Austin Gunter Interview
Meet Austin Gunter: originally from Austin, Texas, Austin just transplanted himself in San Francisco, as part of opening up WP Engine‘s new San Francisco office. In this candid interview Austin talks about the qualities every entrepreneur should have and about the importance of doing good for good’s sake — in other words, giving back to the community.
How did you get involved in working on the web?
I started working on the web almost accidentally. My degree was in Rhetoric, so I expected to go find a job as a technical writer or something like that early on. Only in retrospect does it sound so ridiculous to me that I was so willing to convince myself I would be happy writing technical manuals :-). I had studied in South America twice in college, and then worked in cigar humidors selling cigars to get myself through college.
I had this diverse set of knowledge that didn’t necessarily add up to a career. Graduating in 2009 during the recession didn’t make things any easier. However after hustling for about three months, I ended up getting two jobs on the same day. One was for a startup doing software as a service (SAAS) compliance monitoring for Salesforce and related apps.
I got hired to do market development on the phone for them. I was literally making about 60-80 calls a day to CIOs and CTOs, trying to sell them enterprise software. Simultaneously, I was also working at Tech Ranch Austin, an incubator for early-stage tech startups, the company that I ultimately ended up deciding to focus on.
From day one, I was organizing Tech Ranch Austin’s online branding, producing their content, and building their community using social media as a way to start relationships with local startups and entrepreneurs. The goal was to create a community of startups who would share expertise and insight with one another as they built successful, bootstrapped companies.
Overall, I brought about 120 startups through the doors in less than two years. With the perspective of a few years, I could say that 10-15 of those companies are growing and either have funding or bootstrapped and are turning away funding sources.
One of my favorite startups from Tech Ranch is called Aunt Bertha. It’s a social venture that created a network to help people find local social services. Basically, they make it easy for you to find out which food, housing, and employment programs are in your community and whether or not you’re eligible for them. They work closely with social workers and non-profits, but are a for-profit venture.
What are the three most important things that working with startups has taught you? In other words, what advice do you have to share with entrepreneurs?
Man, it’s really hard for me to give advice to an entrepreneur since I’ve only ever run my own consulting services business. I can only speak to the entrepreneurial struggle to a certain degree, at which point I have to stop talking and start listening.
One thing I notice is that wanna-be entrepreneurs wait for permission to act. They’re looking for some external validation that will give them permission to act. These folks never get off the ground. The entrepreneurs I know that are successful literally cannot see the world any other way, and they burn with an internal fire that is a bit imbalanced, to be honest. They can’t help it.
Another piece of advice I’d give is to stop focusing on building the next social network. We don’t need more, what we need are innovations in productivity, transportation and energy, food, healthcare, and production. WordPress counts as a tool of production, IMO, because it allows people to easily express and produce value.
But I think the next innovations in energy and healthcare are the things that will usher in the next revolution of productivity and economic growth. If those don’t happen, we’re going to plateau. That’s a bit heavy, but I think it’s true.
If I had to pick one more piece of advice I’d recommend that entrepreneurs have absolute faith in themselves, and be ruthlessly critical of the mistakes they make, but balance that with a clear vision of the world as they want it to be. And if you find yourself with enough self doubt — that it’s easier to do nothing, then you don’t have to be the entrepreneur. It’s a lonely, tough road, and it can be painful. The only way to see yourself through it is to believe in your vision and believe you’ve got the tools to make it real.
You’ve worked closely with tech startups in the past. Were any WordPress-based? What qualities did the founders have that made them successful?
WP Engine was the first WordPress-based startup that I have been part of. In fact, Tech Ranch Austin insisted on using Drupal for their website, despite my strong recommendation to the contrary.
Again since I haven’t started a product company of my own, other than a small consulting operation, any observation I make is based on my perspective, not as an actual founder. Your mileage may vary.
I think that successful founders have a lot of things in common, to the extent that most people can pick them out of a room. You can start to tell who the successful people are going to be once you start to look around.
Successful founders are always looking for ways to give. They almost always approach situations with the belief that everyone can get more than what they need and want from a given arrangement. The unsuccessful companies were led by people who were constantly afraid they were getting screwed over, and so they were more concerned with protecting things than growing.
You can’t do both, and if you’re focused on giving and infinite resources, you find them. If you’re focused on not getting screwed over, that’s ironically what you’ll be faced with.
Growth requires vulnerability as a founder because growth requires change and adaptation to the business. I’ve seen WP Engine double in employees since I joined, and I’ve had to adapt to the company to keep up. This is even more dramatic with founders who start a company with one idea, and then must evolve as the company grows.
The founders who are more concerned with protecting what they have, have the potential to get in the way of their company’s growth. Whether that means they don’t want to hire people or let the right investors help them grow, or they don’t evolve their products with the right customer feedback, or any number of things.
Startup entrepreneurs also have a maniacal drive to get things done. The first few years of a startup often are chaotic, disorganized, and seem hopeless. I’ve experienced those mornings from time to time when I was making something new happen in my life. I’d wake up miserable and feel locked to the bed, but I’d get up regardless.
Successful entrepreneurs are the ones who keep getting out of bed even though they’re exhausted and scared out of their minds. They simply aren’t willing to stop pursuing their dream until they’ve made it real, and any pain of starting a company pales in comparison to NOT starting the company.
As I said, my opinion should be taken with a grain of salt. However, I have observed hundreds of startups, successful and unsuccessful, and most recently, I’ve been able to work closely with the founders of WP Engine and observe how they operate. It’s been incredibly informative, and I’m very grateful to work closely with our entire team. I learn new things about myself and how to be better at what I do everyday, and that is the most important thing.
It’s less important to ask, “When are you going to start your own company,” and more important to know that you’re in the right place, growing every day, you’re challenged, you work with people you enjoy, and the company you’re part of is doing something that you think actually matters to the world. You can be fulfilled without being an entrepreneur. But I think being an entrepreneur is the only path to freedom.
Tell me about your work as a Brand Ambassador at WP Engine. What does the role entail, and what do you like most about it?
I started at WP Engine as the guy who ran the blog and did all the social media work. I had previously made myself a promise that I wouldn’t have a job that was primarily Twitter-based again in my life, but here I found myself, and frankly I was loving it. What I discovered at WP Engine was through strategic Twitter use, I was able to create strong connections between our customers, our support guys, and make the customer experience a defining characteristic of our company and our brand.
After a few months of focused effort, the @WPEngine Twitter account was listed as one of the top five Twitter accounts to follow in WordPress, and was the only company account in the top five. This was because I made a point of using the account to give back to the community and provide best-practices and useful links, rather than just market the hosting. That’s part of the ethos of WP Engine: company growth will happen as a direct result of serving your community.
I love my job because I am a writer at my core (I even have a typewriter tattoo), and I get paid to be the guy who develops the content around everything we do as a company. The fact that I’m the go-to guy to write status updates when we have to mess with our servers makes me happy beyond belief.
Then the fact that I get to go spend hours every week writing blog posts about really interesting topics just blows my mind. THEN, I’m the guy who gets to travel to WordCamps and meet awesome folks in the WordPress community and that just makes my head explode sometimes.
Here’s the inspiring thing about working with WordPress folks. Everyone in WordPress is doing something they absolutely love, no questions asked. Many of us used to work big corporate jobs, but our work with WordPress has set us free from corporate drudgery, and WordPress allows us to choose our projects, choose when we work, how we work, and all the while, we’re often making even more money than we did previously.
WordPress people are living and working on their own terms, and everyone in the community has this brilliant independent spirit. The only way people “conform” is to the way the community insists that we remain unique individuals. The fact that we can all be fully ourselves and that it only contributes to our success is part of the magic of WordPress and open source.
I take great pride in the fact that WP Engine makes it possible for thousands of people to build amazing things on WordPress. We’re just serving their creativity and their entrepreneurial spirit.
You read PROLIFICALLY. Name your three favorite books: what did you learn from each one that made it a favorite?
That’s a hard question. I don’t know that I have three absolute favorites, but I’ll pick from ones that made a huge impact.
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. This book takes months to finish, and you can’t rush it. It’s like sailing from Los Angeles to Australia. You just have to lie back and be patient, and you’ll get there eventually.
I’ve never read a book that so fully developed characters and taught me so much about philosophy, religion, and how to live a good life. The book made me fall in love with Russian literature, and to date is the only book where I’ve cried in the final pages (don’t tell anyone), both because the ending was so beautiful, but also because I knew the book was over.
Pre-Commerce by Bob Pearson. If you sell anything online, you have to read this book. My boss, LA Lassek, recommended it to me, and it was an early sign that I was going to have a ton to learn about business from her. The book is required reading because it explains how the internet has put the power back into the hands of our customers.
We have to respect their power in the buying cycle and create trust if we want our products and services to be part of their lives. Basically, the book explains that we can no longer “sell” anything to our customers because they won’t be sold to. However, we can help them “buy” something, and they’ll become loyal customers for life.
Betterness: Economics for Humans by Umair Haque. This book espouses my economic philosophy that companies must not just be profitable quarter to quarter, based only on money in the bank. I think the only companies that will survive in the future will be the ones that provide returns not just for shareholders, but for their customers, their communities, the environment, and their employees.
I think as humans, we have it within ourselves to build businesses that create virtuous cycles of wealth, change the world with innovation, and also enrich the lives of everyone who works in those companies. I think “good work” is such a healing thing for our lives, and anyone who has ever gone from a soul-sucking job to a fulfilling one, knows exactly what I’m talking about.
Good work will change your life and provide an outlet for human potential and creativity, and lead to happiness and health, if not wealth as well. I think the future innovation that will change the world and raise our standard of living will be in areas of solar energy, health care, and education, and I look forward to seeing those innovations if not also being part of one of those companies in a few years, long after I’ve spent my time at WP Engine. (For the record, I’ve still got a lot to accomplish at WP Engine :-) .)