Friday, December 10, 1999

The Cyber Scene in Austin - by Will Kreth

Snow-free and slumming at the Shoreline -- a closer look at US Creative

Well, the first of December wasn't covered with snow -- at least in Austin, TX, a place where no turnpikes exist either, thankfully. But it was a great night to roll down to the Shoreline Grill for the US Creative party.  In the mood to celebrate, having both closed a $5 million funding round (from Convergence Partners of Menlo Park, CA) and announced the launch of a new San Francisco office, US Creative is on a roll. Jocelyn Johnson of Sloane & Company (US Creative's PR agency) had invited me, flying down from Sloane's NYC office for the event. Downstairs, an airport lounge band fronted by the obligatory dusky woman vocalist was working a set of jazz standards and "casuals" (read: adult contemporary hits) for the crowd. I grabbed a drink and an appetizer and set about tracking down my host.  It was the classic agoraphobes worst nightmare: a room full of strangers, and a soundtrack only slightly less so. After a few conversations and less than six degrees of separation, I found Jocelyn.

Creative Czar

She introduced me Wayne Steiger, president of US Creative. We talked for a few minutes, but his presence was repeatedly requested on the dance floor, so we agreed to pick up our conversation in a few days. This week, I went to the US Creative office and talked with Steiger about the rapid growth of the company and how the web nurtures and connects the creative mindset.

With a data base of almost 350,000 creative professionals in 360 different categories, spanning film, video, web, design, illustration, photography and more - US Creative is a veritable Grand Central Station, hooking up artists and craftspeople with companies looking to outsource some level of their creative service needs.  Put your portfolio online, goes the thinking - and if you're good, your phone won't ring, but your e-mail will certainly chime.

Steiger joined the company in January 1999 to find a moribund web site that was 3.5 years old.  Once he convinced the founders that he could put together a strategic plan, it became clear that they had something great to work with. "In one sense, it was just a directory, but it still had the seed of a great community site," says Steiger.  Working his Rolodex and angel investor connections, Steiger went out and raised money for the company, and by May - was voted in by the board as the president of the company. With their first office located on Sixth Street (above a now defunct rock club called Steamboat), their staff quickly grew from 3 to 9 people. On September 1, they re-launched the site. 


"We had a total of about 900 square feet [on Sixth Street]," says Steiger, "and when I think about what we paying now (on the aptly named Research Blvd.) - it was a bargain.  At the old office, if you didn't get the work done by 7PM, you'd have the choice of listening to that night's band at Steamboat, or the band at the Library Club next door."  The vibrations from the music below caused chunks of the ceiling to fall on the floor of their office, yet Steiger is convinced that the close-quarters was just the right environment for the young staff.  "It was amazing what that synergy brought - everyone knew what everyone else was doing - from marketing to engineering to management. Having been a product of the '60s myself, I felt that the communal aspect was there."

With a new print and web ad campaign sporting the tagline "Expose Yourself" - featuring shots of  "clothing free" models wearing only strategically-placed cameras, art portfolios, and other tools of their trade, U.S. Creative started to raise a few eyebrows. To Steiger, the campaign is another example of how important it is to have fun deeply woven into the business: "Hell, you have to have a sense of humor to be a freelancer -- talk about a stressful career! In this office, it's important for me to see the employees have a good time. I am extremely people-oriented.  I often said that if the day ever came where I could put an organization together, I would always lend first to the humanity of the organization, and then to embed structure, discipline, form, and function on top of that. In the end, it’s my belief that a company is the sum-total of the personalities working for it."

"You may find yourself….living in a shotgun cubicle"

"I tell everyone that I hire that "this is not your life - this is just one element of your life." However, you will spend more of your time here that you will typically spend with your spouse or your significant other. So, if that's the case - let's make this the best environment possible. We're here and you're here to benefit the company - to lend your expertise to the common goal. At the same time, these are human beings. For instance, every Thursday is massage day, and even I look forward to that."

"US Creative is not just one discipline - we see an aggregated, whole community of all kinds of creative people, all of whom have a chance to post their talents on the site. That's why we're investing in the technology to allow our members to have full audio and video streaming, so that more people will be able to have a chance to show their work."


No more voice-over tapes - ever!

Steiger continued: "Whether you’re a grip, a Foley artist, or an animal trainer - I want them all to have the same opportunity to be recognized for their talent, both nationwide and worldwide. The Web makes it possible - it's dropped the borders. Ten years ago, the average freelance artist worked almost exclusively in his or her own city or region. To have a national presence was unheard of. There just wasn't the means to get your work out to that many people. As such, it was the usual 'feast or famine' cycle of business."

"However, it's becoming evident that we can fill that void. How large can we grow? I wouldn't be able to guess, but at the same time, I don't see anything stopping us.  We're dealing with an industry that has traditionally been fragmented - and we're just starting to change that."

Hooking up the hinterlands

With 10,000 new members since the September re-launch, 15,000 page views a day and offices set to open in NYC, LA, Chicago, Atlanta, and London next year, US Creative seems primed for the entry into orbit as a permanent fixture above the madding dot.crowd. And with an estimate of 2.5 million creative industry people in the U.S. alone - things look very good for US Creative. "I tell my staff every Monday AM that we're interacting with tens of thousands of people we can't see," says Steiger. "But they're real and they're incredibly important."

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