Austin entrepreneur Jacqueline Hughes has made more than 100 calls this week alone, as she prepares for one of the biggest events of the year for Austin’s entrepreneurial community.
But if all goes as planned, Hughes will be able to catch dozens of speakers, panels, and pitches and attend a virtual startup crawl — all from the comfort of home next week for the annual Austin Startup Week.
Hughes co-founded the event with Joshua Baer, who runs Austin-based accelerator Capital Factory, in 2011, as a way to bring together the startup community. For a decade, Austin Startup Week has been a can’t-miss for Austin entrepreneurs and emerging businesses to meet yearly, pitch business plans, network, and mingle.
But this year, rather than packed booths and standing-room-only panels, participants will gather virtually in chat rooms, video calls and virtual maps from Oct. 5-8.
The event joins the ranks of a number of annual Austin gatherings that have been forced to go virtual amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Startup Week has been a staple of the Austin entrepreneurial community for longer than many participating startups have existed. It draws thousands of people to hundreds of free events, panels and sessions, including a Startup Crawl spanning multiple downtown locations.
Although this year will be different, organizers said the ability to still connect has taken on special meaning because of the pandemic.
“It’s a way to kind of celebrate all the great things that happen every week and welcome new people in (to the startup community) and make it more accessible and open,” co-founder Joshua Baer said. “It’s even more important now, because people are so isolated.”
After entire industries changed overnight, many of Austin’s startups went fully remote. The startup scene, typically tied together through coffee meet-ups, networking happy hours and pitch events, now is largely operating from home offices and kitchen tables.
“Everything’s changed,” Hughes said. “A lot of people are struggling, from a business perspective and personally, so now what?”
Hughes said she hopes this year’s Startup Week helps provide an answer.
“Our motivation is to bring together the community,” she said. “One of the great things about living in Austin and something that I’ve appreciated is that we come together and offer support to one another, and collaborate and share resources.”
Amber Gunst, CEO of the Austin Technology Council, said she’s pleased to see the event continue in virtual form.
“It is imperative to bring support to these emerging companies to help foster their ideas and provide them the tools to build successful companies,” Gunst said. “I think this next week will open doors for a lot of people who have the ability to be our next great founders and business leaders in tech.”
The event also will offer a view into the dispersed startup community, which has adjusted rapidly even by entrepreneurial standards. Baer said the tech-savvy community is uniquely equipped to thrive in troubled times.
“We’re entrepreneurs, we want to solve problems. We’re used to the whole house burning and trying to figure out solutions,” Baer said.
‘Everyone’s still learning’
In planning for the event, Hughes said it was especially important this year to consider how best to serve the startup community amid rapidly changing conditions.
“Fundraising has changed, (as have) stores, market and retail,” Hughes said. “Everyone’s still learning.”
Startup Week will be far from the first event that Capital Factory has hosted virtually since the start of the pandemic. That came the day before the South by Southwest festival would have been held in March. However, Startup Week, along with the accompanying Startup Crawl, are among the biggest events of the year for Capital Factory and Austin’s community of entrepreneurs.
Baer said Capital Factory has tried a number of platforms and technologies throughout the pandemic to host events.
“There are trade-offs — some things aren’t as good, but some things are better,” Baer said. “We can’t do the exact same things as we do in person, virtually, but what we’re able to get different people to participate in different ways that maybe couldn’t before.”
Startup Week will mostly rely on Succoco and Hopin, two online virtual event venues. The platforms are designed to allow for a high level of interactivity, such as live chats, polls and virtual showrooms.
Programming has been adjusted to the virtual environment, with tracks cut down from all day to half-day sessions because people generally don’t stay focused as long online.
The annual Startup Crawl, which normally involves multiple downtown Austin venues, will take on a digital form as a virtual trade show on Tuesday afternoon.
At first glance, a map of the crawl opens up to what looks to be the word STARTUPS!, but amid the lettering sit booths that have been built into virtual rooms. Participants will be able to snake themselves around virtually and speak to companies and catch demonstrations over video or chat.
Baer is hoping the map will help participants capture some of the same energy they normally do in person, with hundreds of avatars and conversations lighting up.
Hughes said planning for the event is always a labor of love, but this year, with speakers and participants sprawled, the team has had extra work up front.
“I definitely think it’s a little bit more more challenging, you have to be more creative with engagement,” she said. “You don’t have that feedback. When you’re in a room at a live event, you get to see body language.”
But online polls, chat rooms and other elements will give big panels with hundreds of viewers a level of interactivity that the event has never had before, she said. It also means anyone will be able to attend from anywhere in the world.
Paul O’Brien, a serial entrepreneur who currently serves as CEO of MediaTech Venture, will be a Startup Week panelist. He said the week will help highlight some of the attention Austin and its startup ecosystem is getting as a top tech hub.
“There’s something about this year that is causing the world to finally give Austin the credit it’s due,” O’Brien said.
Sign of the Times:
Several new tracks have been added, many with pandemic focuses or ties reflecting the changing realities of the 2020 startup scene.
They include Future of Work, Survival and Pitfall, Work From Home, Mental Health and Wellness, and Covid-19 Innovation.
“It’s a global pandemic and affects every person, every industry, every business, and there’s so many different ways to look at it,” Baer said. “Our community is so involved in the response and we’ve got lots of startups that are big parts of the solutions.”
A number of old favorites and Startup Week staple tracks remain on the schedule, such as the CPG track, product and design, and the Women in Tech summit.
Still, even the old favorites will include the evolving way startups now must operate. The HR, Talent and Culture Track will include mentions of the pandemic and how to retain culture from afar. A fundraising track will look at how to remotely navigate the changing venture capital ecosystem.
Tom Ball, a partner at Austin-based Next Coast Ventures, is among those speaking about the funding environment.
“The event, albeit virtual, is a sign that Austin’s startup community remains as vibrant as ever,” Ball said. “And we don’t anticipate the trajectory slowing down.”