Saturday January 25th will mark the 3rd annual Austin Startup Games, an event that pairs selected athletes from some of Austin’s hottest startups for head to head competition – albeit friendly – for the title of Most Competitive Startup in town. Athletes compete in games from Pop-A-Shot to Flip Cup to Connect4 (there’s even a mystery event), but it’s not all fun and games; the companies behind these athletes are competing for a title and the largest sum of donated money to go towards the charity of their choice.
The parameters are simple: you must be a tech company with 250 employees or less, be headquartered in the Austin Area, and not be publicly traded.
The actual event lasts a little over five hours starting with an opening ceremony, continuing with The Games themselves, and ends with an awards ceremony for the winning team. 100% of the selected charities will get some value of the money, but 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place teams will get the most money allotted to their cause.
History of the Games
The idea arose out of a collection of startup founders and VPs in Austin, TX, including those from uShip, SpareFoot, and Boundless Network. After a number of regular outings full of playful trash talking and social competition in nerdy sports that were “too much fun,” said Henrik Johansson, CEO of Boundless Network, the group noted that it would be fun to include their larger companies in these tournament-style get-togethers. It was also an opportunity to band together with colleagues and the rest of the tech community for a charitable initiative.
uShip hosts an annual holiday tournament bracket with multiple team and individual games starting in December and leading up to the event. It’s a way to build excitement for The Games and bring people together in a social way over the holidays.
“Jay and I looked at all the fun we’ve had at uShip over the holiday tournament time where people got to know each other and developed a sense of community which is the social glue of a startup. That’s what the social glue of The Games is now,” said Shawn Bose, Executive VP & GM, Global Business at uShip.
Admittedly, the idea capitalized on an already-existing healthy, competitive spirit between some of the startups too. “It’s half for bringing the community together and half for talking smack to each other. It’s one thing to get together and drink and have fun, it’s another to do it for a charitable purpose.”
After unanimous agreement over drinks from a group of ATX tech execs with a YOLO attitude, the first Games were organized in a quick 1 1/2 months in November of 2011.
Year one featured eight startup teams, the number agreed upon due to it’s convenience for a bracket, and a number of sponsors (Dos XX, Cedar Door, etc.) that made it free for all participants. uShip hosted an after party at Club DeVille and the $5500 raised went to charity. Oh yeah, uShip won that year too.
Year two, The Games doubled in size from 8 to 16 companies and the charitable donations more than doubled at $30K. Local catering company Red Velvet even offered non-profit pricing for the event. It was clear this event was a #winner.
“We built the smallest thing we could and iterated upon it lIke a startup. We doubled the size of companies. The first year our friends’ bands played…We wanted to promote at the core of it that this is an Austin event, this is a local event. If you’re a tech person in Austin this is a great feeling,” said Bose.
Just as traditions run deep inside of startups, so do they at The Games.
“We have a lot of fun with the opening ceremonies. We cheese it up a bit,” said Gillian Wilson, Senior Manager, HR at uShip and President of the Startup Games. “A bugler plays the Olympic Song, and we get a former Olympian to run the torch in, and light our version of a games torch. Andréa Smith sings the national anthem. As soon as she’s done, white doves are released. It’s amazing.”
The Olympic Torch used is carried by an actual Olympian. Last year Gilbert Tuhabonye carried it and this year Cat Osterman will run with it.
Besides actual planned traditions, there are the organic ones that blossom as a result of the community and excitement during the event.
“What’s great is the camaraderie and networking that comes out of it. Austin is is always competing within the same talent pool, specifically talent in design and development. If a great candidate comes our way, and we don’t have a position open at the time, we are more likely to send them to another company that is part of The Games,” said Wilson. “A husband of one of our employees originally got a job at BuildASign and then SpareFoot based on The Games.”
“It’s awesome to galvanize the troops and to bleed Boundless,” said Johansson. “We’ve always had a good culture but it’s good to have people teaming together screaming ‘SpareFoot’ and we’re screaming ‘Boundless.’ It’s one thing to work together but it’s another thing to play flip cup and scream.”
In order to choose who will represent their organization at The Games, most companies host tryouts prior to the event that highlight sometimes unknown talent.
“The Games bring people out that aren’t always front and center during social events. You have talent in your organization that you don’t know about,” said Johansson.
The founders of The Games also pride themselves on the Austin identity of The Games.
“Everything’s not coming out of the valley. Austin needs to have a few things and The Startup Games are one of them. It’s fun to take advantage of Austin’s brand. These are they coolest, youngest, smartest companies in Austin,” said Bose. “During SXSW you are overrun; this is truly a local event. It’s good to know the people at other companies that do what you do. There are two types of colleges – one where it’s competitive and one where people want to see each other succeed. You hear Valley stories, crazy cutthroat competition to get talent, etc. Our code is to help each other, co-opetition. It really encapsulates everything that’s good about [Austin’s] atmosphere.”
And of course, like most things Austin, you can expect to keep it a little weird on Gameday. Think bull-riding CEOs, ridiculous costumes, and impromptu dance parties among other things.
The 2014 Games
This year, The Games will consist of sixteen teams and the projected goal is to double last year’s pool of $30K for charity. While some teams have unfortunately foregone their eligibility status, a process that happens when a company either exceeds the size limit or becomes publicly traded, the addition of new teams keeps the spirit of the community alive and the competition fresh.
As for contenders, this is no amateur event. “Last year the eight new teams didn’t realize how serious this was. This year the level of competition will be highly increased,” said Chuck Gordon, CEO of SpareFoot, last year’s champion.
uShip hosts internal tournaments and tryouts prior to the event. “We have contenders in almost everything…Your company may go public but winning The Startup Games almost trumps that. The Yankee/Red Sox rivalry is as almost as big as SpareFoot/uShip, but there could be a random contender,” said Bose.
When asked if he thought SpareFoot would be a top contender in one of the events, Gordon replied, “Unfortunately I cannot discuss these matters with you.”
Gordon reiterated his readiness for the event. “The competition’s stepped up this year. We just want to win the whole thing. A big win for the company is a really cool feeling and to be able to give that money to a charity of our choice makes a big difference and gets everyone excited.”
Future of the Games
According to the founders, the goal of The Startup Games is to expand past just the Austin area while using Austin’s Games as an example. “[The Games] have been successful in a short time. If we make them really successful it’s a model for other cities. Austin started this – it’s our thing and we are giving it to you. That would be great if other cities started their own Games and the championships were held here during SXSW. The grand vision is having the title, ‘Best Startup in the World.’”
Like a startup, The Games started small. “The founding team did a good job by not rushing it. We took two steps back and made sure we can make it work in Austin first. I think Austin is gaining a reputation with or without The Games but it certainly doesn’t hurt. The Games are an Austin thing, a community thing not just about just being cool or drinking,” said Johansson. “It’s pretty amazing that some crazy idea you come up with over a few beers that one, you go do it, and two, you do it well and it contributes well to people in need,” said Johansson.
What’s even better is the model is sustainable. “We have so many amazing volunteers from each participating company that donate their talents to the event on their off time. All funds raised for the event go to producing the event, all excess is donated to charity,” said Wilson
The Games will take place Saturday, January 25, 2014 over the entire afternoon at Austin Music Hall with the opening ceremonies at 1:45 PM. 16 teams will compete amidst a background of a DJ, and the tech community. Interested spectators can attend for a $10 donation + a can of food for Capital Area Food Bank.
May the best team win (go uShip, go).