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Tech leader offers blunt, veracious viewpoint on #WhyAustin

As part of our ongoing series on #WhyAustin, we talk with the CEO of Polygraph Media for the most honest look at the city’s business culture yet.

chris treadaway

#WhyAustin from different perspectives

As part of the ongoing #WhyAustin series, we’re exploring the business culture and environment in Austin. Everyone knows that over 100 people move to the city every day. Every. Day. So, instead of talking 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.

Meet bold business leader, Chris Treadaway

More than half a decade ago, I met Chris Treadaway at a tech mixer and ever since, we’ve had an ongoing banter about the tech industry. We’ve learned infinitely from him, and watched his company Polygraph Media grow and dominate (which “>we’ve touched on in the past).

He’s well known in tech circles, and what we most admire is that he’s brutally honest. In his own words below, he shares the good and the bad about Austin:

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When did you move to Austin? Why did you come here?

1997 as part of the founding team of Stratfor.

What is the most attractive part of doing business in Austin?

Probably still the cost of doing business. It’s cheaper to operate here than the West Coast. And effortless warmth. I like wearing shorts.

What is your opinion on the quality of life in Austin compared to elsewhere?

Who can argue with 300 days of sunshine?

But aside from that, it’s a city that is going through some growing pains. The city has not effectively resolved its significant traffic issues. Costs are increasing across the board — homes, office rent, salaries, etc.

I suppose a lot of that has to do with a city that is growing up, so it’s not all bad. We actually have a food scene now that really didn’t exist when my wife & I returned in late 2008. It’s hard to believe now, but there were very few nice restaurants in Austin just 7 years ago. My, how that has changed, and for the better.

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How is the business environment in Austin unique?

In a word, it’s disconnected.

If you think about what does exist here in terms of bench, angel investor expertise, talent, etc. it remains dominated by people from the first/second enterprise cycle — IBM, Dell, BMC, etc. These kinds of deals and entrepreneurs should do well in Austin, and they generally do.

Comparatively, there is not a large bench of talent from Google, Facebook, Amazon, Salesforce, Microsoft, Apple in Austin — the big 6 that really dominate the industry today. You might say that these companies have opened offices in Austin, but there’s a big difference between working in an satellite (often focused on sales, customer service, etc.) office and the corporate office where product is built/invented.

Austin doesn’t have enough operators with that experience and network of friends with influence in those places. So deals that will leverage or be appealing to those companies are harder to pull off. I think that’s a big reason why we haven’t seen more from this cycle in Austin.

We have a few folks here and there with relevant West Coast experience but I think in general they are under-utilized and/or working on their own startups. We need hundreds more to help accelerate the inventions that originate here. It needs to be the next “mafia” to emerge in Austin.

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In the end, I think the relative disconnectedness of this city (whether operators or investors) causes a lot of downstream issues like fewer explosive successes and lower investor returns. Investors don’t get the returns they need and start pointing fingers at the operators. It’s a bad cycle that makes everything harder and not easier on the local entrepreneur.

Have you ever considered relocating your company?

Yes for the reasons above — it’s so much easier operating a business on the West Coast. You just get things done quicker. The bench of talent is greater. There are more investors in a broader range of areas.

All of this makes the cost savings of operating in Austin moot really.

But I do love being here and would prefer to stay.

Is Austin as small business friendly as polls proclaim?

I think inside networks of like people — startup CEOs, investors, vendors — it’s pretty friendly. I’m not sure how friendly it is when one group interacts with another. It becomes hit or miss because of pressures that in the end come from not having enough truly experienced capital flowing at the Series A or B levels. When you can think slightly longer-term than your next sales opportunity, it’s amazing what people can do.

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But all of that is improving. Slowly.

What are the biggest challenges when hiring talent in Austin?

The “dilettante” factor. Greatness is what is ultimately compensated at the end of the day. If you aren’t great, you won’t last. Whatever “it” is. So pick up a brush, clean the toilet, and contribute. Color outside the lines. Make an impact and humbly go about your work. I’d like to see more of that.

I think another issue is competition with the West Coast. A lot of talented people have left and I can see why. We need more wins to get more money flowing to keep more talent here.

Are Austinites among the most generous with their Rolodexes?

No but I’m not terribly generous with mine either. I don’t see this as a problem. You have to be careful with your personal networks and you have to be selective. You don’t want to burn people who trust you. Nothing beats the experience of working in the trenches with someone.

Which is brightest: Austin’s past, present, or future?

Future. I’m an optimist. But we need some big wins and have really not had many especially in this cycle. We’re overdue.

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What does Austin need to do to attract more talent and business?

Relocation of a major corporate office where *product* is built. Or supporting a big, global, explosive winner. We haven’t really had one since Dell although there have been some smaller successes. Nothing from the last 10-12 years has created a large tribe of seed investors however. We need something akin to a “PayPal mafia.”

How can the government improve Austin’s growth?

Get out of the way. Continue to bring the best & brightest to Texas. And stay business-friendly. Texas does really well in these areas I think.

Rate Austin’s level of innovation

Average or above, but it needs to be encouraged. Innovators here are no different than the West Coast but they struggle w/ early scale.

Which organization has the biggest impact on the success of Austin businesses?

Dell or Trilogy. Or possibly UT.

What impact does having so many colleges in town have on the Austin business ecosystem?

It’s a young city. Young people are generally less cynical and more open to possibilities. So it’s a fantastic place to invent.

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How do you feel about Austin being on nearly every “Best Of” list?

It’s tired. I think lot of cities are catching up to Austin. The backlash is coming.

What is the biggest flaw in the city’s business culture?

Pride.

Is there a leadership crisis in Austin?

Getting better is a function of opportunity. And most really cool opportunities are not yet born & bred here. Not yet at least.

Take for example my experience at Microsoft. I was given a $110m business to manage out of the UT MBA program. How many of those opportunities exist here in Austin? These are the experience that create leaders.

Final thoughts?

No matter who you are, what you’ve done, or where you are in the ecosystem, stop blaming other people for what Austin is. We all have a role in making it better. It starts with a look in the mirror.

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Austin has a ton of potential but it starts with you.

Read other #WhyAustin interviews:

#WhyAustin

Lani is the COO and News Director at The American Genius, has co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH, Austin Digital Jobs, Remote Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.

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