was like a giant lion or a giant tiger. You could climb on it. It was a great photo. For me, I’ll always remember it as the time I met Hulk Hogan pre-Gawker scandal. It was the thing where every year celebrities had to come through the House.
Martinet: That was the year Meerkat was taking off, so we had Meerkat meet-ups and we had to Meerkat the whole Mashable party. We were like lighting people with phones, and Pete was conducting interviews.
— Mashable (@mashable) March 15, 2015
Lytle:  was the year of Meerkat. Essentially everything we did in the House had to be recorded on Meerkat. We were doing live tours, Meerkat when a celebrity would come in. Pete was taking Meerkat on the road. We competed with Jimmy Fallon for the top spot.
2016: Lots of pizza
Martinet: We moved from the garage to a new venue and had the House and the Bash there. DJ Mick was there again. All of it was right before the Blue Wedding [the name for Mashable’s April 2016 layoffs]. But on the outside, things were fun. It wasn’t the same in terms of the big moments, but people were still waiting in the line for so long and tweeting about it. We ended up getting pizza, and then there was lots of pizza.
More in Media
Adalytics Research asks, ‘Are YouTube advertisers inadvertently harvesting data from millions of children?’
Publishers’ Q2 earnings reveal digital advertising is still in a tight spot, but digital subscriptions are picking up steam.
Experts reflect how the failures of social media and online advertising can help the industry improve the next era of innovation.
Ad position: web_bfu