Recently, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Steve Golab of FG SQUARED. I hope you enjoy this first installment of our three-part conversation:
Steve: How do you view your role in Austin's entrepreneurial scene? What is it that you think you're doing in the midst of all of it, other than just observing it?
Bijoy: Way back—ten years ago now(!)—I started Bootstrap Austin, a community for bootstrap entrepreneurs. Now the broader word that I use is “stewardship,” a term I learned from Charles Herrman. I'm a steward of the scene. What does that really mean, tactically? It's thinking about the scene's journey. We’re going to talk about journey a little bit later—the journey of the Austin entrepreneur scene and how we can make it more effective. Really, the goal of the scene—which is a collection of communities, experiences, people and resources—is for entrepreneurs to go and build their ventures. And so the stewardship of the scene is about how you make the scene better, help it to help entrepreneurs more effectively and make it more user-friendly.
I'm a cartographer. One of the things I’ve done is make a map to make the scene easier to navigate. I update the map. People let me know when things go away and new things show up. I update the map of the scene. I also started bringing together the leaders of the scene on a monthly basis. Elijah May does that now. He's taken over that part of things.
Steve: How long have you been doing these things?
Bijoy: We did it for a few years. Then, when Startup America happened, we paused for a little bit and then resumed again this year. So we started maybe three or four years ago, then paused, and resumed again.
The third thing that I do, and it’s really the main thing that I do, is serve as an evangelist for the scene. Part of my stewardship is to tell the scene's story and to relate it back to Austin and make sure people know there is a scene, that they should be part of it, use it, and that they should also steward it in whatever ways they can and want to. It's really about giving the scene a forum. And all the artifacts like the map and the stories and the convening, all help to tell the story. Now we know what's in the scene and we can relay that internally in Austin as well as to the world.
Steve: So what you're talking about a lot is what's under the hood, right?
Bijoy: Exactly. We’re exposing things that are assumed or below the surface.
Steve: If you're not inside Austin, you don't necessarily know all of the things that are going on.
Bijoy: Absolutely. And even if you're in Austin, you might be plugged into one or two things, but not realize that there are two or three other things you should be plugged into. Or if a resource is missing, that you can add it! When you’re aware, you can say, “I think we need this,” and then someone can raise their hand and create that thing. My role has changed. Before, I was one of those people doing that. When I started Bootstrap Austin, I was creating something that I thought was missing—a community for bootstrap entrepreneurs. But now it’s about getting other people to create things like Bootstrap Austin, you know, inspiring them to do things like Bootstrap so, well, [laughing] so I don't have to do it so much!
Another thing to think about is that a scene is only as strong as the number of people who are actively taking stewardship responsibility of it. You can't have a scene that is dictated by a central leader or a central organization. It has to be decentralized, have lots of nodes, like the Internet.
Steve: I imagine you see a lot of people working on similar initiatives, or people who think that they should be working on a certain initiative that you're aware is already going on somewhere else. How do you address that? Do you see much of that going on in the entrepreneurial scene—people who are working on the same sorts of initiatives, but not aware of one another?
Bijoy: I mean, I really don't. For example, take coworking, a space you're involved in. Part of making everybody aware of who everybody is and what they're doing and that, oh, there's this space and that space, gets people to start thinking, okay, let me not just make another co-working space right next to GoLab; I'm gonna configure a co-working space in another part of the city. It gets people thinking about what's unique about the GoLab, and even about sending people there when a coworker’s needs don’t coincide with their particular co-working space model, right? That is already happening in Austin.
I think one of the things that awareness of the scene does is it tells you you're in an ever-expanding pie, and there's enough space for everybody. When you know what’s already in the scene, then you can go chart out your own course. So I think part of what I've seen is less duplication, less of that. That's one of the goals that we at Bootstrap have, really. If someone is going to go create something, they should create something new or partner up with somebody that’s already doing the work. And you won't get that without awareness of who the people are and what's actually going on. You can let people know, hey, that's an interesting idea, but did you know that this person is already doing it, without creating an offering that’s competitive. This one of the big factors involved in owning scene stewardship and the steward mindset. You don't approach the scene from a competitive point of view; you approach it from a collaborative and communal perspective.
You and I have talked about a community and social capital and all that. There's an infinite amount of it. I call it journey capital™. There's so much and there's enough space for all. And so immediately, when someone says, "Oh, I'm interested in this," and you say, "Did you know about this?" and they go, "No, I didn't," and you introduce the people, all of a sudden there's conversation happening. The idea can grow. It can separate or it can differentiate, which is what you really want to see happening.
Steve: Here's a question that keeps coming up, at least, for me. I keep thinking that the world is looking at Austin and wondering what is so special about Austin's entrepreneurial scene, and why is it that Austin is getting so much press and getting so much coverage. And people are moving to Texas and Austin, in particular. Why is that? What's Austin’s secret sauce? What is it about Austin that makes it special?
Bijoy: You and I have also worked on The Austin Equation, which Heather McKissick and I started. We asked the same question about Austin because any entrepreneur scene derives its identity from the city it's in. And I think what Austin represents is a viable alternative to Silicon Valley. I actually recently co-authored an article with a friend of mine, Victor Hwang, which talks about the Silicon Valley model, and he's helping share that with the world. We talked about the fact that what we're really offering is two very complementary approaches. I think that Silicon Valley entrepreneurship is really an outside-in entrepreneurship: let's go build the biggest, greatest technological tools that we can build. And the whole place is structured for how to do that—venture capital and all that—whereas Austin is a journey city. It's an inside-out model of entrepreneurship because the work of Austin and Austinites is to discover who they are.
The phrase we came up with, which is now used a lot around Austin, is "Be yourself." We've had all these different monikers, but really, what you see people in Austin trying to do is differentiate and individuate and discover who they are. Some of those people turn that journey, that personal quest, that journey of differentiation into a venture. They express it through a venture. And so our great ventures are based on a person's individual journey and their interests, their unique interests and passions. The city supports whatever people want to do in whatever domain of their life they want to do it in. We don't place judgment on people when they do something that is quote-unquote alternative or different or whatever. We say, "Keep it weird." If that's working for you, then you should do that, and that, to me, has been in the DNA of Austin for a long, long time. I mean, Austin was always a viable alternative to the rest of Texas. It was a different location that the hippies could always come to. I'm not just talking about modern music capital activities, which reached new heights in the 80s. I'm talking about the capitol-capital stuff, which began in the 1830s when the state was formed.
Steve: Tell me more about that.
Bijoy: Well, it was just that people needed a place that was not going to be a big center or already had a lot going on. Other Texas cities had a lot of commerce and things like that, but Austin was the place where they set up a seat of government. Why? People were able to agree that this is neutral ground. And then that neutral ground, which started first as a political scene, told people, hey, everybody can come here and be safe here. Everybody can come here and voice their opinions. Everybody can do what he or she wants.
Steve: It started out as a place that was more neutral than some others.
Bijoy: Where you can express your own opinions and agendas. It was the place you came in Texas to do that. You understood Austin as the neutral ground to talk about our differences, and that if you went back to the place you came from, you would not be on neutral ground anymore; you’d back to fighting.
I've been here since 1995, but I didn't really participate in Austin until the early 2000s or really see the city for what it is until that time. I hadn’t yet thought about cities as being on journeys. Now, I think of everything as being on a freaking journey! I think of a city on a journey, you on a journey, me, a community, a scene, a country, everything existing on a journey. It's the lens through which I look at everything. I look at the journey of Austin and it's funny because it's a journey of journeying! So people are all doing that work. So, then, when you think about entrepreneurship... What's our message when I go to Orebro, Sweden? I was just there a couple of weeks ago. Or Chiang Mai, Thailand or Ashville, North Carolina. What's the message I share? I say the message is to be yourself. Austin's message to the world is to figure out how to be yourself. You can't be Austin, but you can be you.
Steve: That's a good point. You're saying the secret sauce is not to be like Austin in any other way except in the way that Austin has embraced how to be yourself.
Steve: So, give me an idea of what you mean by that, how that applies to Orebro or Asheville or Wilmington.
Bijoy: Right. Well, every journey has a history. What I call your journey capital is what you accumulate through time. When you spend time, you accumulate journey capital. And people break that down into social capital and knowledge capital and so on and so forth. There are all these terms that people use in the world today, but if you sum it all up, the summation of your social capital, your knowledge capital, your intellectual capital—all of that is your journey capital. It's what you accumulate from the time you spend in your life. So, looking back, you have to start from zero. When did you start? When were you born? What happened? Where were you? Who were your parents? All those things are actually the first step to identifying a place’s unique journey. And every place has a unique story, a unique history to it. And that, really, to me, is the first step. You’ve got to go back.
The difference is how you express journey in the world. In a business, it’s a business model, for example, right? Businesses have a business model. Apple used to sell Macintosh computers. That is what they did and that is how they made most of their money up until when Jobs came back in 1997. But the business model is going to keep changing because time changes, everything, the situation changes, environments change. How you express your journey is going to keep changing, but who you are doesn't change. You only deepen that and become more of yourself. Who you are is becoming more precise and how you express that in the world keeps evolving and changing. People confuse those two things. Like, they say, "Well, you know, we were a manufacturing town and now we don't make shoes anymore." Well, that's just the business model. What was underneath that? Why were shoes important to you and what was really going on?
Steve: You’re saying that people are experiencing difficulties in a competitive world that they need to look at, and that cities that are not growing maybe need to delve deeper into their histories?
Bijoy: Exactly. Because it's all there. You know, what was there that made you successful in the past? And then you see there's an underlying thread that was always there and you can use that to figure out how that's going to manifest itself today. You have to get underneath. It's like you’re mining. You're getting underneath the surface. The problem is people live on the surface, with things they can touch and feel. But when you go and actually mine your journey and your stories, you see underneath it that there was a theme. Our mutual friend Danny Gutknecht’s company helps organizations to do just that. And from that mining emerges a core question. I call it a quest-ion—your quest is your question! And this question is trying to be answered and it never changes. You keep returning to it. The answer keeps changing. And everyone has a unique question.
But, yeah, so when you're a city you've got to look back. It was really interesting, in Orebro, where I visited, there's a local castle. There's one in just about every Swedish city established by various kings over time. But the Orebro Castle is one of the only castles in all of Sweden that was changed and adapted over time for different uses. So that tells you something about the city. No other castles in Sweden have changed. They made a castle and that was the castle. The Orebro Castle has been used and repurposed for multiple things. So right there in the middle of their city, they've got something that kind of tells them who they are.
Or Asheville. Asheville is this city of wellness. That's what emerged for me when I spent a week there last year. And wellness is the key thing. People went to Asheville when they got sick with tuberculosis to take in the air. Asheville has the highest per capita healers and holistic practitioners. People are always coming when they're broken, and Asheville heals them up. What was interesting was the dialogue that I was having between Asheville and Austin. Asheville was saying, "We're Austin's little brother, a ‘be yourself’ city.” And I said, "I'm not convinced." And when I went there and started listening to their stories, that pattern of wellness emerged rather than uniqueness. They’re related, but they're different.
Under the surface, we’re all already unique. The idea of creating differentiation in competition is moot. If you really go to your journey and you realize who you are, you’ll recognize that you’re already unique. You're already differentiated. Why do you have to worry about adding this sort of pseudo-superficial veneer of differentiation? You don't need to do that. You just be the already unique thing that you are. Now that will take you to certain places and not others. Take Apple. They don't care about the enterprise market, really. They kind of have some small businesses that use enterprises, but that's more because individuals love their stuff, and if they start a small business, they get Macs for their small business. But the enterprise, per se, that's not really Apple's deal. Many people say Apple should be playing in the enterprise market. Why? They don't care about that. That's not who they are.
Steve: Well, it's funny that approach has changed the whole enterprise market. Now they call it the BYOD. Have you heard this, the BYOD?
Bijoy: Absolutely. But it's coming from Apple's strength. Delta just bought 6,000 Windows 8 devices. Apple gets the individual to buy and then the IT department has to support the individual's device. They're going to bring their iPhone to work or a tablet. But they're always going to convince the individual to make that purchase. They may be able to convince the enterprise—they certainly have a strong showing in education and things like that. The nature of command-and-control structure of enterprises is anathema to what Apple is in their journey.
Steve: I think they're toying with it.
Bijoy: Sure, but it's just like anything else. Everybody plays in everybody else's space to have a hedge there. Google has a hedge with Android. Everybody plays in everybody else's space, but what's really at the core? The core of Apple is always about the individual and making their life better through technology.
Steve: But what you are really talking about is people basically finding a true expression of themselves and not being worried about what other people are doing.
Bijoy: Exactly. And that's really what's funny, right? If you're a city or businessperson or an entrepreneur, you’re supposed to start by doing a SWOT analysis. What's everybody else doing? Let me look at what they're doing and copy them. If you can go and figure out who you are, you won't worry about whatever anybody else is doing. Sure, be aware of what everyone else is doing, but if you know who you are, you can start based on that. If you close your eyes, how do you imagine the world? If you see it is a fixed circle, then you'll want to fight over stuff. Oh, that guy's in my space. It's gonna be a classic territorial battle. We have a fixed amount of land and now we have to fight over this fixed amount of land. We’ve had that for millions of years of evolution in the physical world. But the reality is that the spaces are ever expanding. These circles themselves are expanding, and there's enough space for everybody. If you have that as a mental picture, then you know you just have to occupy your own unique space in a very complex, interesting ecosystem. Evolution is very misunderstood in that way. “Darwinian” has come to mean: Grrr; eat; kill. But evolution is about finding unique little places that no one else, no other species has, and inserting yourself into that, and all of a sudden you enhance an ecosystem and you're part of it. You're interplaying with it, but you're also occupying your own spot.
Steve: We've been talking about Austin as a city. I think you've been talking about it as a journey city.
Bijoy: The journey capital. [Laughs.]
Steve: Austin is the journey capital of the world?
Bijoy: I think so. Certainly one of them. I mean, I don't know of any others.
Steve: Definitely the journey capital of Texas.
Bijoy: Certainly journey capital of the US.
Steve: So, maybe I'll get off track here and talk about something I wasn't planning on talking about. In my mind, I’m thinking about the difference between Austin and Amsterdam. Because I like to think of Amsterdam as a place where people believe there's something for everybody. How do you see the two cities being different?
Bijoy: That's interesting. It's been a while since I've been back to Amsterdam and I didn't have any of these frameworks in my mind when I visited, so I've got to go back and check it out! But I’ll answer that by going on another detour. I was recently in the Borough of Hackney in London. I was taking a tour and talking with some of the folks, some of the co-working spaces there. Hackney and Austin are doing a lot together these days. And again, it was like, oh, it's like Austin! But when I really delved into it, there was more of a "be subversive" vibe. They've got this interesting subversive edge to them that we don't have. Like being subversive, going around the system—street art with Banksy and others.
Steve: Yeah, yeah. I'm sure you'd find a difference between the two.
Bijoy: I mean, I don't think that Amsterdam is a place where people are actively working on their identity. It's certainly a place where they are "live and let live.” That's for sure. Which is really awesome. You know it more.
Steve: Well, yeah, I just question sometimes. It's actually in their history. What’s really interesting about their history that I always think about over time is that it's Dutch. And in the middle of Europe, it's very nationalistic. So what happened was in World War II there was a lot of destruction and there was a lot of immigration to the area from Africa. Right now, you have all these nationalists, you have all these Islamists living together, which makes it really interesting. Ultimately, if you watch the politics of Amsterdam or the Netherlands, it's much more conservative than probably Austin or even Portland. Even though they have this aura of variety on the outside, on the inside, they have this iron fist.
Bijoy: Yeah. Maybe Austin is Amsterdam 2.0. If Amsterdam is the Austin of Europe, then it's going to be within those structures and the history of Europe. Whereas Austin lives in America, in one of its two frontiers. The Southern frontier of America versus California, which is the Western frontier, and we might be the second wave or expression of Amsterdam's energy to the extent that they're encumbered by religion and Christianity and all those things we aren't necessarily encumbered by, at least, not to the same degree. And we're in a country that is young and has very little history relative to that. So that could be one thing, but, I mean, look at Holland, the country. What does it do to your psychology when half of you is underwater? You have to go and work against nature or work with nature to establish your land. I grew up in Hong Kong and Hong Kong is one of the great reclaimers of land. It's a tiny island, and they’re always running out of space. To me, Hong Kong is a city of great change. It's all about change. There's no nostalgia. It's just changes and evolves. And so with physical environment constantly changing, it's a real reflection of the idea of change. I'm not trying to make a definitive statement about Holland, but just…
Steve: Which is maybe different from here.
Bijoy: Yeah. We don't have that relationship. In fact, we don't have the kind of physical traumas that even the rest of Texas has, like hurricanes, floods, etc. So we don't have that. That doesn't inform us as much. Whereas in Portland, for example, which is another sister city to Austin, they're much more influenced by the ocean and the forests of the Northwest. That nature thing figures much bigger for them. And it's almost impossible to go to the Northwest and not be inspired by the grandeur of nature. We like nature in Austin, but we're not like, "Ooh, the environment." I mean, we do, but that's not our central core. So these are all again part of the layers starting to tease out.
Steve: Where you grew up.
Bijoy: Where you grew up. Who influenced you. And that's the most relatable thing to start with—your own personal journey. These things start becoming more abstract when you're talking about a company's journey, or community, a scene or a city's journey. But if you start with your own journey… Who were your parents? What did they bring to the table? What values did they give you? What physical place did you grow up in? Did you travel? Did you stay put? Who are your siblings? What was the context of where you were? What education did you get? These all attribute to you and create your story.