Austin and Living in the Live Music Capital of the World #sxsw by

If you lived on the beach and never went swimming in the ocean, are you really living?  If you live in Austin and never listen to live music, are you really living?

Two articles recently call to mind the expectations game.  The first, “Austin ascends: High tech transforms Texas capital into a star” reflects the prevailing attitude of media and startup ecosystem participants that Austin is on the rise, and a really attractive tech hub.

The second article, “Will the Austin startup ecosystem ever live up to its promise?” takes the other side of the coin and argues that Austin has not (and perhaps never will) live up to its promise.

From the first article:

And that’s not just a blue sky dream: Social media phenom Twitter, the Academy Award-winning film “The Hurt Locker” and Grammy Award winner John Mayer all were either introduced or gained traction after becoming highlights of their respective SXSW festivals.

and:

A combination of public policy, entrepreneurs-turned-investors and the cultural and financial desires of in-demand tech professionals give Austin advantages over other mid-sized cities — such as Pittsburgh — vying for the tech industry’s attention. The difficulty for those trying to learn from Austin’s example is recognizing what can and should be copied, and then figuring out how to build political and social momentum around such changes.

followed by this example of a company from Pittsburgh that relocated to Austin:

Rodrigo Carvahlo and Lukas Bouvier founded their company while completing graduate studies at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. Their business grew with early-stage funding through a university accelerator program, the Oakland-based Idea Foundry and as part of the South Side-based Alpha Labs technology accelerator program.
But when it was time for the company to move up, it moved out of Pittsburgh.
The co-founders met their Series A investors, DFJ Mercury and Silverton Partners, in Houston after winning the 2011 Rice Business Plan competition and they moved to Austin shortly afterward.

The rest of the article is a great read about what Pittsburgh is doing (and can do) to become a better home for startups and entrepreneurs.

Now, take the tone of the Pando Daily article, where the writers hail from the two coasts… First, Hamish McKenzie writes some great stuff and his coverage of SXSW on Pando Daily is not to be missed, in my opinion.  But his article about Austin living up to its expectations is tough (though it also points out positives), essentially saying that Austin has never lived up to expectations as a startup hub except during SXSW for one week a year:

But the key words in the graph above are “on paper,” “for a week” and “a presence.” The reality is despite the best intentions and endless buzz, Austin has never lived up to its much talked about potential as a startup hub.

He rightly points out a few success stories: SolarWinds, Bazaarvoice, and HomeAway – and a few startups that he gives some credit to – Spredfast, Mass Relevance, Sparefoot, Bloomfire, Subtle Data, Whaleshark (now RetailMeNot) and Jutera Labs.

However, he neglects to point out some home-grown startups that are still running – National Instruments, Whole Foods, Chuys (yes, they’re public, and they’re coming to a city near you along with their tres leches and hatch green chile sauce), Dell, Tito’s Vodka (and a few other boutique-turned-large beverage makers).  And companies with exits that qualify as “not bad” (understatement intended):  NetSpend, Indeed.com, Sweet Leaf Tea, Tivoli, Lombardi, Initiate Systems, Crimson, Optiv, SocialDynamix, LifeSize, OtherInbox, Skylist, BlackLocus (referenced in the Pittsburgh article) etc.

And he’s missed other successful startups that he probably just isn’t aware of… Uship, Vast, WPEngine, Spiceworks, and likely a dozen others that my friends will hold against me for not mentioning… Odds are against all of these succeeding, so people are welcome to point that out when one or more fail or have a “disappointing exit”.  But some of these will succeed- either with a great sale, or an IPO, or just a long run as a successful private company.  I’m not sure why an financially successful “exit” in Austin is considered a failure but in Silicon Valley and NYC it is celebrated as a success.

That line about Austin being a “blue-collar tech town,” then, is no insult. In fact, the guy who came up with that line explained it to me as a point of pride. “We work for wages, we have great lifestyles,” Dave Rupert, an Austin-based Web designer and tech-show podcast host, said. “We just want to work, make cool shit, and then go home to our families, to our lives, to our dogs, to our backyards.” There are many people in Austin who are interested in “building the Internet” who don’t care about the fame and glory that comes with being part of a startup scene, Rupert said.

I think this line can be (and is) taken too far.  There’s a lack of balance in Silicon Valley (and in some other areas of our economy, like investment banks).  People sacrifice their entire life to get their startup off the ground (or churning one failure after another til one pops), or to make money trading on Wall Street.  In Austin you’ll find very successful investors (and investment companies) that do not sacrifice their life for the trade.  In Austin you’ll find very successful entrepreneurs, software engineers, and designers, who still find time to mountain bike and fly a kite.  Literally.  But this isn’t a city of unmotivated people without a plan. It is a city that, culturally, values a more well-rounded experience – embodied beautifully by SXSW – the arts, music, and tech.

So I ask: If you lived on the beach and never went swimming in the ocean, are you really living?  If you live in Austin and never listen to live music, are you really living?