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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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Tech News

3 cool ways bug-sized robots are changing the world

(TECH NEWS) Robots are at the forefront of tech advancements. But why should we care? Here are some noticeable ways robots are changing the world.

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Bits of robots and microchips changing the world.

When we envision the robots that will (and already are) transforming our world, we’re most likely thinking of something human- or dog-sized. So why are scientists hyper-focusing on developing bug-sized (or even smaller!) robots?

Medical advances

Tiny robots could assist in better drug delivery, as well as conduct minor internal surgeries that wouldn’t otherwise require incisions.

Rescue operations

We’ve all heard about the robot dogs that can rescue people who’ve been buried beneath rubble or sheets of snow. However, in some circumstances these machines are too bulky to do the job safely. Bug-sized robots are a less invasive savior in high-intensity environments, such as mine fields, that larger robots would not be able to navigate without causing disruption.

Exploration

Much like the insects after which these robots were designed, they can be programmed to work together (think: ants building a bridge using their own bodies). This could be key in exploring surfaces like Mars, which are not safe for humans to explore freely. Additionally, tiny robots that can be set to construct and then deconstruct themselves could help astronauts in landings and other endeavors in space.

Why insects?

Well, perhaps the most important reason is that insects have “nature’s optimized design”. They can jump vast distances (fleas), hold items ten times the weight of their own bodies (ants) and perform tasks with the highest efficiency (bees) – all qualities that, if utilized correctly, would be extremely beneficial to humans. Furthermore, a bug-sized bot is economical. If one short-circuits or gets lost, it won’t totally break the bank.

What’s next?

Something scientists have yet to replicate in robotics is the material elements that make insects so unique and powerful, such as tiny claws or sticky pads. What if a robot could produce excrement that could build something, the way bees do in their hives, or spiders do with their webs? While replicating these materials is often difficult and costly, it is undoubtedly the next frontier in bug-inspired robotics – and it will likely open doors for humans that we never imaged possible.

This is all to say that in the pursuit of creating strong, powerful robots, they need not always be big in stature – sometimes, the tiniest robots are just the best for the task.

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Tech News

4 ways startups prove their investment in upcoming technology trends

(TECH NEWS) Want to see into the future? Just take a look at what technology the tech field is exploring and investing in today — that’s the stuff that will make up the world of tomorrow.

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Woman testing VR technology

Big companies scout like for small ones that have proven ideas and prototypes, rather than take the initial risk on themselves. So startups have to stay ahead of technology by their very nature, in order to be stand-out candidates when selling their ideas to investors.

Innovation Leader, in partnership with KPMG LLP, recently conducted a study that sheds light onto the bleeding edge of tech: The technologies that the biggest companies are most interested in building right now.

The study asked its respondents to group 16 technologies into four categorical buckets, which Innovation Leader CEO Scott Kirsner refers to as “commitment level.”

The highest commitment level, “in-market or accelerating investment,” basically means that technology is already mainstream. For optimum tech-clairvoyance, keep your eyes on the technologies which land in the middle of the ranking.

“Investing or piloting” represents the second-highest commitment level – that means they have offerings that are approaching market-readiness.

The standout in this category is Advanced Analytics. That’s a pretty vague title, but it generally refers to the automated interpretation and prediction on data sets, and has overlap with Machine learning.

Wearables, on the other hand, are self explanatory. From smart watches to location trackers for children, these devices often pick up on input from the body, such heart rate.

The “Internet of Things” is finding new and improved ways to embed sensor and network capabilities into objects within the home, the workplace, and the world at large. (Hopefully that doesn’t mean anyone’s out there trying to reinvent Juicero, though.)

Collaboration tools and cloud computing also land on this list. That’s no shock, given the continuous pandemic.

The next tier is “learning and exploring”— that represents lower commitment, but a high level of curiosity. These technologies will take a longer time to become common, but only because they have an abundance of unexplored potential.

Blockchain was the highest ranked under this category. Not surprising, considering it’s the OG of making people go “wait, what?”

Augmented & virtual reality has been hyped up particularly hard recently and is in high demand (again, due to the pandemic forcing us to seek new ways to interact without human contact.)

And notably, AI & machine learning appears on rankings for both second and third commitment levels, indicating it’s possibly in transition between these categories.

The lowest level is “not exploring or investing,” which represents little to no interest.

Quantum computing is the standout selection for this category of technology. But there’s reason to believe that it, too, is just waiting for the right breakthroughs to happen.

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Tech News

Will AI take over copywriting roles? This tool hopes to make that a reality

(TECH NEWS) CopyAI hopes to give copywriters a run for their… well, WPM. But how much can AI fully replace copywriting skills?

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Hands typing on a laptop, working on copywriting piece.

Copywriting is an important trade. Writers are often able to breathe life into otherwise formulaic websites peddling products which, sans the copy from those writers, might very well suffer a fate of relative obscurity. However, copywriters are also expensive, and their duties—indispensable as they may be—can be replicated fairly easily by little more than basic machine learning.

The question is this: Can AI replace copywriters? That’s a question that CopyAI hopes to answer with a resounding “yes”.

CopyAI is an “AI powered [sic] assistant for writing and brainstorming marketing copy.” This makes it a powerful tool to complement human writing, at the very least; is it enough to put people like me out of a job?

From my experience with the tool, no—at least, not yet. CopyAI can’t create an engagement strategy, respond to customers, spin testimonials to evoke heart-felt reactions, or analyze its own trends.

But that doesn’t detract from how freaking cool it is in practice.

CopyAI asks for very little from its user. Upon selecting a style of copy—Facebook Market, website carousel, or even page header, for example–you are prompted to enter the title of your product and a couple of short sentences describing it in the context of your ad. CopyAI does the rest, and while the results can be hilariously out of touch, you’re able to pick the ones that sound the most like your desired copy and then generate more options that sound similar.

The service has a huge number of different options for advertisement types, and you can use multiple different copy projects in one specific campaign.

Naturally, CopyAI has a few flaws, most of which replicate the problems we’ve seen with machine learning-based writing in the past: It doesn’t sound quite human enough to be comfortable. However, that’s a problem for a skilled copywriter to solve—and quickly, thus making something like CopyAI a potentially preferable choice for mass copywriting.

So, again, we ask: Is there a way for CopyAI to replace copywriters entirely in the future? Probably not. The copy it produces is intriguing, and often close enough that underfunded campaigns might find some value in using it short-term, but it doesn’t have the punch that a real person can pack into an advertisement.

That said, combining CopyAI with a small team of copywriters to reduce burnout—and repetition—could make for some very efficient work on the back end.

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