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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

Lani is the Chief Operating Officer at The American Genius 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.

Tech News

Loopy is the easy tool that helps you explain hard ideas

(TECH NEWS) Loopy is a tool that can revolutionize how we explain anything from personal ideas to business complexities.

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loopy

In a world filled with complex systems, Loopy serves as a tool for people to take their time understanding them.

The tool allows users to create interactive simulations to help people explain their ways of thinking.

Loopy has found a way for people to interact with simulations without complicated code or overused drag and drop. You can create your own or collaborate with other simulations already made on the site.

It is a great way to challenge yourself while learning how each system works.

Loopy encourages you to ask hypothetical questions to better understand the systems. The model consists of circles and arrows to remain uncomplicated. When you remix or interact with simulations that were made by other users, it is as if you are having a conversation via the simulations. Loopy describes this as “talking in systems” which makes the entire experience more impactful.

Though Loopy can be used as a fun way to exercise your brain, it also has practical implications. For instance, simulations can be embedded into blog posts, live lectures and presentations. You can also develop videos to further explain complex ideas.

This is especially useful for businesses who want to simplify their models when communicating with investors and consumers.

Simulations can be a fun way to illustrate your thoughts and support your ideas. Businesses can use Loopy to create collaborative activities for their employees to mess around with as well.

The best part is that anyone can try it out for free. On their site, you can develop your own simulations or adjust ones that have already been made.

At its core, Loopy is simulation software.

However, their goal is to give everyone the tools that they need to understand complex systems. This goes for both the creators and the viewers, who are all a part of the process.

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This phishing simulator tests your company’s (lack of) readiness

(TECHNOLOGY) Phishero is a tool which tests your organization’s resistance to phishing attacks. Pro tip: Most companies aren’t ready.

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phishing simulator

In the wake of any round of cyberattacks, many organizations question whether they’re prepared to defend themselves against things like hacking or other forms of information theft. In reality, the bulk of workplace data thievery comes from a classic trick: phishing.

Phishing is a catch-all phrase for a specific type of information theft which involves emailing. Typically, a phishing email will include a request for sensitive data, such as a password, a copy of a W-4, or an account’s details (e.g., security questions); the email itself will often appear to come from someone within the organization.

Similar approaches include emailing a link which acts as a login page for a familiar site (e.g., Facebook) but actually stores your account information when you sign in.

Luckily, there’s a way for you to test your business’ phishing readiness.

Phishero, a tool designed to test employee resistance to phishing attacks, is a simple solution for any business looking to find any weak links in their cybersecurity.

The tool itself is designed to do four main things: identify potential targets, find a way to design a convincing phishing scheme, implement the phishing attack, and analyze the results.

Once Phishero has a list of your employees, it is able to create an email based on the same web design used for your company’s internal communications. This email is then sent to your selected recipient pool, from which point you’ll be able to monitor who opens the email.

Once you’ve concluded the test, you can use Phishero’s built-in analytics to give you an at-a-glance overview of your organization’s security.

The test results also include specific information such as which employees gave information, what information was given, and pain points in your current cybersecurity setup.

Phishing attacks are incredibly common, and employees – especially those who may not be as generationally skeptical of emails – are the only things standing between your company and catastrophic losses if they occur in your business. While training your employees on proper email protocol out of the gate is a must, Phishero provides an easy way to see how effective your policies actually are.

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Artificial Intelligence is marketing’s new frontier, here’s your crash course

(TECHNOLOGY) Marketing is rapidly evolving, and the knowledge required to dominate in the future is changing just as quickly. Time to get up to speed!

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artificial intelligence

Back in the day, the idea of interacting with robots and computers seemed out of an episode of The Jetsons. But fast-forward to today, and some of the most far-fetched ideas back then have become our reality, and you know what? It’s awesome.

In Back to The Future II, they used tablets to get Marty to sign up to save the Clock Tower, and then this massive shark pops out of a sign, which freaked 1984 Marty out. The only thing is – do you remember how pixelated the shark was? Magic Leap is augmenting reality to look like a whale can literally crash into a gymnasium, without so much as a drop of water.

Our cars have precise navigation systems (still can’t fly, though), radio stations from around the world stream into our stereos, our phones can control every aspect of our lives down to how much sleep we get a night. And while it was once thought to be nothing more than fantasy from the pages of a Spielberg script, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has embedded itself into our daily lives, too.

For marketers, there’s much to love about AI: it’s redefining the industry because we can move the chess pieces in ways that previously, we’ve only imagined. AI will change how people interact with data, but also impact how consumers get information much like television commercials and traditional advertising in the analog heyday.

If you’re unaware of what Artificial Intelligence is, it’s the study of making machines super intelligent, and giving them the capability to problem solve. Machine learning creates constantly evolving systems that teach computers to learn organically. Google Photo is a prime example of how machine learning works: photos are fed into Google’s AI and eventually after seeing so many photos of a face, it will eventually recognize the person in the picture.

Artificial Intelligence is marketing’s new frontier

Think about Netflix, how it knows what shows we want to watch, or when a site can predict a new pair of shoes that are exactly your style – that’s AI at work. All of the world’s premier brands are investing in AI. One of the strongest reasons why, is simple – targeted suggestions.

Because of AI’s data collecting capabilities, marketers can collect and analyze swaths of data to enable predictive strategies at every stage of the funnel. We can find ways to move the needle in terms of what a customer wants, and provide different strategies to ensure they’re empowered to make a choice they may have not known about.

All of tech’s biggest players are investing heavily into AI right now. Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Atlassian are all competing against one another, and then against the biggest companies in China, Japan, and Europe – all for the world’s top talent to understand how we make machines do more for us.

But, don’t forget, Target, Walmart, and Zappos are all investing in AI, too.

Everyone is.

Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai said in January that AI was “one of the most important things that humanity is working on” and also went on to double down its importance, stating, that it was “more profound than electricity or fire.”

ROI is everything

When you talk to a marketer, the term ROI (Return On Investment) comes up A LOT.

Running campaigns is somewhat of a science, but with the right data, you can take the ‘somewhat’ out of the equation.

By relying on AI, taking the guesswork on what will hit regarding a campaign becomes clearer, thanks to having a defined understanding of Customer Relationship Management (CRM), social data, and analytics. Machine Learning makes it easier for marketers to identify trends.

By combining AI and marketing fundamentals, teams can create multi-layered strategies that offer customized messages to the user.

According to Adobe, “Forty-seven percent of digitally mature organizations, or those that have advanced digital practices, said they have a defined AI strategy.”

Search like never before

Think about what we used to consider as “search” – yes, we still type a word or phrase into Google and see what pops up, but that’s changing. Search engines are smarter, thanks to AI-infused digital marketing.

AI tracks searches, remembers what you were looking for, what you’ve recently ordered, what sites you’ve visited in the past few months, and then compile all of that data into one powerhouse when it comes time to buy that next fridge or find a new pair of boots.

Because of the continual development, Google’s ability to predict keywords is getting crazy. Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI) generates keywords semantically related to a main keyword, which offers a fine tuned search result.

Alexa and Siri might considered “home assistants,” but both can order toilet paper for you or tell you when you need to change the air filter in the house. We use them for everything from asking the simplest way to make an alfredo sauce, to asking what the weather looks like.

While some detractors aren’t too keen on the idea of a robot listening to our personal conversations, the facts are simple – more and more houses will integrate AI into their construction and remodels thanks to their demand and proven ease of use.

But, for marketers, these machines are active ways to search something without touching a keyboard, and an effective way to market an idea, if the user is open to new products when it comes time to tell Alexa to buy a certain brand of dish soap, and another is on sale.

User experience drives everything

If you’re looking for support for a product, most sites have a chatbot ready to answer questions. Instead of a human having to find a query and search endlessly through knowledge bases for an answer, a chatbot can recognize patterns in questions and hone in on a few keywords to make a suggestion that’s based on data versus a human’s best guess.

Chatbots are based on the AI principle of storing information and self-learning.

Tools like Wit.ai, IBM Watson, and Api.ai, incorporate language processing and learning faculties.

But, aside from customer support or online ordering, we can also tailor websites and the buyer journey to what a user’s needs are. Because of the collected data, website personality can hone in on a specific product type or suggest things based on a past history of browsing.

This is an opportunity for a marketer to run specific campaigns based on someone who’s looking for old-school Adidas and see if they’d be interested in a new streetwear magazine that’s launching this fall. The partnership opportunities are endless thanks to a fluid AI-based UX experience.

Social media giants Facebook are all in when it comes to investing in artificial intelligence, too. Yann LeCun, Facebook’s chief AI scientist, and an early machine-learning architect, told the Washington Post that boss, Mark Zuckerberg told him to press down on the gas pedal and make Facebook more AI-inclusive.

“AI has become so central to the operations of companies like ours, that what our leadership has been telling us is: ‘Go faster. You’re not going fast enough,’” LeCun said.

What else will AI drive in marketing?

For marketers, AI is a massive win, we can track, improve upon, and watch AI evolve. According to TowardDataScience, marketing’s next significant trend is consumer personalization (29 percent), and then AI (26 percent) – data via BrightEdge.

We’ll soon be able to offer deeply personalized website experiences, change how we use PPCs (Pay Per Clicks), and we’ll start seeing data collection for traffic, and budget in ways we never thought considered.

Because of how we concentrate PPCs, AI will help target ads with thousands of variations on ad copy or swap out a photo for greater impact, based on user data.

Writers will create boilerplate copy and then updated snippets that will automatically move in and out or rearrange, depending on the user.

We’ll also have a clearer idea of when to run specific ads for a high click through based on emotional data and reactionary times, which will calibrate the fight against lowest priced clicks for lead conversion.

MemSQL surveyed 1,600 marketing professionals, and 61 percent, regardless of company size, named machine learning and AI as their most significant investment for next fiscal year. These numbers will only increase as in-house teams and agencies alike will adopt AI as a new tool to get the customer excited and clicking.

Artificial Intelligence is like the wild west in marketing – there’s so much to explore, and to experiment with. We could see gains like never before because we’re dedicating the experience to the customers’ wants and needs, which is a new tactic. We’ve always tried, but armed with this level of data, we can now be precise in regards to the the buyer’s journey.

The future is bright for AI and marketing. We’re standing at the forefront of a technology that will change the world. Talking houses are a slice of the next wave, and it’s exciting. Personally, I’m waiting for a robot best friend or a Delorean – I’ll take either.

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