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An honest look at business in Austin

#WhyAustin is a special ongoing series featuring interviews with business leaders, politicians, and even outsiders. We’re taking a meaningful look at what makes Austin great while honestly examining the challenges our business and startup culture has.

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. We’re interviewing company founders, politicians, startup investors, programmers, artists, musicians, and we’ve even interviewed leaders outside of Austin for their perspective. That is how you get honest feedback, folks.

Watch more #WhyAustin videos here!

Talking with a fellow native

In the video above, we chat with Hugh Forrest, Director at South By Southwest (SXSW), an internationally famous conference, music festival, film festival, and so much more as it has grown exponentially over the years.

As we put on our tech-casual outfits to jump on the Metro Rail to get our badges here in a few minutes, we reflect on what is special about Austin, what the challenges are, and whether or not SXSW would ever relocate headquarters. And the bonus is that Forrest and I are both natives – a rare treat! Below is the full transcript of our chat.

I understand you grew up here. Have you ever moved away?

I am a townie who grew up here. I first left to go to school in the Midwest. I went to a small liberal arts school in Ohio called Kenyon. Spent four years there and came back to Austin. Lived here for about another decade then lived on various places on the west coast from Portland to Seattle to L.A., but always ended up coming back to Austin.

What was it about Austin that always drew you back?

I think Austin is just, one, an easy place to live, particularly when you’re not quite sure what you want to do. Two, the creative, cool vibe that’s in Austin. There are a lot of cities like that, but I don’t think anyone quite has it the way we do.

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

I think the most attractive thing about doing business in Austin is we have an Austin-centric way to approach these things. It’s about having fun, but also being productive. Sometimes in that order, sometimes in the inverse order.

That’s very reflective of what we do with SXSW. It’s an event that’s a ton of fun, but it’s also an event where you can get a lot of business done.

Mixing those two together, I think, has been a pretty good formula for Austin and also pretty good formula for SXSW.

How does the quality of life in Austin compare to other cities?

Traditionally, one of the big quality of life points in Austin was that cost of living [was] fairly low. That was particularly good for me when I was in my twenties and thirties when I was kind of not completely sure what I wanted to do, was switching jobs a lot, was thinking a lot, was reading a lot, doing a lot of things that didn’t pay too much money.

Certainly the cost of living has increased as we’ve seen these boom years over the last decade, but we’re still cheaper than a lot of places and still have that creativity factor which is so, so important.

Have you ever considered relocating SXSW headquarters?

We have done events in other cities. We did an event in St. Louis for a few years. We did an event in Portland, Oregon for a few years. We did an event in Las Vegas. We were kind of nominally associated with an event in Toronto.

Those are all great cities and all have lots of strong points, but doing an event like SXSW has never been as successful in those cities as it has been in Austin.

Have we thought about moving SXSW? We’ve thought about everything and in terms of infrastructure, there are certainly other places that would have more hotel rooms, more convention center space, more of the things that we kind of depend on.

But at the end of the day SXSW is so much a reflection of Austin and Austin is so much of a reflection of SXSW, the two are so much connected that I just don’t think it would ever make sense to base this thing somewhere else.

Again, SXSW, our mission is to help creative people achieve their goals. That mission very much aligns with what the city of Austin is all about where creative people work here every day on their creativity in many, many different ways. That’s one of the things that makes the city so special.

Is Austin as small business or startup friendly as polls proclaim?

I think that we’ve done a great job of branding ourselves as a hub for startups and that is a big part of the success of attracting more startups. I’d like to see more successful startups come out of Austin. More exits, more funding, all of those things.

I think that there are ways we can always improve, but the city has developed an ecosystem here that attracts people from all over the U.S. and all over the world. It is certainly one of the big drivers of economic growth, of new jobs in the city at this point. I’m pretty proud of what we’ve all done to create that kind of ecosystem.

How is SXSW helping with those startup funding challenges here?

First and foremost, a lot of investors come to Austin for SXSW. Sometimes they meet companies and startups and founders from Austin, sometimes they meet companies, startups, founders from outside of Austin; but it brings that energy into Austin. That is extremely important.

I think, as well, helping to attract more startups to the city creates, again, an ecosystem where more funders want to be here. It is a long term project here.

Certainly as much as we grow the funding piece here, we are never, ever, ever going to be like what Silicon Valley is, that is leagues above us, and we shouldn’t be like Silicon Valley.

We should leverage and exploit the things we do really well as opposed to trying to pattern ourselves off of some other place.

What are the biggest challenges when hiring talent here in Austin?

I think some of the challenges we have in terms of SXSW is that it is a fairly unique job. There’s not a whole lot of training that someone can do for this until you get in-house, on site and go through a season or two. There’s the challenge of just training and how that works.

I think that it’s also become a challenge finding qualified people as the marketplace has become more competitive for job seekers. That is a, kind of, first world problem that I think we can live with. If we’ve got more job opportunities in Austin, more employment opportunities for more qualified people, that’s a good thing.

Are Austinites frequently generous with their contacts?

I do think that there is a spirit of cooperation, a spirit of community, a spirit of camaraderie here amongst many people in the startup/tech ecosystem that is a good thing, that helps the whole ecosystem.

In Austin, I think there’s a general acknowledgement that a rising tide lifts all boats.

The more we can all improve and help each other improve, the more chances we all have of continued success far beyond today and tomorrow. In that sense, I think we are fairly sharing of our contacts, fairly willing to mentor people, fairly willing to give out a hand, but I also think that is a general characteristic of a lot of the startup community. That a lot of this community around the U.S., around the world, came out of the open source movement where people share a lot of things. There is certainly competition, but there is also a lot of cooperation.

Is Austin’s past, present, or future brightest?

I still think our future is brightest and our best days are in front of us. I have an old friend who told me this once and I repeat it often:

Austin reinvents itself every seven years.

The city changes like crazy and some of those changes we miss. We miss having Las Manitas downtown and that kind of sucks that it went away, but at the same time I really like the J.W. Marriott. I really like the restaurant there, I like the opportunities that that has created. The fact that we change, continue to change, is a good thing. What you don’t want is a city, a region, that just stays the same, because if you’re staying the same, you’re not growing and you’re falling behind.

Again, we do a really good job of pushing forward and that’s really exciting. It’s an exciting place to be.

How can Austin attract more talent and more business?

How do we attract more talent and more business? I think, again, having another generation of high profile success stories come out of Austin will help a ton. That’s happening, but maybe not yet at the level of a Michael Dell. At the level of John Mackey from Whole Foods.

But that next generation is coming and coming up quickly and I think the more that we have, the more that people can see and identify of the success stories that are here, the more that attracts interest, the more that attracts people to want to come to Austin, want to move their business to Austin, do new things, do new creative things.

Again, that’s one of the things I think works really well about SXSW. It brings new people to the city. They’ve never seen the city before. They come in the spring when the weather’s nice, they fall in love with the city, they want to move here. We can say all we want about there are too many people moving here, but again, these are first world problems that we are lucky to have.

What do you think the local or state government’s role is in Austin’s growth?

Well, I think from a local and state perspective try not to mess too much with the formula is made this place successful and that formula is strong attention to creativity, strong attention to diversity, strong attention to new ideas.

It’s one of the reasons that we’ve come out strongly against the Bathroom Bill. That really goes against everything that what we believe in in Austin and what we believe in with SXSW. We are morally opposed to it. We also think it’ll be very bad for business and that’s not good.

Again, we’re the poster child for Keeping Austin Weird is good for business and very concerned what happens when you change that formula.

Can you tell us about the evolution of the Keep Austin Weird movement?

I’m sure everyone has a very different impression about how that worked and how that went. My particular impression is that 15 years ago at this point, or 20 years ago, Keep Austin Weird was very much a rallying point of the forces that didn’t want development here, that opposed growth and particularly that was when the Save Our Springs movement was very strong.

I think it’s amazing that, again, 20 years later that idea, that concept, has very much been adopted or co-opted or however you want to phrase it by the mainstream. The Chamber of Commerce, who I’m good friends with, very much agrees that Keep Austin Weird is good for business.

I think the Chamber of Commerce now understands that the creative culture in Austin is good for business. These were things that weren’t necessarily the case two decades ago. I remember we get Richard Florida as a keynote speaker at SXSW in, I think, 2003 or 2004. He had just come out with Rise of the Creative Class.

I remember at the last minute we ended up having to pay for some his travel and I was going around trying to find people who would sponsor that. Even though Austin was the poster child of very much the model city for this creative city movement and creative class, I couldn’t get anyone to bite that they should support this weird author who had these weird theories.

Again, in 2017 I think there’s a ton more agreement that having a strong creative class, having musicians, artists, filmmakers, web developers, mobile developers, whatever you want to call it, is part of of a vibrant scene. I’ll also say that having had a great opportunity to travel a lot around the U.S. and a lot around the world, everyone wants what we have in Austin.

Every other city wants to have this creative culture. Every other city wants to have a SXSW and ACL and F1. We have created something real, unique and special here and we’re the envy of the world.

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

I think the impact of having a lot of colleges and a huge state university here is one of the many factors that has pushed this strong creative vibe here. You’ve got a lot of young people who are doing a lot of interesting thinking and that interesting thinking has, again, pushed a lot of the interesting, unique, weird ways that Austin has evolved.

It’s certainly one of the biggest things, i.e. the University of Texas, as well as other colleges, is one of, I think, our biggest reasons for success on a number of levels. Ranging from ideas to the number of volunteers that we get from those institutions.

How do you feel about Austin being on every Best Of list ever?

I’m torn on that. I feel a sense of pride that we’re recognized by more and more people. I also know that too much hype tends to kill anything and we’re in a little bit of a over-hype phase. It’s often better to be farther down on the list than number one.

We’ve been fortunate enough to be number one on a lot of lists recently, but again, I’ll say what I’ve said a few times – these are first world problems.

These are good problems to have, that we’re on too many lists of great cities to live in. Where we really have problems is when we fall off those lists. Thankfully we haven’t fallen off yet.

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

I think the biggest challenge we have now, 2017, is a direct result of our success. It’s become a less affordable city to live in. Cost of living has increased. In some ways, or in many ways, that threatens the creativity that made Austin so unique in the first place. When it costs more to have some kind of basic dwelling, basic rental property, you’re forcing these people farther outside of Austin and, again, you’re potentially threatening what made the city so unique in the first place.

Again, that affordability challenge is huge. I think that most of our city leaders recognize that at this point and there are lots of interesting, innovative solutions that are being worked on. I’m optimistic that those will help stem that problem.

I think it’s also interesting that those challenges with the city of Austin very much reflect some of the challenges we have at SXSW. That the event itself has moved from something very affordable to attend 10 or 15 years ago to something that is not quite as affordable to attend now.

Again, same challenges there. Are we pushing out that creative class? Those smaller developers, those students, those innovators, those people with new and different ideas that made the event cool in the first place? There are always challenges, but these are better challenges to have than some of the other ones.

Words of advice for anybody moving their business to Austin or starting a business here?

Words of advice to people coming to Austin? As with anything, try to do as much research as possible. We are fortunate to benefit from a lot of hype, but you should probably investigate and figure out what is hype and what is reality.

If you are going to move to Austin or are making that step, take some time to try to meet as many people as possible.

Again, people here are generally friendly, generally friendly to outsiders who can contribute to our ecosystem. The more people you meet, the more people you can connect to. Those small connections can lead to big, big things and make our ecosystem even strong.

Watch more #WhyAustin videos here!

A special thanks to StoryCraft who diligently crafted the above video – we’re proud to partner with a crew that consistently offers such high quality work!

#WhyAustin

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Lani is the Chief Operating Officer at The American Genius and sister news outlet, The Real Daily, and has been named in the Inman 100 Most Influential Real Estate Leaders several times, co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH and Austin Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.

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Make it harder for Facebook to track you around the web

(TECH NEWS) Facebook remains in hot water, but you can make a simple choice that puts you in control of your data. Check it out.

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facebook container

Firefox has long been an industry leader in security, which is why it’s no surprise that they’re the first large browser to roll out an anti-tracking add-on geared toward making life difficult for everyone’s favorite social media platform: Facebook.

Facebook Container is a deceptively powerful add-on, allowing you to prevent Facebook from tracking and analyzing your browsing behavior while you navigate around the Internet. After installing it in Firefox like any other add-on, you log into your Facebook account inside of the container; from that point on, any Facebook tracking will be confined to the Container tab in which you’re using FB.

The primary purpose of the add-on is, of course, to limit the amount of information that Facebook can extrapolate from your browsing history. There’s still plenty of information that you can give to Facebook simply by scrolling through your News Feed page, but at least they won’t know what size of underwear you’re buying.

Another obvious ramification of using Facebook Container is its ad-blocking capabilities. Unlike a traditional ad-blocker, it won’t force-hide ads; instead, it will hide your activity, meaning you’ll see fewer targeted ads based on your browsing activity and habits. This is likely to cut down on frustration from users who feel inappropriately targeted or singled out by the social media giant’s often-invasive ads.

In addition to its numerous qualities, it also comes with a few downsides—though for the privacy-minded, they’ll probably not feel like game-changers. The main issue is that sharing buttons and those cute little “Like” buttons you see all over the Internet won’t work when you use the add-on since you’ll be logged out of FB everywhere else in Firefox.

Naturally, using the social media buttons outside of the Firefox add-on kind of defeats the purpose of using the add-on to begin with, so this shouldn’t be a huge problem.

You also won’t be able to log into websites that use your FB login information as a credential automatically, which—as Mozilla puts it on the product page—is “to be expected.”

If you’re the kind of person who says “I’d delete my social media accounts, but I need it to stay in contact with so-and-so,” at least once a week, this add-on for Firefox may be for you—and, even if you aren’t a Firefox user, their browser updates over the past six months make switching worth a try.

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Tech News

Experts warn of actual AI risks – we’re about to live in a sci fi movie

(TECH NEWS) A new report on AI indicates that the sci fi dystopias we’ve been dreaming up are actually possible. Within a few short years. Welp.

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AI robots

Long before artificial intelligence (AI) was even a real thing, science fiction novels and films have warned us about the potentially catastrophic dangers of giving machines too much power.

Now that AI actually exists, and in fact, is fairly widespread, it may be time to consider some of the potential drawbacks and dangers of the technology, before we find ourselves in a nightmarish dystopia the likes of which we’ve only begun to imagine.

Experts from the industry as well as academia have done exactly that, in a recently released 100-page report, “The Malicious Use of Artificial Intelligence: Forecasting, Prevention, Mitigation.”

The report was written by 26 experts over the course of a two-day workshop held in the UK last month. The authors broke down the potential negative uses of artificial intelligence into three categories – physical, digital, or political.

In the digital category are listed all of the ways that hackers and other criminals can use these advancements to hack, phish, and steal information more quickly and easily. AI can be used to create fake emails and websites for stealing information, or to scan software for potential vulnerabilities much more quickly and efficiently than a human can. AI systems can even be developed specifically to fool other AI systems.

Physical uses included AI-enhanced weapons to automate military and/or terrorist attacks. Commercial drones can be fitted with artificial intelligence programs, and automated vehicles can be hacked for use as weapons. The report also warns of remote attacks, since AI weapons can be controlled from afar, and, most alarmingly, “robot swarms” – which are, horrifyingly, exactly what they sound like.

Read also: Is artificial intelligence going too far, moving too quickly?

Lastly, the report warned that artificial intelligence could be used by governments and other special interest entities to influence politics and generate propaganda.

AI systems are getting creepily good at generating faked images and videos – a skill that would make it all too easy to create propaganda from scratch. Furthermore, AI can be used to find the most important and vulnerable targets for such propaganda – a potential practice the report calls “personalized persuasion.” The technology can also be used to squash dissenting opinions by scanning the internet and removing them.

The overall message of the report is that developments in this technology are “dual use” — meaning that AI can be created that is either helpful to humans, or harmful, depending on the intentions of the people programming it.

That means that for every positive advancement in AI, there could be a villain developing a malicious use of the technology. Experts are already working on solutions, but they won’t know exactly what problems they’ll have to combat until those problems appear.

The report concludes that all of these evil-minded uses for these technologies could easily be achieved within the next five years. Buckle up.

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Tech News

This app takes a picture of who stole your device, we are in love

(TECH NEWS) Prey is the ultimate answer to combat a stolen device – going on the offense is sometimes the best defense.

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stolen device report

In an ideal world, you wouldn’t have to worry about your phone or computer being stolen – and, in the event that it was stolen, your device’s “Find My Device” app would be enough.

Unfortunately, prophylaxis is the best (and often only) defense against smartphone thieves, which is why an app called Prey is a head above the pack.

Prey takes the process one step further: it takes a picture of the person who stole your phone and uploads it to a server for your viewing “convenience” (we’re assuming that not much about your current situation is convenient if your smartphone’s gone). This both alerts you to the identity of the person if you know them, or at least gives you a face to show to law enforcement.

Prey’s packed with other features as well, including the ability to entirely wipe your device or pull up coordinates on a world map.

Perhaps the coolest side effect of Prey is its ability to generate far more data for a police report than related apps.

While Find My iPhone and similar services can generate a location and allow you to wipe your device, Prey can use the front and rear cameras for thief identification, retrieve files, take screenshots, and pull up local IP addresses and Wi-Fi networks.

Unlike proprietary device GPS apps, Prey works on all four of the major operating systems (and even Linux, if that’s the kind of person you are), making it much easier for you to streamline your recovery efforts should you lose more than one device at a time.

We wouldn’t wish losing a bag full of your precious electronics on many, but it’s not impossible.

As with any technology, there’s a downside to Prey, and in this case, it’s the sheer potential for damage, should Prey’s data access be compromised. The ability to find one’s location and details such as IP addresses and networks is extremely concerning, especially in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica incident – and while Prey asserts that your device’s data won’t even be examined unless you request the service, it’s still a troubling potentiality.

If you’re worried about losing your device(s) and you’re looking for that extra nail in the coffin should you need it, you can check out Prey’s pricing on their website.

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