Keep Austin Weird is Austin’s city motto and a great excuse for an annual festival—but it’s not about weird businesses. It’s all about Austin supporting small businesses. After all, small business is crucial in a city growing this quickly—the Austin Chamber of Commerce in Austin reports a 37.7 percent population increase in the area in the last decade alone.
Jackson Bolton of Pearl Snap Cuisine, portrait photographer Beverly Guhl, Kory Wallace of Bugoff Pest & Wildlife, Ed Gomez of Ed’s Photo Booth, Gene Raymond of Octave Higher, and Eric Ramirez of ClearCAD Solutions are six local business owners thriving on Thumbtack.
Here they share their love of Austin and their recipes for small business success in this rapidly growing city.
What does Keep Austin Weird mean to you?
Let’s stay different, because we are different, is how voice instructor Gene sees it. In the ‘70s he was Choir Director at McCallum High—the school that attracted the hippies and kids who didn’t fit in elsewhere. Historically speaking, that’s Austin, he says, a place for outliers to belong. The city has its yuppies, old hippies, rockers and blues folks, and the artistic community, he explains. There is such a history of visual and musical arts here—he doesn’t know other with such a beautiful mix of ethnicities and people. Goth, punk, country, whatever—it all has a place here.
To me, what makes Austin weird is it’s incredibly accepting of so many cultures, says Kory, a wildlife control specialist. I’ll be glad when accepting diversity isn’t considered weird, he says, but it is what make Austin great.
Austin is what it is, says Jackson. In high school, he couldn’t wait to leave Tyler, Texas and move to Austin. Everybody is always wanting to get to Austin, he says. That was true years ago and is as true as ever now with Austin the fastest growing city in the nation. Keep Austin Weird rings true for people who don’t want Austin to lose its essence, explains the caterer and chef.
I’ve been here since 1965, shares Ed, a long-time paramedic turned photo booth entrepreneur. The best way I can describe it is it’s normal to be weird but if you’re normal—that’s weird. It’s still the case, but this city is growing so fast that’s changing.
Keeping Austin unique and original is the heart of it for portrait artist Beverly. We have artists and different cultures—it’s such a creative city that supports music and arts, she explains. There are so many crazy shops and interesting people and the diversity is just wonderful, but the city really is growing fast.
Born and raised here, Eric takes Keep Austin Weird to mean no matter your status, the city accepts you. Whether you’re straight as an arrow in the business world or tatted up and into the arts and music, every culture is accepted. He provides 2D designs and interactive 3D modeling for engineering and surveying and is watching along with everyone as the city grows exponentially. It’s good for business, he says, but worries about the arts getting pushed out as prices go up and more and more tech crowds the city.
How did you become a small business owner in Austin?
After 25 years as a paramedic, Ed retired and wanted a small business to earn money on the weekends. What began 4.5 years ago as a hobby—after seeing a photo booth ad in an entrepreneurial magazine—has blossomed into a full-time business with four employees and four photo booths of his own. He connected with Thumbtack 1.5 years ago and has been growing continually.
Culinary school to private chef/one man show began Jackson’s journey towards owning his wedding and catering business. As a private chef he was the highest man on the totem pole, managing the money and booking clients, to the lowest man on the totem pole washing dishes and taking out trash. Over 8 years of growth, he earned better clients, was able to hire help, and then hire sous chefs, until he met his partner, Alicia Lovell, last year. Alicia’s a romantic and business partner and the arrangement couldn’t be sweeter. She’s a pastry chef and he oversees the business end of things. We owe it all to Thumbtack, he says. Our first job was from Thumbtack and get over 90% of our business on the site. We have 10 employees and average one wedding a week.
Beverly was a commercial artist prior to breaking into photography. She had the computer graphic chops, knew lighting and composition, and was adept with retouching. Nine years ago she bought her first professional camera, and an actor friend recommended she do headshots. The referrals started rolling in and the rest is history. She connected with Thumbtack 1.5 years ago.
Voice lessons called to Gene after a life-changing trip to California. As Choir Director at McCallum High, he invited someone from Austin Lyric Opera to come out and help the kids. It spurred a journey to California for a voice lesson with the famed Seth Riggs. Seth Riggs was so fabulous, shares Gene, that he changed my voice and changed my approach to singing, even after getting a BA and a Masters in music education. At that moment, I decided to teach singing. My business grew, he says, and I had to leave McCallum. I’ve been doing this 16 years now, he says, and came to Thumbtack by accident four years ago and have used it since.
Kory fell into wildlife control six years ago after the travel for his tax incentive work became too much. His temp job with a pest control business turned into a seven year, full-time position. He says, I realized I could do this better than they do, be my own boss, and earn a higher income if I start my own business. His job changes from day to day. One day he’s tracking wild pigs, the next is getting baby raccoons out of the walls of a house or killing mosquitos. He’s been loving it for 4 years on Thumbtack
Engineering for years in companies like AT&T helped Eric realize wanted to go it alone. He had the chops and saw a Thumbtack ad on TV. He has been in business for himself about 1.5 years and on Thumbtack the whole time, where his company of four staff has a high success rate.
How do you make your business thrive?
Thriving now is different than when I first started, says Kory. Back then, he laughs, I just worried if I was going to eat tomorrow and fixing my old truck every other week. Now I have a successful business. I thrive by listening to my customers and achieving their goals. I’m not strict about my service; I tailor my program to their problem until I fix it. I did have one situation with a herd of wild pigs living on one side of Hwy 35 and at night they crossed under in a drainage pipe and were tearing up the landscape on other side. The client’s didn’t want anything killed on their property, so I had to build a large crate to haul the wild pigs out of there. In Texas it’s illegal to loose wild pigs in other area because they do a lot of property damage.
Keeping it manageable, small, and personal helps my business thrive, shares Beverly. I stay fresh and current with technology and styles—especially with actor headshots, you have to get right look, she explains. She studies the industry, interviews casting agents, and researches other headshots to make her clients competitive in the LA and NY markets. I’ve perfected, kept current, and stayed innovative, she says.
Put the customer first, says Ed. I provide the best service I can at a competitive price. I always go above and beyond, especially if there’s a mistake on our part, I go way beyond to fix it. We have top of the line photo booths, he says, the brand we use was featured on Shark Tank and The Price is Right.
If you put out a good product, word gets around, explains Gene. My clients are pleased. And when people are pleased, they start talking. I always give client more than they’re expecting, he explains. Maybe a few more minutes on the clock, or responding to questions outside of lessons, and always getting right back to people. I have the highest rated response time on Thumbtack, he says. I get messages on my phone and answer right away.
I get my business out there on the Internet, says Eric. I reach out to clients on Thumbtack, try to solve their problems and come up with solutions. We work with everyone from civil engineers to architects and help with surveying.
For me, the key is having a partner, shares Jackson. Running this catering business is too much work for one person, especially if you have a family. I love that Alicia and I are together, he says. We’re a team 24 hours a day—we’re constantly thinking how to improve, helping out if the other is sick, and always working toward the mutual good. A lot of businesses want our advertising money, he says, but they can’t give me the opportunity to send the client a hello letter like Thumbtack. The unique style of advertising where business can reach customers helps us thrive. We also strive to do every single job perfectly, so the client will be happy. If we can fulfill their every wish, they might ask us how they can help us, and then we can say we want a good review. That’s crucial to our business, he says, having so many awesome reviews.
What’s it like to be a small business owner in Austin?
The city’s growth rate provides opportunities and challenges. For Jackson’s catering company, the city’s growth is great. Nearby Dripping Springs is referred to as the wedding capital of Texas, Austin is a hot destination wedding spot, and the year he and Alicia went into business is the year gay marriage was legalized—and Austin just happens to be the gay heart of Texas. Business is booming for their wedding catering services.
For Beverly, growth means more competition, especially from folks who are willing to underbid. Fortunately, she says, she’s created a huge studio in unused space in her husband’s flooring business showroom. She has natural light, free rent, and it enables her to keep prices low, otherwise she’s not sure how she could stay competitive with the underbidding that goes on.
There are so many people that move to Austin every single day, says Eric, so it gets harder and harder for small businesses—but it also opens up opportunities. You just have to be competitive. This city is booming, so you have to know exactly what it is you are doing. Make sure you’re a step ahead of competition.
Austin is absolutely inundated with voice instructors and musicians trying to teach, shares Gene. Due to the music industry as well as the university with recent music graduates, there are a lot of people needing extra money trying to open up shop. But it is a wonderful place to live, he says, and I do know there’s nothing keeping me from doing what I want to do.
This city is booming, so there are always clients, says Ed. It’s the perfect demographic for photo booths—young professionals with disposable income. As far as small business, the economy is thriving.
Customers seek out small local business here, says Kory. Small businesses can get support from the Chamber of Commerce, and the City has programs as well—way more programs than any one person can ever touch. We also have a local nonprofit that offers loans to small business that otherwise wouldn’t qualify for loans, he points out. It’s a pretty special city. As far as the work available, there’s always something interesting and unique. One client had a bobcat that was going into her attic. Well, he says, the bobcat was there because there were a lot of rodents to eat. For whatever reason, the rodents didn’t bother her. He knew if the rodents were gone, the bobcat problem would be self-solving. Kory sealed the attic hole the bobcat was using and the holes the rodents were using—then he trapped out the rodents. The bobcat never came back.
How do you see local support in your life and business?
I know other small business owners and small retailers, explains Beverly. We all support each other by buying local as much as possible. Austin is a beautiful city and a great place to be, but—particularly in my line of work—it can be difficult due to underpricing from folks who don’t provide high quality work.
I get business from locals and I’ve given free start-up consultation to two local photo booth companies, says Ed. I do it because it’s good karma, he says, and because there’s more than enough photo booth work to go around. I sat down and told them about booking events, how to get paid, how to keep customers happy, having a good website, and being a good business owner. And, that they have to be prepared to work Saturdays. We have five events this Saturday. You never know, one day they might help me, or if they’re booked they’ll send business my way.
The opportunities are out there, and I’m sure it plays a role in my business and day-to-day life, says Jackson. The cost of living is getting high here, though, says Gene. There’s a big influx of tech that plays a role in that.
What role does your business play in the Austin community?
I provide pro bono pest services when needed, shares Kory. One struggling family had a terrible cockroach problem. They couldn’t afford pest control, and their young son just had a tracheotomy and was recovering at home. Situations like that, I’m glad to help out.
I donate my photography to help foster and shelter dogs get adopted, says Beverly. I’ve worked with Austin Animals Alive and Lago Vista animal shelters. We put bandanas on the dogs, then I Photoshop in colors and make the photos really beautiful to help the dogs find homes. One pup who had trouble being placed was adopted two days after my photo went online.
I work with other small businesses that have just started—maybe a civil engineer or architect—says Eric. They can’t afford to hire somebody full-time, so what they’ll do is contact us to provide modeling work on a contract basis. It benefits everyone.
We had the opportunity to cater the inaugural event for Community First Village, says Jackson. Mobile Loaves & Fishes—a local homeless support charity—teamed up with contractors to build nice, modern, small one-bedroom homes for Austin’s chronically homeless population. There are probably 100 homes out there, it was really great to talk to some of the people and hear their stories.
The highlight of my work is helping someone who could never sing before, shares Gene. One notable man was 80% deaf and incapable of matching a pitch. He was able to sing in key after we worked together. Another client—this one is particularly special to me—was an 87 year old WWII pilot who sang opera as a young man. He had never been able to hit the notes of a particular aria, and he wanted to. We worked together until he could hit those notes, it took over 12 months, but he did it. To see an octogenarian break old habits and achieve his goal was really something. The neat thing about it, he emailed me as he was going into heart surgery not long after, thanking me that he was able to reach his goals in his lifetime. He said he knew the surgery would go well, but he could go in at peace. His wife Skyped me later and let me know he didn’t survive the surgery. I really loved our time together.
I have partnered with the school’s Extended Care program for the last three years, shares Ed. Extended Care provides day care at schools to help parents during summer and spring break. I gave the program a 75 percent discount to set up a photo booth for the kids at each of the 20 schools during the summer. The kids have so much fun. They look forward to it. One girl was really shy and I had to coax her in, but then I couldn’t get her out of there, you could see her on the screen and she was just laughing and smiling away.
Keep Austin Weird means so many things, but for Thumbtack it means supporting small, local Austin businesses and helping them thrive. Ready to support small businesses in your community?