Friday, November 19, 1999

The Cyberscene in Austin ~ by Will Kreth

 Statuesque and Happy

Icarus was seen falling to Earth, and Eve seemed to have lost or not discovered her fig leaf yet – unclothed in the fading twilight. Around them, the other statues (a sundry blend of mythological and Biblical characters - as well as their friends from the millennium we're just leaving) were rather "hush hush" about the whole thing. The only thing breaking the silence was the sound of over 400 partying Austinites and live music at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden.  And although I toyed with the similarity of the name to the Germanic language-specific diacritical mark that tells you to pronounce certain vowels in a "long" manner [umlaut] -  the Umlauf was an excellent setting for the monthly High Tech Happy Hour on November 16th.
(you can learn more about it at: )

Sponsored this month by the new Austin office of TFA/Leo Burnett, the HTHH has been going on since July, '98 – when founder and current impresario Harry Pape decided to get a few people together for a drink. "The joke was that we could fit all the attendees on the sofa at the b-Side lounge," says Pape. Used to the kinetic networking atmosphere of his former scene in San Francisco, Pape decided last year to e-mail every Austinite in his Outlook contact database, thinking that he'd either get flamed, or people would show up. Lucky for him, they showed up. Currently, his mailing list has over 700 people on it, and the "unsubscribe" messages have been few.

Making the Scene and Herd

"I guess the main focus of the event was initially was to get the Austin high-tech community together," says Pape. "Things like the 360Summit work on issues at a higher level, but [HTHH] works at a more informal, but still very important social level. If you and I work for complementary software companies, you might ask me what PR and marketing firms I use, or if I know of a good PowerPoint person. Even before I started HTHH, I used to get asked that all the time. Another thing that is coming out of this is that there are a lot of people that are new to Austin, from California – from the East Coast, and it's a way to get them more involved in the Austin community, hence – we try to have them at different venues. Umlauf is a great place. In fact, a lot of people who've lived in Austin for a long time have never been here. We're looking future events at places like the Elizabeth Ney museum and Laguna Gloria (the original site of the Austin Museum of Art). The problem is that when you top 400 people, like we did tonight, it gets tougher to find places to have the event."

This month's HTHH marked the first time that Pape decided to charge a cover for the event. While only a modest $5, Pape thought that it might curtail the number of attendees. Far from it – the actually turnout was the highest to date - the proceeds of which went to benefit the Umlauf itself (all future events will be benefits, as well). Sponsorship hasn't been a problem either, as recruiting-hungry start-ups and attrition-buffeted software and hardware behemoths scramble to get more warm bodies into their HR departments for resume screenings and interviews. "I've got sponsors for the event booked out all the way until August 2000," says Pape. Besides paying for one free drink for each attendee, the sponsors now help cover the rental cost of the facility and musicians to serenade the techies who show up. Another first for this month's HTHH was an "unplugged" set by local funk/blues mavens Malford Milligan and Funky London with Martha Merriell.

The Network Effect – in Full Effect

As Martha and Malford keep the crowd warm with songs like the incriminating Bill Withers groove "Who is He, and What is He to You?" - I asked Pape what he thought of the human "network effect" that Austin is going through. "I think our timing this year has been great, all the way around. Historically, Austin is a hardware/semiconductor kind of town – and that's an industry that doesn't mingle much. With the influx of software start-ups, the culture is changing – and I think for the better. One of the reasons I like the event is the fact that it's not tied to any one organization, such as the Austin Software Council, other user groups or business affiliation groups – there's no pure agenda tied to it. What it does have is a sense of being high-tech, and the words "Happy Hour" connote drinking, socialness, and a relaxed atmosphere.

"When I ask people what they think about the event, I get two responses. One is that people who are new to town absolutely love it, because they get indoctrinated immediately into the Austin tech scene, and they like that. These people are not shy, and they're ready to meet people.  The other one is the people who've been here for six to eight years, and they tell me that they've never been to an event like this before. They're amazed at the kind of people that come to these events – I'm amazed by who comes to these events. I get CEO's , CFO's  COO's and receptionists. I get all kinds of people. Venture capital deals are made here, or at least started here. People were hungry for something like this.  I did it myself, because I was hungry for something like this. I see people having meetings as they leave the event. And each month, I come with a list of people I personally want to meet. Sometimes it's fun just to watch the social dynamics.  I see the mood change after the first couple of hours – people get more relaxed and the conversation turns away from business. Let's face it - we have a lot of single people in this town who spend all their time at work, and they need some place to go and meet people."

Matchmaker, Matchmaker….

An independent marketing and communications consultant himself, Pape finds that his job dovetails nicely with the HTHH dynamic, as he works to help out start-ups: "You know, two things happen with start-ups. One is that they are started by technologists, so they're not really comfortable with the marketing activities. They know what they need to do, but they're not sure how to get there. The other is that they area started by marketing people, but they don't really know the technology.  So, I help them figure it out, both tactically and strategically, because I help them find people. But I'm not a headhunter – just a networker."

Like Cybersuds in NYC and like the events that have spun-out of Craig's List in San Francisco, the High Tech Happy Hour has answered a need in Austin -- a city that is rapidly losing the vestigial tail that tagged it as a haven fit only for "hardware guys" with no lives. Software and the Web are all about language and conversations, and the HTHH is a platform to stretch-out on both accounts.

And that's all this week from Austin, where both the weather and the people are always warm, sometimes hot, but never cold!