Let’s talk about #WhyAustin is great, and how it can improve
As part of an ongoing series, we’re exploring the business culture and environment in Austin. Everyone knows that over 100 people move to the city every day. Every single friggin’ day. So, rather than patting ourselves on the back about how Austin graces nearly every desirable Top 10 list ever published, we’re asking some of the most relevant names in business to opine.
Instead of crunching numbers, we’re taking an honest pulse of what makes Austin great, but what some of the challenges are. To do that, we’ve interviewed company founders, politicians, startup investors, programmers, artists, musicians, and so many more.
Introducing Gene Austin on Austin
We had the pleasure of sitting down with Gene Austin, CEO at Bazaarvoice. He’s a well known tech executive that has lived all over the map, but like most people that move to Austin, he’s dedicated to the city and plans to retire here. He has over 30 years of experience leading high-growth tech companies, and has several IPOs under his belt (first at CareerBuilder.com, then Convio).
Bazaarvoice is headquartered in Austin with offices in Chicago, London, Munich, New York, Paris, San Francisco, Singapore, and Sydney, and is a network that connects brands and retailers to the authentic voices of people where they shop. Every month, over 700 million people share authentic opinions, questions, and experiences about tens of millions of products in the Bazaarvoice network, and their platform amplifies these voices into the places that influence purchase decisions. Their analytics help marketers and advertisers to provide more engaging experiences that drive brand awareness, consideration, sales and loyalty.
In the video above, we get an overview of Gene Austin’s perspective on the city, and below is the full interview in his own words. He opens up about what’s attractive about Austin and is frank about the city’s infrastructure challenges.
This kick ass video was shot and produced by our highly skilled partners at StoryCraft, who we are having a blast working with on many more #WhyAustin videos to come!
The following is the full transcript of our interview:
What keeps you, personally, in Austin?
I have lived in the Bay Area, I’m a technology veteran and executive, so I’ve lived in all of the high tech centers, but Austin is unique as a city, as a culture. The people, the business climate, the “can-do” attitude; all of that continues to reinforce why i’m here to stay.
What is Bazaarvoice headquartered in Austin?
I’m fortunate to be the CEO of Bazaarvoice – we’re a homegrown Austin success story and the company I had before Bazaarvoice [Convio] was a homegrown Austin success story, and what I mean by that is both were started in Austin, fueled in Austin, hired and grew in Austin,and went public in Austin.
We are here because the people that we want are still readily available in Austin, quality of life is fantastic for our employees, readiness of capital from the venture capital community, because Austin is now a city that’s accessible to all parts of the U.S. for business, and we even have a new non-stop flight to London on British Airways.
All of that makes living and having a corporate headquarters in Austin a great decision.
How is Austin’s business environment different than other cities?
When you look at Austin and business, I think the most important aspect of it is attitude and approach.
The attitude in Austin is one of “can do,” and “I’m here to help you,” and there are countless times when others in the tech industry have been a partner to me for networking and connecting, and I try to reach out and do the same thing.
There’s a “we’re in it together, we want our city to thrive” kind of attitude, which I think is very helpful. But there’s also a casual approach to business. Austin is a casual city.
That’s one of my favorite parts about Austin – is almost any business meeting, any conference, any dinner, I can wear anything I want, frankly. And the dress is one thing, but it’s a casual place to do business and we try not to be formal in any way, we really try to work together.
The whole friendliness of Austin that people see is very much a part of the business community.
Would Bazaarvoice ever relocate its headquarters?
We have never ever thought of relocating any business that I’ve been a part of here in Austin.
We have opened offices on the coasts, but that’s because we have a lot of customers out there and we have a good need to have people located close by, but we’ve never seriously considered leaving Austin at all. In fact, it’s never even come up.
Is Austin as small business friendly as polls proclaim?
I think Austin is very small business friendly. You know, it’s changed, the friendliness approach has changed. I think what we have now is one of the best angel networks for funding small businesses in the U.S. which I think is a huge boon for Austin.
Ten years ago, if you were a tech startup, we had Austin Ventures and other Venture Capitalists fueling it. Now, Austin Ventures has moved on, and the Angel Network has strengthened, we now have new venture capital folks; so when I think of small businesses, the number one need they need to have is capital and people, and despite the things that changed over time in the venture capital arena, we still have a thriving community.
We have so many startups that are expected to do well, and it’s fueled by both the new inventions around angel funding and our strength around angel funding, as well as the people.
What are the biggest challenges when hiring talent in Austin?
I think the biggest challenge when hiring talent in Austin is the competitiveness. Specifically, again, in my arena which is technology, software developers are very tough because they have a lot of options.
We’re spurring innovation in gaming, health sciences, software, e-commerce, and a variety of different arenas, and there’s a lot of opportunity.
I think we’re overcoming that with a lot of initiatives in the arena, again, the pull-together atmosphere of Austin in beefing up our educational programs so that we’re producing more people with technology backgrounds, and I think that’s really helping in that area as well.
I’d say the second challenge with any hiring is our traffic and transportation needs. We’re a little bit behind where we’d like to be, frankly, it’s not horrible, but it’s certainly something we need to keep an eye on.
And right now, I feel like we finally have the focus on expanding our roads and our mobility solutions, both infrastructure building, but also being smart as leaders in the tech community about mobility, what we require of employees, being more flexible with hours, being more flexible with telecommuting. It’s going to balance all of that out.
How does Bazaarvoice reflect that culture?
We take mobility very seriously. I mean we’re here just a few miles north of downtown Austin, we’re in a great tech community, but we have people from the south and far north that need to get here.
We’re very serious about flex hours. We have an unwritten rule that we’d like you here between 9 and 3 for meetings and important engagements, but if you’re a 7 to 4 person or a 9 to 6 person, that’s fine.
We do have telecommuting privileges, and we’re looking consistently at other ways of moving single occupancy vehicles off of the road. That’s great for the environment, but that’s also great for the employees.
Which is brightest: Austin’s past, present, or future?
I’ve seen Austin go through so much in the almost 17 years I’ve been here – it’s gone from a quiet capital city with some really cool innovations in tech to now a thriving city and the area’s now two million people.
And through all that, I never thought I would sit here and say that our future is even brighter than our past because it’s been such a good run, but our future is absolutely brighter than our past.
Because we all are smart about the fact that we have a lot of work to do still, we’re not arrogant about who we are as a city, we’re humble, and we’re thankful for what’s happened in the past.
But our future with our government, business community, and education community all pulling together around the needs, again, shows us that we have a bright future for many more new great companies like a Bazaarvoice in the future to come.
What does Austin need to do to attract more businesses?
I think to attract more businesses, Austin needs to be cognizant of the fact that investment in our city, in our infrastructure is fundamental. So the two areas that I think continue to be the most important are mobility and transportation.
There are a number of great initiatives underway now that we can be proud of. Aligning education and business so that the education community is producing the type of raw talent that businesses can consume, I think is really important as well.
We still have a great quality of life, we still have a strong economic engine, our cost of living (while higher than it was 10 years ago) is still in the affordable area for most people, so generally speaking, it’s primarily infrastructure.
Austin’s level of innovation: ahead of, or behind the curve?
I think our innovation in Austin is ahead of the curve, I don’t think there’s any question about it.
And I think it’s because we have so many great initiatives for the emerging business to latch on to. I talked earlier about the strength of our angel funding network, but you have resources like Capital Factory and others that are fertile ground for emerging businesses to get started.
If you have fertile ground for emerging businesses, you are absolutely asking for innovations to take charge. I continue to see it every day.
How do you feel about being on every “Best Of” list?
I love all of the lists of “Best Of,” I think it’s great for us, but I also remind people all the time that we can’t get arrogant, we can’t sit still, we have to continue to innovate, we have to continue to really listen to the community about how to change, and in the business community especially, how to change to make sure we have a great culture.
Unfortunately, one of the “Best Of” lists we’ve had was “commute times,” and we were at the top of that, and that’s just one type of example of the type of lists we don’t want to be on, so we have to continue to be vigilant about our future.
How can Austin improve its business culture?
My biggest concern about what could happen in the business climate other than mobility is the fact that recent success of Austin has bred an air of complacency in certain segments of the city.
I think government, to some degree, has been less forthcoming with things like economic incentives that make a ton of sense.
We don’t do very many of these, but in recent headlines, there has been a lot of “why are we giving tax breaks to Apple?” or others. But when you think about it, the amount of jobs and economic opportunity we’re developing with an Apple for example, or Oracle who’s moving to town and will hire thousands of people, dwarfs any kinds of tax breaks we may give.
And we’re not doing these sort of things for everyone, just for a select few. But just for example, with these economic incentives, people are starting to push back more and I think that kind of complacency (that they’re going to come anyway) is a dangerous view. We need to be very careful about that.
That’s not the kind of attitude and approach that got us to this point, and as leaders in the community (government or business), we need to be very cognizant of the fact that we can do things that will slow down business growth. We’re not given this gift of such a successful city, we worked at it and worked to get it, and we have to continue to do so.
How do you feel about Austin being compared to Silicon Valley?
I’ve lived in Silicon Valley, it’s been a while, but there’s no comparison of the two in my opinion.
We [in Austin] have so much more of a “in it together” approach, a stronger network of business, government, and education pulling together to really benefit our community. Silicon Valley to me is much more “eat or be eaten.” I love the weather, it’s phenomenal, and there are some great attractions, but the business community has a very different feel to it than what we have here in Austin.
Do you plan to retire in Austin?
There’s no question where I’ll be retiring. Truth be told, I might spend some of the hot months in a mountain area, but I’m going to be here 10 months out of the year. I love Austin.