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SXSW Interactive is not a tech conference anymore

sxsw is over

Call the morgue.

I just got back from Austin, where I got to check the pulse of SXSW and see how it’s doing. If you want the TL;DR for the next 1300 words, this is it: SXSW Interactive is DOA. Other tech conferences are quietly moving on, and the tech industry is doing the same.

Last year, I was an Austinite, and a local member of the startup community. I commuted in from my apartment to attend, and it was my city that was being invaded by the tech scene’s Spring Breakers. This year, I attended SXSW as a tourist, having moved to SF close to 6 months ago.

This year, I wasn’t one of the locals faking (or not faking) their distaste for the crowds of fewer nerds, but 10 times that many marketing people from San Francisco, and all over the world, to the ordinarily small town of Austin.

As an import, I looked at SXSW with very different eyes than last year. As I walked and Uber Pedi-cabbed around Austin from party to party, event to event, the crowds felt awfully thin. In comparison, once Music kicked off, 6th Street came alive like everyone expects it to. Interactive didn’t generate the same raw energy it had in years past.

There has been a lot of talk that South-By is “over,” and the proof I noticed was compelling. A number of the “influential” folks had opted not to attend. Lots of people were talking about XOXO in Portland being the new “under the radar” influencer conference that the cool people will attend instead. And as I wrote this, I saw Tweets from YxYY popping up in my feed as further evidence that the innovators and creative folks who make SXSW amazing may be abandoning the festival.

I didn’t quite understand how SXSW Interactive could possibly wane until I started thinking about the roots of what SXSW Interactive really must have been like a decade ago. Picture a small nucleus of entrepreneurs and technologists taking refuge in the slower pace of Austin for a big palaver about the amazing things they were trying to build, to share new ideas, and get drunk together one weekend every year.

Now, picture that not happening. Instead of taking advantage of Austin’s slow pace to draw out the ideas over a weekend of badass panels and intimate parties, large company interests have done their very best to turn downtown Austin into the Vegas strip, replete with free booze and meaningless parties sponsored by Coke-a-Cola, Doritos, and Target.

SXSW Interactive from a decade ago didn’t need Vegas Edition anymore than CSI needed a Miami edition. If that is what SXSW has become, the organizers should own that and move to Vegas.

What the hell happened?

SXSW’s heyday would have been before smartphones, when it was still wasn’t cool to know how to spin up your own dev server, and startups hadn’t become so mainstream that Bravo TV, home of America’s Next Top Model, decided to try a startup reality show.

The conference has gotten bloated. Attendance will easily exceed 30,000 this year. You can’t make a genuine connection in that crowd. There’s simply too many people to navigate Austin and find the people you’re looking for. It’s totally out of control as a marketing fest.

The masses have taken over the festival, which means the early adopters are moving on to the next event. That’s the way of things. Conference Darwinism.

But really, there’s no shame in the SXSW organizers capitalizing on the profitability of the festival, feeding off of the reputation of innovation that has been spurred there in the past. But the fact that everyone universally agrees that SXSW is a terrible place to launch is telling. And it means that SXSW should probably stop marketing itself the same way it did in 2005.

When Target is partnering with FastCompany to throw a giant party at SXSW, you know that the target market is no longer the startup community.

Yep, there’s tons of money to be made at SXSW, and more power to them for cashing in. It’s an incredibly profitable market to cater to and I don’t fault the organizers for chasing the money. After all, based on what I can see, there are plenty of conferences in plenty of awesome cities for the tech set to migrate their time and attention to.

Of course, the conference organizers love the growth. It means more money. What’s better than selling 3,400 SXSW badges? Selling ten times that many.

Does innovation require small, intimate groups to happen?

The fertile conversations of years past aren’t happening as much. Unless you’re already in the same GroupMe with Robert Scoble and Brian Solis, you’re probably at a party that an agency spent a gazillion bucks planning, but ends up being a glorious spectacle that everyone attended, but nobody remembers.

Finding *the* hot event is a game where people stay buried in their phones, hunting on various apps, hoping to locate the epicenter of “cool” before it vanishes into the night, or behind a velvet rope.

Everyone who attended this year spent a lot of time either trying to catch a good gathering, or waiting in line, and not nearly enough time engaged with the people SXSW is supposed to be about.

For balance, I did meet some amazing people this year, and had a handful of *amazing* conversations. There were a number of small, intimate events that I was really proud to attend. But those intimate interactions were an edge case, not the norm.

In 2005, fewer than 3,400 attended SXSW. With 30,000 plus attendees this year, no wonder it felt so hard to find an intimate gathering. You might as well be hoping people would notice your brand new iPhone app out of 750,000,000 in the App Store.

Maybe influencer conferences like SXSW simply have a shelf life. Clayton Christensen might even have a comment about the edge of innovation and Tech Conferences.

What it comes down to

The people who live on the cutting edge of innovation and new ideas are the men and women who make a conference like SXSW. When a group of those folks gather together and share ideas for a week, everyone comes away talking and blogging about the AWESOME of simply being together. People reveal (launch) their new products, key relationships are formed, and companies get funded precisely because of the influential nature of the attendees and the access they get at an intimate conference.

Of course, when they come back the next year, a few folks who aren’t quite on the cutting edge will join them, and a few years later, Doritos and Target will catch on, and send their agencies, and that transforms what was a pretty badass gathering of folks into a big frat party, which is a lot like what SXSW felt like this year.

There were pockets of greatness where I looked around and found myself surrounded by people I knew from the pages of PandoDaily, VC firms, and various startups all talking in one big extended group. Under the right circumstances, a small group of creative people, famous or not, who hang out together for a weekend will invariably share amazing ideas and come away saying, “Holy shit, that was magical. I can’t wait for next year.”

That was what SXSW was like in its first few years.

I don’t believe that the spirit of innovation at SXSW has disappeared from us. It’s just moved on. I’m guessing that every great conference will have a shelf life before the masses “catch on.” I also don’t think that’s inherently a bad thing. With every declining institution, there is a new opportunity for creative people to create something new. Andrew Warner calls them “the ambitious upstart.”

Find which other conferences they’re going to this year, and you’ll find the same magic that SXSW used to be.

Here’s to finding that magic in 2013.

Hope this Helps.

Austin W. Gunter

What’s the Difference between Austin and San Francisco?

What's the Difference Between Austin and San Francisco

There are two kinds of tech people in the world.

Tech people who should live in Austin, and tech people who should live in San Francisco. (Yes, LA and Seattle and New York, I’m leaving you out of this discussion. Bloggers don’t seem quite as hell-bent on making comparisons between you guys and SF.) (Also, people who make overly simplistic analogies, and people who don’t.)

The comparisons between the ATX and SF keep popping up as if the cities have some shared DNA and therefore *must*  resemble one another. People say things like, “Austin is where San Francisco was in the 70s and 80s, with the obvious implications that in a few short years, Austin will have the density as well as the pedigree of the startups in Silicon Valley.

Posts like Hamish McKenzie’s, “Will the Austin startup ecosystem ever live up to its promise?“ on PandoDaily are deep with the implication that Austin and San Francisco are so similar, except that Austin is somehow a weak, skinny younger sibling to San Francisco, with a weaker resume, and a lower bench. But not to worry: Austin will keep “growing up” and live up to San Francisco’s expectations of what Austin should be.

That’s just never going to happen. At least, not if you ask an Austinite.

The rise of Capital Factory as an incubator, and the amazing community that has bloomed in the last year is perhaps the most important signal that Austin is starting to “fill out.” But, to put it bluntly, Austin doesn’t want to be San Francisco. And frankly, Austin also wishes that San Franciscans would stop using their city as the yardstick to measure Austin’s “startup potential.”

The differences between the city aren’t necessarily because Austin hasn’t “lived up to its potential” yet (although I do think Austin is only just now beginning to step up as a startup city in many ways). No, for all their obvious similarities, Austin has a very different identity from San Francisco, and that will always be reflected in the Austin Startup Community.

Austinites are damn proud of the identity of the city, too.

Austin is just different

When I moved from Austin to San Francisco last year, my Austin friends aimed some good-natured mocking at me. They couldn’t fathom why on earth I would want to leave Heaven ON Earth (AKA, Austin, Texas) for any other city, much less San Francisco.

I heard all the things that they loved about Austin. Austin has a growing laundry list of characteristics and accomplishments that are drawing global attention for good reason (Hello Formula 1). But none of the things that make Austin Austin were motivating for me any more.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized they may never have motivated me the same way they motivate everyone else who lived in Austin. Things like the “balance” that everyone builds into their lives, while still having access to excellent and diverse restaurants and art. Austin’s slacker culture means that everyone can choose to modulate their work and home life to carve out a balance of everything that fits them.

There is a lack of intensity, or “cut throat-ness” that San Francisco definitely has. I moved to San Francisco to seek out the intensity and the cut-throat vibe. And I love myself for seizing the opportunity to move. I miss my friends and connections back in Austin a great deal, but on the whole, I do not miss Austin for the qualities that make Austin the great city that it is.

That doesn’t make everyone who raves about Austin wrong. And it doesn’t make me, the person who moved to San Francisco, right. I think it depends on what you want to get out of life. They both have exciting and growing tech scenes, and they both have great art scenes, and they both are surrounded by beautiful geography. There’s a ton of other things that allow both cities attract awesome, talented, creative people from all over.

But there is a key cultural difference that I think means that Austin will never be “exactly” like San Francisco.

A different yardstick

Lets create a different standard to measure our cities along a spectrum of intensity, because I think that’s where they key differences between Austin and SF are.

Start at one end with Portland, “the city where young people go to retire,” then place Austin somewhere right in the middle, and then have San Francisco be on the other end, the super intense end.

Portland is a city that I cannot spend more than a few days a time in. I can’t stay too long because I know if I stayed a day too long in Portland, I’d suddenly be happy to embrace the slow pace of the city and stop working my ass off. I’d end up getting sleeping real late every day, drink some coffee, maybe write some poetry on my porch (or not), and then find a part time job selling cigars like I had in college.

San Francisco, on the other end, is such an intensely driven city that you cannot help be swept up in what is going on all around you. That’s part of the point, and why I chose to move there. Practically everyone you meet in SF has something awesome that they’re creating, and without realizing it, they help you get better just by being around you. San Francisco’s culture involves hustling and kicking the most ass possible, and you feel like a chump if you aren’t working as hard as everyone else.

San Francisco makes you focus on shipping rather than talking, otherwise you literally won’t make it. It’s too damn expensive to not be awesome at what you do. Yes, there are always tire-kicking folks in any city, San Francisco included.

Austin is the city that will basically let you have it both ways: you can work a ton on your startup, but you’re expected to also have a bunch of other hobbies and projects that you’re into as well. It’s all about the tapestry of your lifestyle.

I tell people that Austin is the “be yourself” city. Where Portland seems to just slow down, Austin is still super active and driven. And where San Francisco is the distilled essence of hustle, Austin still wants you to be able to chill out every now and then. In Austin, one of the primary values is this idea of balance, and everyone strikes a clear balance between work and play. The city, as a result, feels more balanced and less intense than San Francisco. There are TONS of cool things to do, just like in San Francisco, they just happen at about a 7 intensity, not at a constant 11.

San Francisco

San Francisco  is relentless. You find the *best* of everything in San Francisco.

San Francisco is not just about the best coffee in the city, it’s about the best espresso on the planet. And it’s not about the best startup, it’s about the “fuck off, we’re going to IPO, be billionaires, and start our own countries,” startup. SF isn’t about making a green vehicle, it’s about making Tesla, the all-electric vehicle that is going to turn the automotive industry on it’s head. SF isn’t about Venture Capital funding, it’s about, “holy shit, check out the ridiculous round that we just raised because there’s an entire street of VCs.”

SF is a pressure-cooker. If you’re an entrepreneur, you go to San Francisco in order to turn the volume up to 11, and see how much you can take, for how long, before you decide you’ve reached your version of escape velocity.

For many people, that literally means selling their company for so much money that they never have to work again, but then turning around and working 60-70 hours a week investing in other people’s companies. They just have something in their DNA.

As an individual, San Francisco offers more intense opportunities, but forces you to choose to focus on one or two of them. You invest your time in fewer things so you can do each thing as big as possible. San Francisco isn’t as balanced in the pursuit of outsized companies.

Austin offers you more options, but greater variety means that, on the whole, Austinite’s don’t focus as intensely as in San Francisco.  Austin’s defining characteristic (part of it’s slacker culture) is a belief that intensity isn’t always the best thing. Austin believes in variety and moderation. This affects the startup community. Austin, the city, will let you pick and choose from its buffet line, and then admire the smorgasbord you put together. Your lifestyle is a work of art in Austin, and I think the culture rewards you for how you live as much as what you do, often moreso.

That’s why in Austin, there are thousands of “entrepreneurs” who have no employees. Everyone is starting something, but not as many people are finishing anything. There are exceptions*, of course, so Austinites don’t get upset at me for this before you look around at the next High Tech Happy Hour. Lots of people are doing cool stuff, but there ARE a lot of “social media consultants” who attend the tech events in the city.

Any time you dial down intensity and drive for the sake of balance, the result must be less output.

The exchange between intensity vs. output is a valid one that gets you a greater overall quality of life. In Austin, the job market is less intense, and there are also fewer opportunities for a community and content marketer, like me. There were times that I looked around in Austin, and realized that I had zero clue where I would fit into the startup ecosystem outside of WP Engine.

And the thing was, I wrote my job description and practically made Jason hire me. So really, there may not have actually been a natural place for me in Austin in the first place. I had to create my own job. In San Francisco, I see a number of people who do similar things as me. I hang out with them. We swap notes. I learn something new from them every time. We talk nothing but work sometimes. I like that.

Austin’s “Potential”

With all that in mind, Hamish, and everyone else, probably needs to chill out a bit where he says that “Austin has never lived up to it’s potential as a startup hub.” First of all, Austin is becoming a more and more badass place to move your startup every year. I’m finishing this post from inside the Capital Factory, where during normal weekends the space would be full of entrepreneurs building and shipping startups, but this weekend has also been packed with more VIPs than I’ve ever seen in one place. SXSW has come to town, and Capital Factory has the amazing office space to serve the event.

Capital Factory is officially a destination, not just for startups native to the area, but also for the startups that have moved here from LA and San Francisco, and for the tech moguls and influencers who have spent the weekend interviewing, meeting, and may also invest in these companies by the end of SXSW. I introduced Robert Scoble to the folks at ZingCheckout and OwnLocal, and would have intro’d him to StormPulse if I’d been able to find them around the incubator.

WP Engine is also becoming a big name in Austin. We’re at the 50 employee mark (I joined as employee #12 last SXSW), and has grown out of Capital Factory (we are bursting at the seams, really). We have our own office space in downtown Austin that we’ll move into once the build-out wraps up. WP Engine loves Austin for our base of operations, but we also recognize the value of having an office in San Francisco for our marketing presence to connect with the ecosystem out there. But Jason and Ben probably wouldn’t open a company like WP Engine in San Francisco. Austin is a better fit for our support and engineering team.

No, Austin does not have the same density of San Francisco because Austin hasn’t hit critical mass quite yet. It’s happening, but that sort of thing can’t occur overnight. In the next few years, it will happen, but even when it does, Austin won’t look like San Francisco in a lot of ways. Austin will still retain the same sense of balance and won’t have the same San Francisco intensity. That will be by design. The Austin culture wants different things.

Austin also doesn’t care about social or consumer apps very much, preferring to focus on enterprise software, and products that have a great deal more utility. I don’t think the absence of lots of mobile companies is actually a black mark against Austin – I think it signals that the city builds companies that can clearly answer the question, “So how do you make money?”

Austin companies, by and large, focus on sustainable, long-term growth. This means fewer “moon shots” or IPO-focused founders. Austin has a bootstrap mentality baked into the entrepreneurial scene. The current crop of startups portends that Austin could have an increase in billion-dollar exits over the next few years. SpareFoot is going to blow people away by how far the founders take the company, for example. And MassRelevance continues to show steady, but rapid growth.

But Austin’s culture will support a different style of startup, and create a different startup ecosystem than San Francisco has. Austin isn’t going to be defined by “Tech Giants,” or major consumer apps. In fact, I want to go on record and predict that Social Entrepreneurship will take root in Austin, nurtured by the values and community spirit of the city, and become something Austin is known for.

Yes, Austin could use more investment. There are companies like Rally.org who left Austin for San Francisco because the funding they needed wasn’t available in Central Texas. San Francisco knows how to invest in startups, and in the last few months, I’ve already seen the results that investment can have on the growth and success of a new company. Austin doesn’t seem to realize how powerful funding can be for an entire ecosystem or it would be doggedly pursuing another 2-3 VCs to balance out the Austin Ventures dominated scene.

Some people will disagree with me about the need for more funding, and that’s fine. But to get real about creating a tech ecosystem, you have to forget the “bootstrap culture” arguments insofar as they prevent companies from having access to the capital they need to grow. More investment will equal more successful startups, which will only help the community to grow.

Come to Austin for the balance, and stay for the barbecue and the Southern feel. Come to Austin to “be yourself.”

But if you’re looking for intensity, and you want to live the next few years to the hilt, there’s no better place to live than in San Francisco. Your life may look imbalanced, but hopefully what you can accomplish will change the world.

 

NOTES:

*That’s why rent is cheaper in Austin. It’s also why salaries are lower. Rent and salaries go up with how many people are trying to live in a limited area, and they correspond directly with how skilled the population is, and how in-demand those skills are. I saw the ad on Hacker News last week for the first Python Engineer at a VC-Backed “startup with revenue” in San Francisco. Not only was the startup offering tons of salary and benefits and relocation, but also a housing stipend, maid service, and personal training sessions. That’s how badly they wanted the best available Python engineer on the planet. They wanted to pay that person an absurd amount of money, with incredible perks.

**Brett Hurt, founder of Bazaarvoice, and now with Austin Ventures, has written an incredible post about the state of Entrepreneurship in Austin. He outlines 3 stages of Entrepreneurship, and explains that Austin is largely stuck at the First Stage, where San Francisco and Silicon Valley are more prevalently at the Second and Third Stages. His experience as an entrepreneur gives him amazing insight into how different mindsets reflect different stages of businesses at each of the 3 Stages. I highly recommend reading his post if you’re entrepreneurial, and looking at or currently living in Austin.

What Drives Your Happiness?

20130222-130414.jpg

Just a picture on this Friday afternoon to share with you all. I hope you’re doing exceedingly well.

When I bought the convertible last year, I had just gotten out of a very serious, long-term relationship. I didn’t yet know that I would be moving to California within a year, or how my life was going to take off.

After buying it, I realized that the car became symbolic of my priorities and how I’m choosing to live my life right now. Rather than being an impulsive purchase, I knew exactly what I was paying for, and months later, from a different part of the country, the wisdom of the car still speaks to me.

Right now, I’m moving fast and light, soaking up everything life has to offer. I welcome people to hit the road with me. However, there is only enough room for one other person to hop in and enjoy the open road with me. Someone with a grand sense of adventure.

The reality is that everyone pays money for things that can make their lives better. For me, the car is a source of joy every time I climb in, even if I’m only running an errand like I was today. But when I send the payment in every month, I’m happy to spend the money. The car is a practical metaphor for who I am. It’s a snapshot of me.

What do you focus your time and energy on that brings you joy? Are there symbols in your life for the part of the journey you’re on?

Leg 3: Bakersfield to San Francisco, a few weeks after arriving

My desk in the Mission

My desk, now that I’m all settled

Shame on me for not finishing this post sooner. I’ve officially been in SF for a month, and I’m getting settled into my routine.  It’s been an intense few weeks. My highs have been high, and I’ve had a few lows and “Oh shit, what did I just do” moments, of course. Packing everything you own and driving across the country with no backup plan will do that to a person.

Fortunately, I’ve learned that the lows in life are inevitably followed by a high. It’s almost as if we need to go down hill for to pick up enough velocity to reach the next summit. That’s another blog post for another time.

To arrive in San Francisco, my last leg of the 5-day journey, I had to drive North, and follow the California Coastline. I left Bakersfield, outside of LA, after some amazing hospitality from Jason Cosper and his lovely wife Sarah. They put me up and fed me before I made my final push into SF.

I hit the road about 9AM, and drove through the farms outside of Bakersfield, making my way over to the Highway 101. It’s not the fastest way to drive from SoCal to NorCal, but it’s the more scenic route up, taking you along the coastline and through the California farmlands before you hit the Peninsula and drive into San Francisco. You can even drive by the spot in the road where James Dean wrecked his Chevy that fateful night. It’s an unassuming spot where 3 farm roads meet. There’s just a small sign and a tiny plaque to commemorate his life.

The drive up the coast was one of my favorites. The farming operations that I passed along the way stretched for miles and miles, bookended by the Sierra Nevada range, with clouds and fog looming over everything I saw. The state of California matches the lyrics of America the Beautiful very well. Every single type of beautiful ecosystem is present in the state. I feel like I’m going to get an eye roll for saying this in such jaded times, but I spent hours on the road driving North through Cali, and I kept thinking, “purple mountain majesties,” as I passed through. The drive was a great time for me to just let go of my cynicism and be inspired by the natural beauty.

Rolling into San Fran, I had the new single from Tegan and Sara, Closer, on repeat. I probably listened to it 10 times that afternoon. It was a love song about the infatuation stage of a relationship, and connecting with someone those first few exciting times. My car explored the curves of the highway the same way our hands and our emotions travel the curves of a new lover. That track, and the rest of the songs on my road trip playlist, which transformed into a NorCal hip hop mix, are on Spotify.

It was raining hard as I started seeing signs like, “San Jose,” and “Cupertino” through my windshield. Driving North on the 101 is like thumbing through the tech industry’s greatest hits album. You get a rush seeing all those famous names flying by. As each city flies by, you realize you’re on the same highways that millions of men and women have driven, searching for the same Gold Rush that the 49ers were after. That afternoon, I was driving directly into the epicenter of the last 40 years of tech innovation and I could feel the energy.

San Jose.  Cupertino.  Palo Alto.  Stanford.

The best way to describe what was going through my head is to explain that I realized that I was literally behind the wheel, driving myself into the best place in the world for tech entrepreneurs. A place full of history and momentum. And a place where many of the best minds travel to make their vision into reality. I had found an opportunity to live in the thick of Silicon Valley. I was incredibly excited. I was also wondering WTF had gotten into me that I wasn’t afraid to leave the last 16 years of my life behind, forsaking the past for an unknown future. I wasn’t holding myself back psychologically, or holding onto the past.

Jonas and Mayor Ed Lee

Jonas Lamis and Mayor Ed Lee at the RallyPad

Many times in the past, I second-guessed any sense of entitlement that I *could* have the life I wanted.  That I could live at the epicenter of the most creative people on the planet, and that I would belong with “the cool kids.” Since I practice honesty on this blog, I have to confess that the move was striking a mortal blow against the part of me that used to whisper, “that life isn’t for you, it’s for ‘other people.’”

As I was driving into San Francisco, I knew that I was driving home, and that I was in the process of claiming my rightful place among the “other people” that I used to fear. It was liberating. The only thing that had held be back before was my own thoughts. Confronting those was the only obstacle to having this adventure.

After weaving through rush-hour traffic, I finally got to my place in the Lower Mission, and met my new roommate and her spaniel, Zorro. I found a nice place to park within 3 blocks of my apartment. Turns out I may not have to pay for parking. That’s $150 a month I can roll into other stuff.

My boxes from UPS had arrived that day. Completely trashed. My stereo looked completely broken, but it still worked. I began the process of unpacking and organizing my life. I have a list of things to set up in my new life in the city, from getting a Tai Chi dojo (check), to finding a doctor (check), to getting started on dating so I can meet someone  (double-check), find good coffee shops to work at, etc. I set goals for things I want to achieve every week that gradually build my life here.

Knowing that I can make my life exactly what I want it to be is liberating. San Francisco is the place where people go to live to the limit, so I’m taking full advantage of the opportunity to re-invent myself. When faced with a choice, I ask myself, “what do I want my life to be like in a year, and how do I make that happen?” Then I go do the thing that makes me happy. I’ve made a list of the things that I want, and I’m going after them week-by-week.

The final thing I did was head to the WordPress meetup at Automattic HQ in the Mission. Evan Solomon and Daryl Koopersmith were presenting on 3.5 and going deep into the code

More Friendly WordPress Folk

More Friendly WordPress Folk at Dolores Park

changes for WordPress this time around. They were kind enough to hang out for a while afterwards to show me some cool places on the map, and help me get settled. It’s great to have new friends in place as I’ve arrived. The Automatticians have all been incredibly hospitable since I’ve arrived, and I’m glad we’re connected.

The weeks are flying by, and my life is completely different, but it’s still me. I’m changing incredibly quickly, and learning so much. Look for for more changes, more ideas, and more adventures to come.

Hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter

 

 

Social Media: “Doing It Right” on Twitter

Pretzel Crisps Social Media Win

Yes, those are apparently brand new pants before I took the tag off ;-)

I’ve had two different companies tweet “at” me because I’ve been out and about in San Francisco. Anytime a brand identity is tweeting at you on Social, you know that they want you to come patronize their business, so if they’re sloppy about it and are obviously just angling to sell you something, you can tell rather quickly.  As a social marketer, I have a very sensitive radar for what is technically referred to as “Social Media Horseshit,” and I have very little tolerance for spammy Twitter use in particular.

Done right, Twitter is an incredibly powerful way to develop long-term relationships with customers. Done wrong, social media is about as effective as email spam, but twice as annoying.

A brand is something that people actively have a relationship with, and social media is no less than a way for your brand to have an active relationship with potential, current, and even past customers. Twitter, in particular, offers you the opportunity to engage potential customers in real time, often at the precise moment they might be looking to make a purchase or use your service. For example, moving to a new city….

People tweet their flight check-ins and will talk about the city they travel or move to. When I drove into San Francisco last Friday afternoon, all my belongings in my trunk, it was raining. The city had rolled out a big soggy welcome mat for me, and I tweeted it.

Pretzel Crisps was paying attention, and they tweeted at me, using the rain as an excuse, and then offering me free snacks.

Pretty good welcome to a new city, right?

This afternoon, right before I was heading out to a coffee shop for a meeting, Pretzel Crisps showed up with a ridiculous amount of free noms. Guess what my favorite San Francisco brand of pretzels is now?

This approached worked because Pretzel Crisps was able to very easily create a relationship with a potential customer by offering a free experience of their product to me via Twitter. By making it simple (and free) for me to try their stuff, I now have a relationship with their product, AND I’m blogging about it.  Tons of free attention.  Not bad, right?

They got my attention because 1. They responded with a sense of humor, and 2. They offered me something free in their tweet.  Had the brand just made small talk, I would have ignored it. I spend a lot of time on Twitter, but I don’t always have time to respond to the people that tweet at me.  When a brand tweets without offering something of value immediately, I assume, just like everyone else, that they aren’t really interested in anything but selling something. I tune out immediately.

For example, the Half Moon Bay Golf Course apparently has a Twitter handle that likes to make small talk with people who check-in when their flights land in SFO. Brands making small talk, and not offering something in return is “doing it wrong.”

I don’t want to make small talk with a golf course. Now, they can’t offer me a fun-sized bag containing 9 holes of golf, but they could have some blog content about the best links in the bay area, including, but not limited to their course. Maybe throw me a link for some free balls, or a beer at the end of a golf game. Anything that would be valuable or relevant to me.

Rather, they just asked me what my plans were.  Basically, that’s asking me to spend time as I’m de-planing to tweet a golf course what my itinerary is.  Not happening.

So I responded like this.

Then I felt bad about being mean, so I tweeted back at them to apologize and give whoever that person running their social media channel an opening to engage me, but they didn’t respond back, which is a mistake.

Even if I’m not going to play golf, I know plenty of people who do, and I may have a chance to recommend a place at some point. That social media interaction had the potential to create a brand advocate out of me.

I use my own story as an example to show the power of social media to connect with real customers in ways that traditional advertising could only dream of.  I’ve literally got a counter full of Pretzel Crisps in my kitchen now, and I’m going to be offering them to every single guest that I have in my new San Francisco digs for weeks. I had never had the Pretzels before, but I’ll never forget them at this point.

Hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter

Side note: I haven’t mentioned whether they’re good or not. That’s because an aggressive social media campaign like this assumes you have a stellar product. Otherwise, all that attention and energy you’ve poured into the marketing will blow up in your face with really nasty tweets. If the product isn’t good, social can’t solve that :-)

Leg 2: El Paso to Arizona and St. Anthony’s Monastery

St. Anthony's Monastery

I left El Paso and headed for a little spot on the map between Tucson and Phoenix called St Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery. In general on the road trip to SF, I wasn’t interested in making crazy detours to see the sites or dally about. All I wanted was to get a little bit closer to San Francisco every day, and I saw big detours as a distraction from that goal.

However, I made a very specific exception and drove well out of my way to visit this monastery in hopes of seeing Elder Ephraim and receiving his blessing. He’s a Greek Orthodox monk who lived on Mount Athos, the heart of Orthodox Monasticism before moving to the United States to start 17 monasteries, including the one outside Austin that I regularly visit. When I need to center myself, I take a long weekend at a monastery, and am grateful for the peace I get from those places. I wanted to visit Elder Ephraim’s monastery in Arizona to receive his blessing for my health and also receive any words of wisdom he might impart.

On the way to the Monastery, you have to drive through miles and miles of desert. It was an incredibly beautiful drive, and I cut through the terrain with huge saguaro cactuses on both sides of me. It was close to sunset as I was nearing the monastery, and the desert took on a very different sheen than I was accustomed to. I took a backroad to the monastery, and I swear humans must rarely travel the road, because the nature on either side of the road was stunningly beautiful. Colors I’d never seen before overwhelmed me as I cut through the desert.

Then I realized that I had forgotten to fill my tank up in Tucson, and I was riding the “E.”

I did a quick mental calculation as I looked at the maps on my iPhone and realized that if the fuel gauge was accurate, that I might be able to make it to the monastery on fumes, if at all. The beautiful desert road that had seemingly stretched out forever suddenly seemed like it was a thousand miles long. I started hypermiling to conserve gas, getting up to about 75 MPH, and then stepping on the clutch to let the RPMs drop and coast the car for as long as I could. Fortunately, there was a gas station in the middle of the desert for reasons that made zero sense to me.

The monastery was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. I walked the grounds as a prayed both nights I stayed there as was awed by the peace and beauty the monks have cultivated. It’s a giant garden in the middle of the desert. I’ll actually be installing a slideshow plugin just to add the pictures.

Services at St. Anthony’s start about 1AM, and there was a monk would would come into the guesthouse about 12:35 to wake us up. I had set an alarm and was up and ready to roll, except I never quite woke up during the entire duration of the service, which ended after 3AM. It’s hard to stay awake when the Church is pitch black :-)

However, I was able to get the Elder’s blessing that morning before the service started. You could approach his place in the Church and he would bless you. When I came over and made my prostration, half-asleep, I felt his hand slap my head in the shape of the Orthodox blessing with more energy and vitality than I had expected from him. I felt his hand on my head as if he already knew me before I had arrived, and was expecting me. It was the paternal slap of your grandfather who hasn’t seen you in a year. I was a bit blown away by the moment, small as it were.

After the service, we went back to sleep from 4-8AM, and I got up and was recruited to go work by the monks. I found myself working alone and in peace and quiet inside a citrus orchard. Talk about bliss. I love good physical labor, and here I found myself in the middle of the desert, blessed by the elder, and now spending a day working amidst orange and lemon trees.

That afternoon, I spoke with the Abbot, who blessed me and gave me a good word. I never got to meet the elder for more than that brief moment, but somehow that was probably all I had come for.

I pulled out of St. Anthony’s at 8AM the next morning, headed through Arizona and SoCal to hit Bakersfield, California. It was cold in the desert as I got back onto the highway and watched the desert shimmer with a bit of dew and magic.

 

Leg 1: Austin to El Paso

This morning I finished packing my last boxes and got on the road about 7:40. I had only been in that apartment for a few months, but it was as home as anywhere had ever been for me, my roommate, Robert, has become like family, and I got a bit choked up as I got on the road. 

This move so far has caught me unawares with emotion.

The feelings are wonderful to experience, just rather new to my life at this point. That will either make sense or it won’t. I guess the summary is that I’ve learned how to be more connected to what’s around me in the past year, the consequences of which include better friendships, more success at work, and getting sentimental when I leave. Sorrow is exquisite pain.

Driving to El Paso is amazing. You make it to the other side of Fredericksburg and the desert and the mountains begin to form around you. Wineries give way to desert plains, red rocks and scrub brush, carved out by rivers. The small mountains that rise up on the horizon remind me that New Mexico and Colorado aren’t far away. The blue sky is brushed with clouds, and panoramic.

The highway to El Paso is sparsely populated, so the speed limit is 80 MPH.  I averaged a bit more than that. My little MX-5 handled the road well, and I was able to sit and be with my thoughts in a way I haven’t since joining WP Engine. As I sit here to write this, I have a sense of peace and relaxation that is rolling over me, and I realize that I haven’t taken more than a weekend off until now. The road trip is healing me.

I stocked up on audiobooks and loaded them into my iPhone so I could learn while I drive. I think I only have one novel, and the rest are some form of “Mind-Hacking” that I am focused on right now.  If I’m going to be in the car for 29 hours (according to Google), then I might as well cross some books off my list.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you can tell, I’m mostly a fan of very light reading.

In all seriousness, I read a lot, and the books I’ve had the opportunity to read have changed my life in many ways and made me a more focused man. I’ll have to add these to my reading list.

Here’s a few more pictures below. Tomorrow, I’m headed to Florence, Arizona where I’ll stay at a Monastery.

 

I’m Moving from Austin to San Francisco

I’m very curious to hear the reactions to this blog post. I’m about to make a statement about startup communities with my actions.  In 10 days, I’m going to pack up my little roadster and drive 1,800 miles from Austin, Texas to San Francisco, California. That means I’m becoming a Californian. I’ll be joining the marketing office that WP Engine is opening up in San Francisco, and I’ll be putting myself in the heart of the startup scene out there. I’m really excited.

There’s two parts of the story to tell. The first part is how and why WP Engine benefits from me living in San Francisco rather than Austin, as well as how the move will impact my career. The second part is the inevitable comparison between Austin and San Francisco/Bay Area startup communities.

My perspective on the “Austin vs. San Francisco debate” is based on working with 120 startups through Tech Ranch Austin, a local accelerator, before joining WP Engine and being part of Capital Factory.  I’m comfortable stating a public opinion about my first-hand experience building and being part of the Austin Community, and how that relates to San Francisco.

Why I’m Moving

When I started at WP Engine, the thought of moving out to San Francisco hadn’t crossed my mind. I held the party line that Austin, Texas was the only place to start a startup in the world, and that the Bay Area was overrated. And more importantly, I loved being part of WP Engine and the company culture that I wouldn’t have entertained the thought of moving away from the office. The company was important to my growth at the time. We truly do have something special at WP Engine.

However, as the company has grown from adding the 12th employee (me), now to 36 people, WP Engine now requires different things from each of us in order to keep growing. A company needs vastly different things when there are 10 employees than when there are 30. Growing companies require growing employees, and growing founders, and one of my big mantras these days is to ask myself, “how do I continue to stay aware of what the company needs from me, and stay willing to evolve my contribution accordingly?”  I can only imagine what this would be like for Ben Metcalfe and Jason Cohen.

Moving to San Francisco started with conversations that Ben had with me when I was out there in July and August. The thought about what would be possible from San Francisco that wouldn’t be possible from Austin began to take root. After a month or two, Ben let me know that if I wanted to join the office (to be established) in San Francisco, that would be up to me, but that WP Engine would support my choice to move.

I had several conversations with Jason and Ben to make sure that any move I made would be in the best interests of the company. I also worked closely with LA Lassek, our new VP, to plan how my job would evolve as part of the move. T’s crossed and I’s dotted.

I’ve been blown away by the amount of support I received from company leadership. Knowing that my move would benefit the company, meant that it was a real possibility, so I had to consider it.

Austin and San Francisco

The decision to move comes down to career opportunity for me. The work that I do as a marketer growing communities (I hate the title “community manager.” It’s not what I do), and around content means San Francisco (and also New York City) has the cutting-edge ideas and top performers in the world. Austin has infinite potential, but less existing thought leadership in these areas. There are notable exceptions like my good friends Ian Greenleigh at Bazaarvoice, and Jacqueline Hughes who founded Austin Startup Week. There are more great people in Austin that I’ve missed naming, so forgive me for that.

I knew that San Francisco had much more to offer me at this stage of my career, and the move will afford me the opportunity to create something brand new for myself. Professionally as well as personally.

Recently, I wrote that San Francisco is a city that insists on changing your life. Spending any significant amount of time in the Bay Area will have a powerful affect on who you are. There are too many amazing men and women who are building incredible things out there to not be affected. You can feel the city buzzing when you drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, which by itself looks down and challenges you to do something of the same scale. As Richard Florida has explained, cities have their own identities, and I think that part of San Francisco’s identity insists that everyone who lives and works there will be affected by the energy.

Maybe it’s because there is so little space to cram so many people that everything has to be distilled down, and the electrons get to bouncing off of each other faster. I do know that the people who move from San Francisco to Austin are doing it because they don’t want so much going on in their lives. They’re coming to Austin because they still have a great startup scene, creative and artistic culture, amazing food, but there is more balance and more space. In Austin, we’re a little more spread out, and a little more relaxed about doing things.

We bootstrap more often than we get VC Funding because it allows us to control the pace and the growth of our startups. We live in a house with a lawn, and spend the weekends on the greenbelt or driving through the Hill Country.

I once had someone who moved to Austin from Manhattan explain that he was tired of the high-pressure work, and he moved to Austin in part so he could, “never get on another plane for the rest of [his] life.”

I’ve never been a big “balance” person, to be honest. I’m intense and focused, and when I make up my mind to do things, I do them to the hilt. When I was a Pick-Up Artist in college, I spent 18 months *really* being a Pick-Up Artist. The summer that I was a vegan, I wasn’t just a vegan, I was a raw foodist. When I wanted to learn Spanish, I didn’t buy the Rosetta Stone software, I lived in Latin America. Twice.

I’m moving to San Francisco because I’m ready to turn the volume up and be immersed in the world of startups. I’m moving to San Francisco because of the fact that it is going to change me. There’s an author in Austin who says that in contrast to San Francisco’s mantra of intensity, Austin’s mantra is to “Be Yourself.” I think that’s absolutely spot-on. You can come to Austin and combine all the ingredients of what makes a good life to you, including startups, but also including a lot of other things. Austin is good at a lot of things, but it’s best at offering you the cultural freedom to “bootstrap your own identity.” You can move here and spend your time and energies putting together your version of the Good Life.

You move to San Francisco because it’s time to pour rocket fuel on your dreams and go big or go home. A mentor of mine from Tech Ranch, Jonas Lamis, moved with his startup, Rally.org, to San Francisco 2 years ago because they wanted access to that network, and this year they raised an incredible round of funding from investors that we all admire.

When Jonas moved, he told me that “San Francisco is the place to be for Rally.” At the time, I didn’t understand what he was referring to. But it was the right decision for them. Just look at their growth.

I want more than anything the opportunity to grow. That’s my core motivation. Give me an opportunity to grow, to learn, to contribute to something that matters, and then let me take some risks. I’ll make up my mind and make something happen.

For this stage of my life, San Francisco represents the next personal growth opportunity for me. And yes, that means having to leave Austin behind in some ways. “Austin from Austin” will no longer be such, and even though I’ll be back and forth to the WP Engine offices inside the Capital Factory (which is the most amazing “office” I’ve ever experienced), I’ll still be a new resident of San Francisco. As the American Archetype goes, I’m “going West to find my fortune.”

And in many ways, it feels like coming home.

I was born in a small hospital on the border between Nevada and California, and I lived in the mountains until I was 10. California always called to me, and I dreamed of living there. My whole family is from Texas, and I’ve lived in Austin for 16 years, but I’ve always called the American West my home.

On November 10th or 11th, I’m going to pack my little car and start the 1,800 mile drive to San Francisco.

I’m going to miss Austin more than I can express. In particular, I love everyone in the WP Engine offices, and knowing that I won’t be in the office with them every day hurts. I’m also going miss my friends and my community here.

I can’t wait to get out there and see what happens. It’s going to be an adventure.

A big thank you to everyone who has been part of my journey thus far. That’s a lot of people, and you’re all part of this journey for me.

I’ll be having a farewell party at 7PM on Thursday, November 8th at Easy Tiger. You’re invited to come by so I can give you a hug and say a proper goodbye. Please do stop by.