Jun 24

Are We Really Keeping Austin Weird?

I am laying in bed at a the Rosemary Inn, a bed and breakfast in Pittsboro, NC. Although Pittsboro is not the tech hub that Austin or even the Triangle is, it is the home of OpenNMS, the open source network management software company I am consulting for.

Everybody raves about how cool Austin is. While I love Austin and still want it to totally kick Silicon Valley’s ass, I have to say, are we really keeping Austin weird?

I ask this question because here in the town of Pittsboro, most of the stores are locally owned. The diners are locally owned and try to serve local produce whenever possible. Tarus at OpenNMS took me to a grocery store that looked like what Whole Foods used to look like that served locally grown food and offered locally grown products. I even went to a biodiesel plant that uses waste from the town to fuel vehicles. Pittsboro is quaint for sure, but at least it truly is unique and reflects the personalities of its residents.

I truly love Austin and want nothing more than to see local companies take off. I’m tired of reading about Silicon Valley companies in Valley blogs like TechCrunch. There is a wealth of talent in Austin and I don’t think we need Silicon Valley’s shady VCs to succeed. However, we do need to Keep Austin Weird.

We need to support locally owned businesses. We should watch local acts (I’m bad at this one, so if y’all want a friend to see a good show with, ping me). We should use Austin hosts and use Austin software. A person living in Austin should feel like he or she can open a business and people will support it. If it sucks, tell that Austinite what their business can do to earn your business. If we don’t support each other, who will?

Remember, Keep Austin Weird, or watch us turn into a Strip Mall Hell or even worse–Silicon Valley’s Cheap Labor Force Whipping Boys (and Girls).

  • http://ceezer.org Cesar Torres

    I’m all for Keeping Austin Weird, Michelle! Dusty, David and I were just having a conversation during our meeting today about how this is great and all, but if you’re a mom and pop store, you should see Wal-mart coming in as competition, no matter your size. You might not be able to offer the range of products or the high amount of inventory that they can, but you have an advantage in being so small.

    You can offer SUPERIOR customer service that Wal-mart can’t, you can support OTHER local initiatives yourself and you can just have a kickass brand that people can get behind.

    Ultimately, it comes down to believing that marketing is important and how you can work around a smaller budget or smaller size.

    David said, competition with a big-box gives you constraints and forces you to innovate. What do you think about that? I totally agree with him.

  • http://www.patramsey.net Pat Ramsey

    I’m a fan of keeping Austin weird, as long as we don’t price the city out of the reach of the majority of the population. I love Whole Foods, but that’s as corporate as Walmart. Look at their buyouts and business practices in other cities. I love Walmart at times because they offer goods at prices the common man can afford. Not everyone can shop at Whole Foods / REI / By George.

    I buy Real Ale or Live Oak beer over Bud/Coors/Miller any time of day because they offer a superior product at a reasonable price. I frequent the Drafthouse over Cinemark because the experience is worth the price – which isn’t much higher overall. I’ll shop at HEB any day of the week over anyone else because they are a Texas company with outstanding prices and product. I prefer local bars to chain bars, which should go without saying.

    Austin needs to mix Weird with affordability in order to survive. The best way to to that is to let the market (which is the aggregate of all of us buying, selling and finding what we like and what meets our needs – travel time, distance, etc.) work over a period of time.

    It’s not all marketing, or experience. It’s that sum of all the factors that matter. Sometimes it’s not the locals that win out. Austin’s 15 years past the prime weirdness, when locals ruled the city experience. There’s no going back, either. It’s an evolution that had to happen for Austin to grow. There’s still mucho weirdness here – it’s just not where it used to be.

    Pat Ramseys last blog post..Grape Creek Cuvée Blanc

  • http://michellesblog.net Michelle

    Very insightful comments from both Pat and Cesar. I was talking with an artist here in town who tries to keep things local as well. He is from New York but claims Austin as his home. What does New York do that Austin doesn’t? It has high expectations and if something sucks, people will tell you it sucks. If you don’t like Whole Foods’ buyout practices (which I don’t), tell them. If a company doesn’t offer what you need, tell them what you need. If their service sucks (which happens a lot in Austin, IMO), tell them. Just as feedback makes software better, it makes other companies better as well.

    I’m all for the free market, but honestly, if we shop at Wal-Mart, it will in fact close local businesses AND support a company that treats its employees very poorly at every step of its operation. I cannot do that in good conscience.

  • http://austinative.com Laura Carbonneau

    My big interest lately has been local agriculture. And I think (hope) that it will become more cost-competitive as shipping costs increase due to gas prices. Unfortunately, the extreme heat isn’t helping the farmers right now… but in general, the central Texas area has an amazing amount of diversity in food production.

    My dream is to work on a project that would help get more local products into restaurants, since many Austinites eat out a lot. I think production and (perceived) quality needs to ramp up, but marketing and distribution are important too. Anyone else wanna do this?

    Laura Carbonneaus last blog post..AUSTINative Garden

  • http://michellesblog.net Michelle


    That is a great project! Some produce like zucchini, garlic, rosemary, oregano and okra grow so readily in our soil, people have a hard time giving it away. I would love to eat this in restaurants.

    I’m not sure how to facilitate this, but would happily read up on anything that might help us get this going.

  • http://blog.think27.com johnerik

    michelle you are right on. now to find the people in austin who are as knowledgeable on progressive internet tech as a vallywag. find them or create them, and let’s get this fund going. forusbyus.

    johneriks last blog post..Couple tips for Twitter newbs

  • http://www.patramsey.net Pat Ramsey

    Something to think about, in an interconnected economy, it’s hard to lean too much towards local-only, though. One city’s local shop is another city’s intrusive business. Just some discussion fodder.

    On the local food, I totally agree with supporting native-grown food (and wine) as much as one can.

    I eagerly await late-summer planting season so I can get my veggie bed going with mixed greens and peppers. My jalapeno pepper plant has fruit already. Gonna pick ’em tonight and make cornbread.

    Pat Ramseys last blog post..Grape Creek Cuvée Blanc

  • http://www.debutaunt.com debutaunt

    When Austin became a mini-Houston, it was time for me to leave. I was actually shocked when I moved to H-town and the cost of living was so much cheaper than Austin.

    I’m always game for some local music and some of the smaller Austin eateries. Whole Foods used to be so great, but now is completely overpriced. I’m all about HEB.

    Hope you are doing well. Missing you bunches!!

    debutaunts last blog post..Busy Girl

  • http://prentissriddle.com Prentiss Riddle

    I’m surprised that no one has mentioned Wheatsville. It’s local, supports local, and is an anti-consumerist experience (it’s there to serve its members not to hypnotize them into buying more stuff).

    Wheatsville can’t compete on the price of some staples, notably milk, but it consistently beats the prices of Whole Foods and Central Market on many other products, especially bulk goods and high-markup “natural” packaged goods. The price and variety of Wheatsville’s produce varies seasonally but that’s natural at a store which buys local when it can.

    P.S. Another thriving store where I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see local produce at great prices is Crestview Grocery on Woodrow. It’s a trip back to 1964 and proudly local.

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  • http://www.routout.com Weirdo

    hey, Michelle…keep Austin weird? My vote is Yes! Weird is good sometimes.

    Wheatsville sound like a good name for a grocery store…

    Weirdos last blog post..Artist pushes the envelope for posties