Tag: Bill Boebel

A Collaborative Center for Tech Entrepreneurs Launches in Austin

Josh Baer introduces a new coworking and collaboration space downtown

A groovy new space in a downtown Austin high-rise offers tech entrepreneurs a place to develop startups.
It’s part of the Austin TechLive initiative by the Austin Chamber to create a tech-focused coworking site. Capital Factory will oversee the 22,000 square foot space on the 16th floor of Austin Centre at 701 Brazos Street. The wide-open floor offers spectacular panoramic city views. It’s furnished with Herman Miller desks and chairs and even has a full cafeteria. The workspace should appeal to creative people who like bright, expansive and beautiful office space. Smiley Media formerly occupied the offices.
“This is confirmation that coworking has moved beyond the emerging stage and is here to stay,” said Liz Elam who runs Link Coworking in Austin. She also organizes the Global Coworking Unconference Conference.
Coworking spaces provide workers with shared desks, conference rooms and other work areas. The number of co-working spaces has nearly doubled each year since 2006 to 1,300 worldwide in 2011 and projected to increase to 2,150 this year, according to Deskmag, which follows the industry.
The Capital Factory coworking site already has 60 desks filled and a waiting list from entrepreneurs wanting to rent a desk there, said Josh Baer, managing director of the Capital Factory, an Austin-based accelerator for tech startups. He referred to the coworking site as the “community entrepreneurial center of gravity.” A desk at the coworking center costs $750 a month and a community membership, which allows a person to work in the common areas, costs $150 a month. The site provides round the clock access everyday to members.
The Austin Chamber of Commerce selected the Capital Factory as its strategic partner for Austin TechLive. A few companies including Baer’s startup, OtherInBox, which Return Path acquired earlier this year, and WP Engine are already moving into the space. It will be fully launched within a few months.
In addition to the Capital Factory, the University of Texas at Austin and the General Assembly of New York are helping out with the new center. The General Assembly will offer certified educational programs at Austin TechLive.
During a press conference Thursday morning, Baer talked about the need to create “healthy vibrant strong companies” in Austin. And said there’s been a lot of talk lately about Austin versus Silicon Valley and other places. By creating a dense tech environment downtown, the new coworking center can foster interaction, connections and collaboration among the city’s high tech workforce, Baer said. That will lead to new companies and more high-tech jobs, he said. His goal is to have 250 companies occupy the space.
The other companies moving into the Capital Factory coworking space include Swoosh Traffic, Agent Pronto, Tweet.TV and Swimtopia.
The Capital Factory coworking space will also be the site of tech events, meetups and training, Baer said. The goal is to bring together tech events that happen all over the city into the central coworking site, he said. For example, Capital Factory used to host Austin on Rails but it got too big and moved to a bar. He plans to host that again in the new center.
The idea of the central coworking space focused on the tech sector is similar to an initiative launched last November in San Antonio called Geekdom. It’s a collaborative workspace with more than 300 community members and it recently expanded to another floor at the downtown Weston Centre. But while Geekdom is run as a nonprofit organization, the Capital Factory coworking space is a business, Baer said. A group of successful Austin entrepreneurs put up the money to launch the site. They include Baer, Bill Boebel, Andrew Busey, Ross Buhrdorf and Dan Graham.
“Nobody is trying to make a lot of money off this,” Baer said. “The people who did this really want to help entrepreneurs in Austin.”
“The mission is to create this great entrepreneurial center downtown,” said Bryan Jones, chair of the Austin Chamber’s Technology Partnership.
In addition to launching the coworking space, the Chamber’s Tech Partnership is focused on creating 5,000 new technology jobs, up 5 percent from last year and to attract 50 new technology startups to the Austin region, including 10 at the new Capital Factory space. It also wants to recruit 15 new entrepreneurial companies to the Austin region.
One of the biggest challenges startup companies face is hiring great talent, Baer said. The Capital Factory coworking space will attract that talent and help the new startups grow, he said.
Chuck Gordon, cofounder of Sparefoot, a Capital Factory company from 2009, has seen firsthand how being in a shared workspace with other tech companies can help a startup grow to a large company.
“It’s possible. We did it,” said Gordon.
Sparefoot recently moved out of the Omni building to 5,600 square feet in a neighboring building. The company now has 45 employees.
“Tons of companies in San Francisco and New York go to incubators,” Gordon said. Those spaces serve as entrepreneurial ecosystems that strengthens the entire technology industry in those cities, he said.
“This is going to make it happen here,” he said. “The networking opportunities of getting a bunch of smart people in one space are incredible.”
Boebel, managing director of Capital Factory, will manage the new coworking space in partnership with Cospace, an Austin coworking site.
Capital Factory will leverage Cospace’s expertise for IT services, furniture, assigning workstations and all the nuts and bolts that go into running a coworking center, Boebel said.
“I’m mostly excited about working with the startups,” he said. One of the benefits of working at the site will be access to successful entrepreneurs like Boebel, who sold his e-mail hosting company to Rackspace. And Baer, who has founded and sold several startups.
“I wish there was a space like this when I started my company,” Boebel said. He founded what eventually came to be known as Webmail.Us in the basement of a townhouse in Blacksburg, Va.
“It’s nice to be around other entrepreneurs who are going through the same things,” Boebel said. “Friends and family don’t understand what it’s like to bootstrap a company.”
The coworking environment allows the startups to learn from each other’s mistakes and that can accelerate their progress, Boebel said.
Also, the space allows them to share resources, he said. Three companies might be able to hire one User Interface Designer, he said.
Boebel is also working on setting up a fund to provide access to seed stage investment for startup companies at Capital Factory.
Jason Cohen started Capital Factory with Baer in 2009. In surveys of the program participants, the entrepreneurs always reported access to mentoring and the close working proximity of the other startups as the top benefits of the program, Cohen said. The Capital Factory coworking space provides both, he said.
“It’s an insane space,” Cohen said. “It has just the right kind of attitude and energy for creative people.”
That helps WP Engine, a hosting service for 40,000 WordPress blogs, which has 15 Austin employees and 20 overall, Cohen said. He founded WP Engine a few years ago. It’s adding two new employees every month, Cohen said. The space will help in recruiting, he said. “Who wouldn’t want to work here?”

Bill Boebel Recounts Webmail’s Path to Success

Running a technology startup takes perseverance, money, luck, talent and the ability to adapt quickly.
That’s the takeaway from Bill Boebel’s Startup Ignite talk at the Geekdom in San Antonio Friday night.
Boebel, now an angel investor and managing director of Capital Factory in Austin, gave the audience of about 60 people an overview of how he co-founded Webmail.us and later sold it to Rackspace Hosting.
In 1999, Boebel and his friends, Pat Matthews and Kevin Minnick, founded FieldParty.com, which created searchable city event directories. They dropped out of Virginia Tech University just 20 hours short of getting their degrees to work on the business full time. FieldParty.com raised $120,000 in angel money, largely from friends and family, and on March 10, 2000, the website launched – the same day the Nasdaq started crashing when the great Dot Com bubble burst.
“The world changed the day we launched,” Boebel said.
Immediately, potential investors stopped returning calls, he said. “The website was live in three cities: Blacksburg, Charlottesville and Harrisonburg, Virginia.”
That’s when the company changed names to Exedent Technologies and pivoted from searchable directories to creating content management systems for events for newspapers. The company landed 20 customers paying $50 to $100 a month.
Exedent gave away the product for free to the Virginia Tech University newspaper to serve as a reference customer for other newspapers. The problem was “the newspapers didn’t understand the Internet,” Boebel said. “They thought it was a threat to put their content online.”
So Exedent created a general-purpose content management system.
“It was a pretty cool product at the time,” Boebel said.
But Boebel, Matthews and Minnick had $100,000 in credit card debt and the company was running out of money. Exedent laid off its entire workforce except two employees who received minimum wage.
The company pivoted again into a company that would “do anything for a buck” including content management systems, webmail hosting, search engine optimization and website development.
“We would do whatever people would pay us to do,” Boebel said. “With each change we had confidence that this was the right path.”
Then, the money just about ran out and Boebel said he “thought about quitting.”
Matthews took a job selling books door to door. Minnick took a regular job to support his family. They all decided to go back to college and work crazy side jobs to keep the business afloat. They moved the offices into the basement of a townhouse.
In 2002, they got lucky. Spam and viruses started to plague people’s email inboxes on the Internet. The company started heavily promoting its secure email hosting services. Boebel, using his search engine optimization skills, secured the top keywords for “email hosting” and “webmail” on Yahoo.
“Overnight, it started to become clear that the email thing was a thing,” he said.
In yet another pivot, they added a “c” to the company’s name to create Excedent and decided to focus exclusively on email and “build the most kick ass email company.”
“We had only $1,200 in the bank and no credit to draw from and servers to pay,” Boebel said.
Its bill for Server Vault, a hosting service, cost $1,200 a month, he said.
Luckily, the company landed its first major customer and asked for a $50,000 prepayment. That along with $30,000 raised from a private investor and a $50,000 bank loan from a friend, and the company was funded, Boebel said.
They took advantage of the fact that big companies didn’t quite understand that if a company had a professional looking website that they could still be in the basement of a townhouse, Boebel said.
Also, for two years, they paid pennies for search engine keywords that led to “awesome leads” and customers, he said.
At the end of 2002, the company had $250,000 in revenue. Minnick quit his other job and went back to work for the company full time. The next year revenue doubled with 1,200 customers. They ran a lean operation, Boebel said.
“Lean wasn’t cool back then,” he said.
In 2004, they rebranded the company to Webmail.us and focused on the small business market and partnered with Rackspace as a reseller of its services. Webmail.us had more than 500 resellers. It moved its servers from Server Vault to Rackspace. They also moved the company to the Virginia Tech Research Park and switched from a Windows-based system to Linux and open systems. By the end of the year, the company had $1 million in revenue and 4,000 customers and eight employees.
At the end of 2004, the company also raised $500,000 in venture capital from local angels and Pat Condon, a founder of Rackspace.
In 2005, the company had revenue of $2 million, 13,000 customers and 25 employees. Webmail.us was the place work in Blacksburg, VA and the company got its pick of computer science graduates from Virginia Tech University.
Then in February of 2006, Google launched Gmail, Webmail.us’s first real competitive threat, Boebel said.
Despite the threat from Google, business continued to grow. By the end of 2006, Webmail.us had $4 million in revenue and 30,000 customers.
In 2007, Webmail.us was looking to raise $3 million to expand the company’s operations, but it never closed on the round, Boebel said. Instead, Rackspace acquired Webmail.us in September of 2007. That year, the company had made Inc. 500’s list of fastest growing private companies, ranking at number 217.
When Rackspace bought Webmail.us, the company had revenue of $8 million, 72,800 customers and 65 employees.
“By this point, Rackspace was our largest reseller and we were their fifth largest customer,” Boebel said. It was Rackspace’s first acquisition.
“Essentially, we had the autonomy to run the hosted email business inside Rackspace,” Boebel said. Webmail.us moved customer support to San Antonio but continued to grow the Blacksburg offices.
From 2008 to 2010, Boebel worked at Rackspace and continued to double the email hosting revenue annually. He left the company and moved to Austin two years ago.
Austin has a more developed ecosystem for startups than San Antonio, Boebel said. It’s also a great place to raise a family. He is married and has a two-year-old son.
“A lot of things are happening in San Antonio, but not a lot of things are bringing it together,” he said. He said he hoped Geekdom would change that and serve as a catalyst for San Antonio’s technology community.
Today, Boebel acts as an angel investor in several technology startups, primarily based in Austin. His investments include WP Engine, a WordPress web hosting site and InfoChimps, a data management business.
His investment criteria centers on the people behind the startup.
“I’ve just got to really like the team,” Boebel said. “I definitely look for ones where I get along with the team really well.”
At Webmail.us, the founders hired people they liked and wanted to hang out with after work. That’s the same strategy Boebel uses in his investments.

(Rackspace is a sponsor of SiliconHillsNews.com)

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