Startup Scene: Austin, Texas
Through the Table Talk Dinner Series, Comcast NBCUniversal’s Entrepreneurial Engagement team takes us across the United States to meet tech entrepreneurs who build innovative products and influence startup culture in their cities. Authentic conversations between founders and product and innovation leaders at Comcast NBCUniversal helped create this series of stories about cities, like Austin, where tech and entrepreneurship is thriving.
Most of us know Austin through the lens of South by Southwest, the legendary annual conference and festivals that celebrate the convergences of the interactive, film and music industries. But, Austin’s collaborative community of entrepreneurs has built a creative, emergent tech economy with plenty of opportunity for newcomers.
Still, the city’s startup scene faces challenges and decisions – some universal, some unique to Austin – like whether to choose IPO or acquisition, team-up with corporate partners, or seek seed funding, and how to harness the power of the local community.
Austin-based entrepreneurs, CEOs, business leaders, developers, and startup champions from Comcast NBCUniversal recently gathered at Second Bar + Kitchen to discuss these ideas, tech trends and the city’s emerging industries. Local founders shared their startup stories and learned about ways Comcast NBCUniversal works with startups – like the recent partnership and acquisition of iControl, an Austin-based home automation company.
Dennis Mathew, Comcast NBCUniversal Vice President of Wholesale and Xfinity Home, and his team spent years searching for the perfect home automation partner before finding Austin-based startup iControl. In March, Comcast NBCUniversal acquired the company and its game-changing technology to be the driving force behind Xfinity Home services.
“Through the people at this dinner and companies represented, we see the strength of the Austin tech community,” Mathew said. “Establishing connections to the entrepreneurs and influencers and the work they’re doing will create opportunities for Comcast and for the community.”
Tom Chmielewski, now Executive Director of Xfinity Home Wholesale, was one of iControl’s (first named YouControl) original team members and is a true veteran of Austin’s startup scene. He’s witnessed a shift in how entrepreneurs there move through the business-building process.
“A lot of startups in Austin don’t go for an IPO anymore,” Chmielewski said. “You get acquired by bigger companies and it really helps if they already have a presence in Austin.”
Since the acquisition, iControl now has over one million customers and is shaping Comcast NBCUniversal’s Austin IoT Center of Excellence.
“We started with nothing and now we are the fastest growing home automation company in the industry,” Mathew said.
Other Table Talk guests shared triumphs and pitfalls, and their hopes for Austin’s ever-growing tech industry. Many, including leaders from Austin accelerators MassChallenge and Capital Factory, lauded the city for its entrepreneurial culture of collaboration and support.
“As entrepreneurs, we’re big believers in the startup community – it’s the backbone of the American economy and innovation is what will grow our economy,” said Utz Baldwin, co-founder and CEO of Plum, an inventive light dimmer and app that reimagines the power of the light bulb.
“We are believers in paying it forward,” he said. “Our door is open to other founders looking for advice because we’ve had so many people help us along in our journey.”
Baldwin and Plum strategically targeted the lighting industry – a market ripe for change. To fund their venture, Plum raised over $7.5 million via crowdfunding, becoming one of the most successfully crowdfunded companies to date.
Other entrepreneurs compared their experiences raising seed funding to scale their business. Jonathan Gill, founder and CEO of Backtracks, an imaginative analytics platform for music and podcasts, cited the need for more Austin-based seed stage investors.
“Austin has great tech talent, great entrepreneurs, low cost of living, but our investors are enterprise Series A, B and C,” Gill said. “Seed stage investors would change the pace of innovation.”
Like many Austin companies, Backtracks is pouncing on an underserved market. The platform gives podcasters incredibly in-depth insight into their audience – a longtime blind spot for the booming industry.
Lisa Pearson, CEO of sports and entertainment data company Umbel, is hopeful that more women rise up in Austin’s entrepreneur community. Pearson has made a career of taking startups from the ground floor to worldwide audiences.
“Umbel was at an inflection point that a lot of startups face, where there is great tech, but the commercial side isn’t there yet,” she said.
Pearson pivoted Umbel to focus on the sports and entertainment industries, where marketing has been historically imprecise. The shift has paid off and now Pearson and Umbel have big plans to become the largest sports and entertainment data company in the market.
What Pearson has learned is that in Austin, you don’t have to go it alone.
“There’s a real commitment to entrepreneurship here and so many emerging companies,” she said. “There’s a lot that we can do better, like being more in tune to macro trends across the country and hosting stronger consumer brands – but there’s an incredibly supportive tech ecosystem and plenty of resources to address those changes.”
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