People often ask me about the Austin ‘recipe’ that has created such a remarkable environment for innovation here in Central Texas. The recent “Chasing Greatness” thought leadership speaker series held by Spredfast and Google last week offered some clues to this with their excellent panel of Austin innovators. Here are some highlights of what is happening from the inside of a couple of Austin’s smartest and fastest growing firms:
Cotter Cunningham is Founder, President and CEO of RetailMeNot, Inc. (RMN), formerly Whale Shark Media. For all his success, Cunningham is no stranger to failure. He went from being the COO of a successful public company (Bankrate) to the CEO of a failed start-up that lost $2.5MM. He was then chosen by Austin Ventures to lead RMN.
When RMN went public in 2013, they insisted that the NASDAQ bell ring in Austin rather than New York so the whole team could be a part of the event. The company now has 550 employees worldwide, 370 of which are in Austin. Keeping key staff happy is key for RMN—one of their most popular perks is offering free lunches for everybody. Transparency is also key. Cunningham gives weekly talks on recent events, so when the stock price dips or there are other areas of employee concern, the plan for fixing the problem is shared quickly and forthrightly. RMN is currently focused on mobile.
Cunningham discussed disruptive business models, telling the audience, “Businesses that rely on their scale to keep competition at bay no longer have that advantage.” On the subject of new product innovation, he said “Consensus is death.” Getting buy-in from diverse stakeholders is great, he explained, but innovation cannot be a democracy where everyone has an equal vote.
Natanya Anderson, Director of Social Media and Digital Marketing at Whole Foods, had a different perspective on disruptive business models. As a large firm with 400+ stores, WFM tries to keep a close eye on nimble potential competitors. They analyze which technologies could be the most disruptive and choose their battles to address the threat or opportunities they represent.
On failure, Anderson has a forward-looking approach. She said she has learned to admit when something is not working, go back to her managers to confirm that the investment is lost, and suggest another approach. No cover-ups or excuses, just “what’s next?” She reduces the risks of failure by getting more buy-in from all stakeholders: rather than forcing people to do something a certain way, I suggest, adjust, refine, and then deploy. Keys to success are the quality of the product and the attitude of the staff. She emphasized that success cannot be a chance to rest on your laurels, but rather it’s the time to plan again for the next initiative.