Friday, October 08, 1999

The Cyber Scene in Austin ~ By Will Kreth

The Fashion to Cash-In

Will the newest Fall TV series be a charity cha-cha line of generous geeks, parading in the Billion-Dollar Man March after Bill Gates? Or will they all be following Ted Turner, the original Pied Piper who called all barons to separate themselves from their bucks and follow him down the road to philanthropy? Has the recent office of fatherhood done more to soften up the Microsoft Midas than fathering virulent office software suites ever did? Or is there a sour note in the brass section -- trumpeting just the most expedient tax-write off possible?
What am I carrying on about? In case you haven't noticed, donations and philanthropic deeds have become the latest fashion-statement you can make in high-tech. It was into this rejuvenated environment that the annual CHARITech conference rolled into Austin Convention Center on Sept. 22nd. Now in its sixth year, the CHARITech conference provides a forum where hundreds of non-profits and local tech (and non-tech) businesses can learn about each other.

Will The Vested Help the Sleeveless?
It was only about three years ago when the utter paucity of charitable giving from Silicon Valley's high rollers was being pointed to as the difference between East Coast societies' "Old Money" and the "Nouveau Riche" geeks of the Left Coast. It even inspired tech-industry journalist Paulina Borsook to write magazine articles about the techies' lack of generosity. But with the passage of time and expanding waistlines, the fortunate youth of Seattle, Sunnyvale and Round Rock have started to plow some of their fresh-minted lucre into the future of their respective communities.

Today in Austin, cash-strapped start-ups can give shares to the Austin Entrepreneurs Foundation, where (with a continuing bull stock market) some successful company is going to add greatly to the coffers of local non-profits. If you're a little more well-connected, and want to volunteer your time – you could join the Austin Social Ventures Fund, where for $5K, you get a seat at one of the most exclusive giving tables in town, and a chance to share your business expertise with non-profit business novices.

Back at the conference, the surprise of the day was an entertaining keynote talk by Wall St. Journal reporter Kara Swisher. Swisher, perhaps better known for her best-selling book "AOL.COM" was a droll, engaging speaker with several amusing anecdotes. When visiting Yahoo! in Silicon Valley, Swisher recalled the tale of going to lunch with co-founder Jerry Yang. Expecting to be treated to a nice meal by the young billionaire, Swisher found herself staring at a $4.95 burrito. "Ah, for the days of simple millionaires," sighed Swisher, "with limos and lavish expense accounts." As a point of contrast, Swisher found the millionaire Microsofties to be surprisingly more generous than their 20-something Silicon Valley counterparts, perhaps taking cues from such local celebrity givers as Paul Allen and Paul Brainerd, both with their own charitable foundations.

Austerity, or Posterity?

Perhaps in defense of the young(er) moguls, Swisher went on to say that they don't spend their money in visible ways – even the billionaires. Many of them just don't spend money at all; so obsessed are they with the process of making their fortunes and changing the world.

Take the story of another billionaire - Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and his wife – who Swisher caught schlepping their huge bags out of a hotel at an exclusive tech conference. "I saw them wrestling with their bags, and I just wanted to say to them – 'Here's a dollar, hire a bell-boy.' Sometimes I feel like J.P. Morgan around these guys, when I say to them "You can walk in the rain, I'm taking a cab."
Bemoaning the fact that many non-profits are not yet online, Swisher urged the crowd to get it together and get a Web site. "Get people to link to you – and when you talk to these tech executives, tell them exactly what you want from them. One thing they can't stand is ambiguity. Ask for and detail exactly what you want them to give you, and why. This is the way their minds work."

Faster, Austin - Thrill, Thrill!

It was a bubbly scene at last night's (10.7) Austin Show and Tell, the latest stop by Fast Company writer Heath Row on his driving quest to discover the New South. (Disclosure – the event was sponsored by Agillion, the company I work for.) Held at the historic Saengerrunde Hall near the UT campus, the theme was "What Makes Your Company Fast?" A contest was held to see which Austin-area companies could write a one-page essay to answer this question in the most creative way.

Among the entrants were Motive Communications, Dryken Technologies, Talent Engine,, The Fat Man, Vignette, InternetTV, and Copperfoot. I can say with a certainty that the 136 year old German immigrant music hall and adjacent Scholz Garten beer hall had never seen anything quite like this! In between sets by the chicken-fried Western folk of the Fence Cutters and the Tejano and swing stylings of "Cowboy" Donley's band, the winning companies performed skits, sang, talked, preached and strummed their way though five minutes of pitch and presentation. I talked with Heath and he said the Austin event was the biggest, most elaborate one he'd encountered on his southern sojourn. All in all, a splendid evening. Well, that's all for this week from Austin, where both the people and the weather are always warm, sometimes hot, but never cold!