Tips for Building a Cool Business in Austin
Packed with college students, artists, and technologists, Austin is steeped in creativity. The capital of Texas is a blue dot of nonconformity swimming in a giant red state. It's no surprise then that the city's motto, emblazoned on t-shirts and plastered on signs, is "Keep Austin Weird."
When it comes to small business owners, Austin might just be the perfect city for starting up. The workforce is smart and unafraid to try new things. Locals are fiercely supportive of local businesses. Public transportation that includes light rail makes it easy to get around. The cost of living is lower than the national average. Plus, the city's culture of artistry and live music make it a fun place to be. Due in part to that spirit, the city's population has grown nearly 20 percent in the past ten years.
"There's a saying: 'Are you are a native Austinite?' 'No, but I got here as fast as I could,'" says Joy Miller, business information coordinator for Austin's Small Business Development Program, which supports businesses in the city with tools and resources. "It's one of those unique places."
If you want your business to rock in Austin, it helps to think like a local. Here's how.
Building a Cool Business in Austin: Look Outside
Austin's open space lends itself to outdoorsiness, and to businesses that one would usually expect to see in more rural areas.
"Other than maybe downtown where you've got high-rise condos, most people have yards," Miller says. "That's one of the nice things about Austin: There's still some space."
Ed Harke had a landscape business for about 16 years in the area, until the housing market crashed. Not wanting to waste his expertise, he started Prosperity Gardens, which specializes in installing large vegetable gardens and helping the owners maintain them.
"A lot of people combined their properties to have a garden together," Harke says. "It's incredible how much you can get from a 60-by-100 [foot] crop. We've got it down to a science." The 32 gardens he has installed in Austin have produced a quarter million dollars worth of vegetables, he says.
The city has miles of green pathways. Lady Bird Lake sits in the center of town, and is where bikers, runners, walkers, and kayakers congregate. All that room, as well as a welcoming business community and more than a dozen off-leash dog parks, makes Austin an ideal place to have a dog.
About seven years ago, dog owner Blair Smith cofounded a self-service dog grooming business with her good friend Alesha Mathews when she found herself struggling with a pair of pet store bought clippers. "I said, 'I wish I knew a groomer who would let me use her stuff. I'd pay her,'" Smith says.
Their business, Dirty Dog, has fully-equipped grooming stations and charges by dog weight. They opened a fifth location this year. "Literally, you can't drive down the street without seeing someone walking with their dog," she says.
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Building a Cool Business in Austin: Keep an Open Mind
Other local self-serve grooming businesses opened — some closed, others morphed into dog daycare and boarding facilities. The Dirty Dog founders realized that some of their clients wouldn't be able to do the grooming by themselves.
"We were initially going to be the "anti-groomers,' but we realized that wasn't the reality," Blair says.
That kind of flexibility will serve a local business well. "You have to be versatile here," Harke says. "We do partial maintenance where we come two to three times a week to assist the owners and teach them how to do things while it's actually happening so they won't make a huge mistake and lose a lot of money." For others, especially the elderly, Harke provides total maintenance services.
"Almost every client I have is a little different," he says. "You have to tailor your programs to meet the client."
Austin is ideal for innovators. "If you're an entrepreneur, you're thinking outside the box and you want to be in a community that supports that kind of thinking, that nurtures it," says Rebecca Martin, senior vice president of marketing for the Austin Chamber of Commerce.
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Building a Cool Business in Austin: Get Artists Involved
The city has a vested interest in the arts, and even invests in local artists, adding their artwork to Austin's official assets, Miller says. Artists have a great deal of influence here, and their creativity gives the city a distinctive feel.
Every spring, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and geeks descend on Austin for the annual South by Southwest Interactive technology conference. The city's artistic, technophile culture makes it the ideal place to test out new ideas. With all of the technology development that began to spring up in the 1990s, Austin was dubbed "Silicon Hills."
Another apt designation is live music capital of the country. With more live venues per capita than any other place, music is literally everywhere. "Right before each City Council meeting there's a live music performance," Miller says. "A local artist gets to come in."
"There isn't anything I haven't heard here," Martin says of the diverse music scene. That proliferation is an advantage for advertising one's business. "I think the beauty of it is when you do a video about your company, you don't have to use canned music. You can get live music."
Even if your business doesn't specialize in music or the arts, the city's numerous festivals provide opportunities to get involved through sponsorship. "There's no end to the ways you can incorporate that culture into your business setting," Martin says.
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Building a Cool Business in Austin: Give Back
In addition to loving live music, Austinites are generous folks. The city has more nonprofits per capita than any other metropolitan area in the state. And companies love to give to the roughly 6,000 nonprofits in town. For instance, Dirty Dog puts money into silent auctions that benefit local nonprofits instead of spending it on advertising, Smith says.
Members of the local small-business community are also generous with each other. "It's getting to be a big city, but it's still a small town," Smith says. That small town feel means unprecedented access to support, and expertise. "You can pretty easily talk to the CEO of any company you want, with one degree of separation maybe. They'll sit down and have a cup of coffee with you."
What could be fierce competitors elsewhere often become collaborators in Austin. "Even in the business I'm in I have friendly competitors," Harke says. "The gardens I put in are for people who have half an acre they can share with their neighbors. I have friends I actually refer to people who do square-foot gardens, raised gardens."
Comparing notes can pay off. Harke says that if the other garden specialists encounter a project too large for them to handle, they contact him.
"You can come from anywhere in the world and you will find a network of people who speak your language, eat your food, embrace you, and want you to be successful," Martin says.
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Building a Cool Business in Austin: Be Different
"Keep Austin Weird" originally began as a way to promote support for local independent businesses, but it also speaks to the city's independent nature.
"Austin is really weird," Harke says. "There could be a guy in a wedding dress roller skating down the Hike and Bike Trail. You never know what you're going to see here."
Businesses that might not thrive in other cities can succeed in Austin, Miller says. In recent years mobile food vendors have become popular, rivaling the number of food trucks in Los Angeles. "You can go there and eat lunch, and pick from different vendors," Miller says. "They might not catch on in every city, but they do well here."
She also points to the Austin-based company, NurturMe, which produces portable organic baby food that can be hydrated with mother's milk. The idea is to avoid having to carry around glass containers of baby food.
"Maybe something has to do with the warm climate, the young environment, all the universities," Miller says. "We do have a very supportive kind of environment for businesses of all kinds."
Harke recommends being creative about your specialty. "To get started here, you have to find a niche," he says.
New independent and unusual businesses tend to get a leg up in the city, Smith says. "If you figure out something people need and put a unique twist on it, and you're good people, it will do well in Austin."