New Ideas, New Markets, New Insights
All around the country, Americans are dreaming big. Their boldest ideas are changing their communities--and having a ripple effect throughout the world.
Rick Orr got the idea for TabbedOut back in 2002 when he was stuck waiting for a check for almost an hour during a business lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Austin. Frustrated and late to an afternoon meeting, Orr vowed to do something about it. “I was walking out to the parking lot and knew there had to be a better way,” he says.
At the time, the mobile payment and apps landscape was still pretty barren. iPhones and Androids weren't ubiquitous yet. So it took another seven years and (several developments in mobile tech), before Orr and his long-time colleague David Lemley were able to launch TabbedOut, a mobile platform that allows customers to make quick, secure, plastic-free payments at select bars and restaurants. “That’s when the adoption curve tipped we decided to leave our jobs and set our savings ablaze,” Orr says, with a Texas-sized chuckle. (Previously, Orr was part of the founding team at WholeSecurity, a software firm that Symantec bought in 2005, and VP of product management to Austin-based global card processing provider, MPOWER Labs / Rev Worldwide.)
Orr and Lemley were in the right city. Austin’s plethora of independently owned restaurants were just as instrumental to TabbedOut’s beta tests as the advancements in technology. More than 100 downtown eateries (not counting food trucks) that serve everything from comfort food to haute cuisine enabled Orr and Lemley to conduct real-time experiments. “That’s the thing that separates Austin from Silicon Valley for me. We were going to serve small businesses and seven of 10 businesses here are independently owned,” he says.
In Austin’s spirit of trust (“No one is afraid you are going to steal their idea over a cup of coffee here,” Orr asserts) and loyal support of locally owned businesses, the two partners were given full access behind the bar at a variety of establishments. “They were accommodating our learning because we were building something for them,” says Orr.
TabbedOut has grown steadily since its 2009 launch and has seen 315% year-over-year growth in its consumer channel. It also just announced a national partnership with T.G.I. Friday's. Now that they have about 1,000 bars and restaurants using TabbedOut across the country and casting an eye to cities such as Seattle and Portland, Orr maintains TabbedOut’s Austin backyard “is still our test market” and points out that the company’s offices are located above one of their participating restaurants.
When it came time to seek funding, the community helped there, too. Though TabbedOut attracted just one Austin-based venture capital firm, Orr says there were plenty of angel investors and entrepreneurs who were willing to review TabbedOut’s business plan and help them carve out the right path. The company raised a $6.5 million round last year led by New Enterprise Associates (with offices in DC and Menlo Park, California).
“An entrepreneur’s biggest fear is time,” Orr says, “If it takes three weeks to get connected that is three very valuable bootstrapped weeks.” That’s why he’s a big fan of a recent initiative by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce to bring together entrepreneurs, elected officials, and business and academic leaders. The resulting Technology Partnership is made up of seven special interest groups (SIGs) formed to allow for Austin companies, ranging from early-stage to global, to get together regularly and establish a network that serves as a catalyst for both individual and regional success, says Bryan Jones who serves as chair of the Greater Austin Technology Partnership and is CEO of Collider Media.
“Working with, and on behalf of the companies in the tech sector, the Chamber has been able to foster collaboration and develop new and powerful ideas, all of which further benefit our technology ecosystem,” he says.
Orr is currently chair of the mobile sector and touts the group’s “open kimono” sharing (not with intellectual property, of course) as fostering “a collective set of wins.”
That’s just the kind of community spirit that’s lacking in some cities that try to replicate the success of Silicon Valley according to Victor Hwang, managing director of T2 Venture Capital in Silicon Valley and coauthor of The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley.
Austin has its fair share of skilled labor and established tech businesses (to the tune of 3,900 tech companies that employ a little more than 100,000 people) not to mention an outstanding university and the energy generated by scads of hyperactive hipster entrepreneurs attending SXSW’s annual interactive conference. But Hwang writes, “It’s far harder to create communities of people driven by values like trust, fairness, dreaming big, and willingness to risk and fail.” If that’s what it takes to flourish, Orr’s experience shows that Austin’s future is sealed.
[Image: Flickr user StuckInCustoms]