With another SXSW well behind us and the inevitable cries that the conference has lost something since it has failed again to discover the next Twitter or Facebook, I find myself considering bigger picture questions: Why are so many moving to Austin? Why did I move to Austin? Is it finding the next Unicorn that matters? What might we make of Austin’s future and is the course on which SXSW finds itself a reflection of that? Consistently considered one of the top tech and startup cities, do we live up to that promise?
Bear with me Austin friends, I realize those questions might seem harsh… I assure you, Austin is the future and I want to challenge us to consider that future with a more sophisticated lens. To do that, we have to understand the perceptions as they are today.
Those that have read me before know that I’m passionate about culture, philosophy, history, communication, data, and big hairy ideas and questions. One question in particular continues to echo in my head:
What is Austin’s tech / startup industry?
I believe that it does everyone a bit of a disservice when cities proclaim, generally and broadly, that they are “tech” hubs or vibrant startup communities. Precisely, how and why is that the case for your city? In what way is that really true of Austin? Consider of “tech,” that your city might have strength in big data, algorithms, crawlers, mobile apps, mobile hardware, wireless, biotech, wearables, internet of things, ecommerce, fin/tech, microprocessors, local, artificial intelligence, pharmaceuticals, automotive… the list can go on, my point is that “tech” means a great many things and assuredly your city, no city, excels in all of them.
To wit, I’m often criticized a bit here in Austin, for sounding like an advocate of Silicon Valley; for suggesting that we want to be like The Valley. Granted, having lived there so long, of course my perspective comes from my experience there but frankly, the supposition couldn’t be any further from the truth; I fled the Valley for reasons we’ll not get into now and chose Austin for many reasons including those we’ll explore here. What we might appreciate about the Valley is that its tech industries are clear (er rather, clearer), it’s not ALL tech, it’s some tech, and the alignment around how the media, venture funding, business models, and startups are built, enables the ecosystem to work efficiently. More importantly, it enables outsiders to better realize IF and WHY they should be there. This is why this question matters; people gravitate to the ecosystems in which they can have the greatest impact and value. To do that, they need to intimately know those ecosystems.
The Valley is big data, algorithms, engineers, internet infrastructure, search engines, and social networks. Of course, there are examples anyone can give to refute my list; it’s the point that matters, we generally know how the Valley works, how to succeed there, and what industries excel. The Valley isn’t a hot bed of Fin/Tech and thus investors, entrepreneurs, and professionals who want to serve Fin/Tech startups know to consider elsewhere as much, or more, than there.
And that’s okay! Cities can’t be all things to everyone. There is no such thing as the “tech” or “startup” mecca as cities have unique cultures, philosophies, histories, strengths, and industries with which they excel. I’ve explored before that Austin is home to the Social Intelligence and eCommerce industries – not just tech, THAT tech. As Hollywood is to Film, New York is to Fashion, and Detroit to Autos (increasingly again), Texas is Energy, begging the question, what is Austin? Can we be clearer? Should we be clearer?
I think we can. I think we are. Austin’s explosive growth in entrepreneurship is the result a brand which isn’t “weird” nor generically “tech” but the future of our economy. Austin is the future. Why?
The Valley is the past.
I’m not going to proclaim the Valley is dead nor even dying. I don’t believe that in spite of many, many, many, many others suggesting so. When I refer to the Valley as the past, what I’m referring to is that Valley built technology and the internet as we know it today. The Valley, largely alone, is responsible for the infrastructure of our economy. And therein is the implication.
When you consider what built the Valley’s tech ecosystem, we have to appreciate that Silicon Valley was engineered. Built by beloved geeks, programmers, data architects, scientists, and engineers, the Valley is the code, platform, and infrastructure on which everything else we’re doing is possible.
Think about it… from Cisco to Netflix, how we use technology today is the result of what the Valley built. We have our social network, our search engine, our analytics platforms, our internet, our commerce engines, our operating systems, our hardware, etc. largely because of Silicon Valley. No, certainly not entirely, but philosophically, the Valley built our past and present by fostering the tech on which we live and work.
And yet, we don’t quite live with technology do we? Smartphones, search engines, shopping sites, and laptops are merely tools, they are the infrastructure through which we live and work more efficiently, productively, and scalably, but it’s not as though we wake up every morning and depend on Google. (Yet.)
Looking to the future and wherein to get excited is that it’s time to make technology an integral part of lives. We’re starting to see the result of artists, creatives, and other industries embracing that foundation in such a way that technology is becoming part of our lives and it is in Austin where technology is coming to life.
Tech Finding Life in Austin
One of the things you hear about when you visit or move to Austin is that life matters. Austin is an incredibly diverse and supportive ecosystem given the fact that we are equal parts Democrat and Republican, religious and not, liberal and conservative. Those characteristics combined with the Texan sense of independence and Wildcatter attitude fosters a community in which we’re all in it together not just because we’re building companies but because we live here. Together. In spite of differences of opinion, because those differences are our greatest strength. Life matters and your personal opinions comprise who you are more than the technology or company that you’re building and here it matters that you have kids, like to wakeboard, want to spend a week in Port A…
More than that though, Austin’s other brand, other than “Keeping it Weird,” is as the Live Music Capital of the World. Austin is home to artists, musicians, designers, movie producers and directors, writers, and story tellers. Our vibe is the counter culture to Hollywood wherein the Arts are embraced, challenged, and moved forward. Heck, because of our conservative fiscal policies, Elementary schools still have the Arts embedded as a critical component of public education whereas far too many other cities have relegated such experiences to an after school special. While the world chase STEM, to ensure we have more programmers, Austin puts the A in STEAM: Science Technology, Engineering, Austin, and Mathmatics. er… Arts.
The future of our economy lies therein. With the infrastructure engineered, we’re witnessing the new era of technology in Smart Homes, Clean Tech, Internet of Things, Driverless Cars, Wearables, and Personalization – technology that is part of our lives. We’re turning our attention to the complete disruption of archaic industries that matter to our daily lives: Education, Politics, Health, Insurance, Medicine, Transportation, and Energy. We’re dawning an era past algorithms, bandwidth, storage, and big data and entering the era that is dependent upon the very thing that Austin does best.
Thursday night, SXSW and the Austin Chamber of Commerce come together to announce this years’ Austin A-List startups. The Chamber here, by the way, reinforces this entirety of this consideration; more than a business development organization fostering economic development for members, Austin’s Chamber of Commerce is unique in all of my experiences in that it is driving innovation. And if you don’t know and believe in my philosophy behind innovation, it’s that of famed economist Peter Drucker, that Innovation without Marketing (knowing your customer, which in turn means knowing them better than analytically but psychologically, personally, and literally) is merely invention. Indeed, to create the future, we must invent it but to create the future we want requires the Innovation that Austin drives.
As I tend to do, this is a long post filled with perspective with which you can disagree, debate, or rejoice. I’m sure you can poke holes in my sentiment and at the end of the day, I don’t write for you, I write for me. I write to capture my thoughts and put them to paper to help crystallize, visualize, and understand the implications. And in the 5+ years that I’ve been in Austin, these thoughts have not just come together because we’re home to SXSWi whereas the Valley is DISRUPT; these thoughts are born of evidence. To wit, you can not begin to conceive of the depth of incredible work being done in Austin to bring technology to life. Some examples, as best I can organize them as possible:
|LawnStarter||iControl and Piper||Gone|
CPG, Food & Beverage, Dining
Heath & Fitness
|White Glove||Athlete Builder||CoachTube|
|WiseWear (San Antonio but close enough)|
Curation & Personalized Intelligence
|RealSavvy||Experiment Engine||Aunt Bertha|
|Balcony||Cognitive Scale||Continuum Analytics|
|weeli||Cratejoy||Local Plant Source|
Need more evidence than that? SpaceX is moving to this part of the world. Home Depot, Visa, GM, IBM, and others have all established their “innovation” groups here in Austin. We’re home to incubators such as SKU, The Bunker, and ImpactHub, CleanTech, serving more than “tech” by way of CPG, Food & Beverage, and other industries.
Should go without saying, by no means is my list comprehensive so if another company comes to mind, please let me know (and by the way, if you think I’ve mis-categorized something, I’m happy to change it). My point is summed nicely in an anecdote Vincent Salvo of Humm shared, “Ask any business owner what they think of Yelp and they’ll tell you ‘I absolutely hate it.’ Ask our business-owner customers about Humm and they’ll tell you, ‘I absolutely love it.'” We’d not be where we are today without Yelp but the future lies in the blending of human needs and psychology with technology, he added, “This subtle psychological approach, combined with the real time analytics we provide for business owners essentially equates to, as one of our customers believes, ‘customer experience insurance.'”
So as an entrepreneur, when you are asking yourself WHERE you should be building your company, ask not those questions of cost of living, access to VC, talent depth, or work/life balance. Ask yourself where your technology can come to life. Ask yourself if you are building technology that disrupts or makes a difference. And ask yourself how there could be any better place to be than where life matters, where people matter, and where we’re building the future.