How SXSW Helps Keep Austin Weird

The two Austin entrepreneurs behind Criquet shirts talk about making the most of the South by Southwest storm.

If you’ve ever been sober in Austin, Texas, you’ve probably seen a “Keep Austin Weird” bumper sticker. They’re as ubiquitous as BBQ – and they serve an important function for local entrepreneurs by signaling to outsiders that Austin isn’t like the rest of Texas – it’s funkier, fresher, friendlier and, of course, liberal-er. It’s a reputation that helps keep the Austin market inundated with a steady stream of bachelor partiers and start-up wannabes. And no single event comes close to opening the floodgates like South by Southwest, which every year draws over 200,000 people to the city, and pumps somewhere around $300 million into the local economy.

Enter Billy Nachman and Hobson Brown, a pair of enterprising New Yorkers, who in 2010 started Criquet, a clothing company that specializes in stylish, street-worthy golf apparel with a retro Caddy Shack-twist. Nestled in the heart of snazzy South Austin, across the street from a food-truck court (of course), and within spitting distance of the Continental Club and Habanero Café (arguably the finest Tex-Mex on Earth), Criquet couldn’t be more strategically positioned to peddle its line of “vintage-preppy” polo shirts, which when worn can make even the most milquetoast golf dad look like he knows a thing or two about a thing or two about whatever the kids in Brooklyn are into these days. And when South by Southwest comes to town, those kids come with it, and so do their fashion-savvy brethren from around the States and beyond. If there’s one thing Austinites love to complain about more than traffic, it’s the SXSW onslaught. But for many local businesses, Criquet included, it’s a perfect storm.

Maximcaught up with Nachman and Brown to find out how they’re holding up in the thick of it.

Why did you guys decide to set up shop in Austin?

Brown: Billy and I moved a few different places around the country and then settled in Austin about 8 years ago. When we launched the business we just really thought that there was really big opportunity to create this kind of a lifestyle brand based in Austin. The style and the kind of clothes that people wear in Austin fit kind of that brand we’re trying to create. Just a laid back town with good weather, a lot of short sleeve shirt opportunity but also kind of a sophisticated place. It has all the benefits of a big city but with a lot of the small town feel. I think from a business stand point it’s also been a very supportive place to start a small business, we took part in this accelerator program in Austin that focuses on business, launching small businesses like ours so that was a really important part of us getting started.

So when SXSW comes to town, how much do you benefit from the spillover?

Brown: Yeah I think obviously when you throw an quarter million extra people into a city; they infiltrate all parts of the work. We’re about a mile outside of downtown, and it’s a pretty high traffic area, not only from a vehicular stand point but there’s a lot of pedestrian traffic. Obviously, it increases substantially during South By and around us there are a lot of businesses that have South By events, you know there are art galleries that happen all day, there are shows, there’s Joe’s Coffee, San Jose Hotel – they have a two or three day music thing. It’s all encompassing; it’s everywhere; even if you wanted to avoid it you couldn’t. We love it – it’s a great kind of year not only from the weather shifting to a nice spot but having all the extra folks around it’s kind of exciting.

Nachman: Yeah, to add to that, with so many people coming to town it’s also a good time for us to meet our customers outside of Austin. So guys coming from New York, San Francisco and L.A who have a few of our shirts and they follow us and they’re into the brand but they’ve never actually been to our store, we get to meet them during this event.

So you guys kind of feel like a destination for some of these people?

N: Oh without a doubt, yeah. We have those kinds of customers even not during South By. Austin brings people in for various reason whether it’s work or pleasure all throughout the year, and we always get people coming in like “Hey, I was in Pittsburg. I’m here for a bachelor party and  ’d like three of your shirts.” Especially since we’ve gotten this retail showroom we call the Clubhouse, where we host a lot of events and parties. We’re doing a small event during South By as well, which has definitely picked up the interest of guys wanting to come over and check it out.

Aside from the event, what else do you guys do to prepare for SXSW? Do you staff up?

N: We don’t staff up, but I think it’s just about getting into the mindset. I think with South By you just kind of need to be more prepared for anything, but also kind of be laid back about your schedule and be open to outside influences kind of changing your schedule. We have our little events on Thursday, we’re doing a sample sale, and we’re having a new mural painted out front of our office, and we’ll have some music playing. Tomorrow some people from the office might go out and try to engage in some of the other events going on in town, document them and try to participate in whatever way. From a networking standpoint, it’s a good opportunity for a brand to come in – and not just like the major huge brands – I mean there’s a lot of small apparel companies. Like, Billy Reid is launching a party tomorrow at a bar in East Austin, and we’re going to go over there and mingle and network. Not only is it fun times for people to come see you but it’s also a great time to meet other people who are better involved in this industry, and who are in town for the festival.

Has anything ever come from networking during South By?

B: A hangover.

N: I think this is our first real year having our show room and our clubhouse all set up and ready to participate and people knowing that we’re here. So this past Friday we participated in an event down on Rainey Street – it was kind of a pop up event and through it we met a lot of people, who in some shape or fashion we may end up working with or are interested in the brand, or who may be able to help us out whether it’s in advertising.

B: Last year, Billy and I went to this one dinner with a lot of other entrepreneur types, and we sat next to the people that started Refinery29.

N: Those opportunities only come up so often in Austin over the course of the year. It’s not all the time you have those chance encounters.

So I take it you guys aren’t the kind of Austinites who bitch about South by South West?

N: We both love it; it’s a great time – even though the traffic sucks.

B: There are definitely things you can complain about, but for the most part we love it. You can get frustrated when it takes two or three times as long to get across town. And I think you can get frustrated when you go to get coffee in the morning and there’s a line out the door. That being said, it’s all worth it; it’s kind of what it’s all about – you have to take the good with the bad. I think a lot of the old time Austinites might get a little frustrated moreso than some of the newer breed.