By MP Mueller
When Oprah endorses a product on her show, it changes the trajectory of authors, products and their makers. This has been dubbed the “Oprah Effect.” We wondered if there is an Austin Effect. Are things produced in our city, now the 11th largest in the US, embraced more readily because of the love outsiders have for Austin? And what does that mean for our town’s growth? We talked to some business owners and leaders from different pockets in Austin. Here’s what we found out.
AUTHENTICITY IS VERY ATTRACTIVE
Many humans are attracted to other humans for their authenticity. You can extend that dotted line and conclude that people who value authenticity will most likely be attracted to products, services and cities who are authentic, too. “Austin has a reputation for being authentic,” noted former Austin Mayor and international trade consultant, Will Wynn. “Young consumers want authenticity— and they have a sniff test for it. Part of authenticity is who founded it, what was his or her passion, does it come through in the product and where do they do it?” In his overseas travels, Wynn’s experience is that most people under 30 have heard of Austin and believe it’s cool. Your product has to be from somewhere.
“I heard someone once say, ‘You might go to LA to be famous,you might go to Boston to be smart, but you probably come to Austin to be yourself.’”
– WILL WYNN; Former Austin Mayor and International Consultant
Authenticity Attracts Like People
If we buy into the adage that like attracts like, we should erase that fear of socks that don’t match ours moving here. “I always tell people who are wringing their hands about growth, thinking it’s a negative thing, every person moving here wants to be a part of this,” Wynn said. “ They are not bringing Columbus or Berkeley or Charleston with them. They are coming to be a part of the scene, not to change it. They did their research, they chose Austin, they want the vibe and they want to thrive with us.”
And We Don’t Eat Our Own
Far from it. Every person interviewed for this story had lived in other cities before coming or returning home to Austin. They concurred that Austin is a city of people who want to help you succeed. “Austin creates this really perfect incubator for new business,” according to dress designer Miranda Bennett. Bennett, an Austin native, lived and worked in New York City for 10-plus years before coming home. “Moving back from New York I was concerned that because it was a smaller market, people would withhold resources and it wouldn’t be an environment of sharing. But here, there is such an attitude of more is more. People were very generous with collaboration and leads … ‘check out this store, you should sell at this event, connect with this supplier for X, Y, Z.’ There’s the feeling here that anything that succeeds in our community has a ripple effect.”
We’re From Austin (City Limits) Not Texas
In terms of economic development and city love, the long-running PBS show with roadies galore, Austin City Limits, can take a big bow. “I don’t want to sound like a pompous travel master,” said Maine Root Soda’s President Mark Seiler, “but we were in a very small town in Paraguay… in a tiny café. There was a little TV with bunny ears on it, broadcasting Austin City Limits. When we told people where we were from, they said ‘Austin City Limits!’ ” Identify yourself as being from Austin when you travel, instead of Texas, and a whole different conversation may unfold.
But Let Them Know You’ve Been Outside Of Texas
Aaron Brown, owner of Onion Creek Productions and festival director for UtopiaFest, grew up in Driftwood. For nine years he worked in video production in New York City for companies like VH-1 and the Discovery Channel before returning to Austin. “If I say I’m from Austin, it does open doors to produce in a more creative, progressive way,” said Brown. But he believes there’s also a trepidation people in the entertainment industry may have about our city and it may be related to that cousin we’ve kissed: Keep Austin Weird. He believes there’s an unspoken thought bubble: If you are at the top of the game, why are you in Austin instead of New York or LA? “I’m proud that I’m based in Austin,” said Brown, “Austin is the icing on my cake. We can execute at the highest level while still having way more fun. But I also want people to know I’ve worked in New York. If I need to call someone, I don’t use my office phone, I use my cell phone. The fact I keep my New York number tells you a lot.”
Our High-Tech Startups May Get Shorted Some Love
“Everybody in the high-tech world has Austin on their radar,” declares local startup veteran Jan Ryan. She’s worked both in Silicon Hills and Silicon Valley raising money for and running big idea companies. She believes it’s easier here for startups to access the people they need to make things happen. Except, perhaps, when it comes to funding. Ryan shared, “With Austin Ventures no longer investing, there are several VCs beginning to come in to fill that vacuum.” But while a recent Rice University study showed Austin leading the way for VC money in Texas, there’s a significant gap between what’s invested here and what Austin’s tech sisters like Seattle, LA, Silicon Valley and Boston garner. Capital Factory’s founder Joshua Baer, in a recent story on KUT, shared that some VCs may perceive Austin startups as not ambitious enough. “I’ve heard some VCs say,” Baer noted, “those Austin people, they’ll build up a business until it’s worth about $50 million, then they’ll sell it and go buy a house on the lake and retire.’” VCs want to see “people shooting for the stars,” he said, like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. The perception of our JKL and Keeping It Weird attracts a lot of people to work and play here, but could hold us back from capital for startups.
But We’ll Embrace You Even If You’re Not From Here
Maine Root’s Seiler noted that when the company first started in Maine, sales calls usually went like this: “ ‘Was your great, great grandfather a whaler who built tall ships?’ That was their qualifying criteria. When we moved to Austin and I started selling soda here, the city gave us a giant hug and we’ve hugged them back.”
Read more from the Makers + Industry Issue | July 2016