Austin is regularly cited as one of the best places in the United States to start a business. The city has a high number of college students, artists, technologists, and many other groups of creatives who help its culture to thrive. It also means there are plenty of talented people to fill roles in all sorts of industries and sectors.
The city is diverse and extremely open to new ideas. Austinites are also famously supportive of local businesses, so if you have an idea that's new, adventurous and a little bit out there it's the perfect place to start out.
The Austin Independent Business Alliance (AIBA) adopted the slogan "Keep Austin Weird" in 2002 and it certainly seems to be working. There are hundreds of cool businesses in Austin which made this list extremely difficult to create. However, after months of research we have settled on our favorites for 2014. Here are the companies we chose.
Amy's Ice Creams
Amy's Ice Creams is a chain of stores famous for their innovative and delicious artisan ice-creams. They have over 350 flavors in rotation so there’s always something new for people to try.
The key to the success of Amy’s Ice Creams is the quality of the product, but there's so much more about the way the business is run that makes visiting one of their stores a great experience for customers.
A trip to Amy’s is unlike any other. The staff are always smiling, and they perform different tricks and stunts while they serve. At some of the stores the staff will even throw ice cream across the street for customers to catch in a bowl. It has to be seen to be believed.
The company’s headquarters are in Austin, along with the majority of its stores, but they also sell ice cream in San Antonio and Houston. They have recently opened their first bakery called Baked By Amy's, which is also in Austin.
- Founded: 1984
- Founded By: Amy Simmonds
- Industry: Retail - Food and Drink
- Store locations: Austin, Houston, San Antonio
- Website: amysicecreams.com
Special Feature: The Application Process
Anyone who wants to work at Amy’s has to complete what is known as a white paper bag application. Potential employees pick up one of these plain bags from any Amy’s store, and are asked to bring back something creative.
The idea is to have fun with it, and create something that reflects your personality and creative interests. They’re not looking for the best piece of artwork, but for something that’s interesting, different and fun – just like the brand.
Mass Relevance is a social media business. Their impressive platform allows businesses to bring social content from various platforms to their owned media for engagement and analysis. In the company's own words, Mass Relevance is "the premier platform for showcasing the world's best social content."
The product is a massive part of what makes Mass Relevance cool. Businesses can gain so much insight by using their platform. You only have glance at the list of the brands they work with (which includes Universal, P&G, HBO and Ford) to get a feel for the great work they do.
Mass Relevance was also the first Certified Twitter Partner to bring social content to live events and television, which is a pretty cool claim to fame by anyone's standards.
- Founded: 2010
- Founded By: Sam Decker, Brian Dainton and Eric Falcao
- Industry: Internet - Technology
- Area served: Worldwide
- Website: massrelevance.com
Special Feature: Staff Benefits
It's hard to find a Mass Relevance employee who has a single bad word to say about the company. It has a fantastic culture. Lunch is made fresh every day and provided for free. If you need a break from your work at any point you can play on one of the in-office foosball or ping pong tables, or relax on one of the many sofas of comfortable chairs.
Lots of tech companies offer similar staff benefits, but Mass Relevance do it better than most. In 2013 the company was listed as one of the best places to work by the Austin Business Journal. The combination of the super-interesting work and the amazing company culture means it is easy to see why.
Black Star Co-Op
The Black Star Co-Op is a Brewpub on a mission, "to apply the models of co-operative ownership and worker self-management to create the best venue in Austin for the production and enjoyment of high-quality beer."
They are definitely succeeding. First and foremost the beer is great. The combination of house beers and guest taps means there’s always something different and exciting for customers to try. The food is also delicious, and they use sustainable, local produce wherever possible.
But perhaps of even more interest than the food and drink is the co-operative nature of the business. Black Star is directed and owned by its members, with each member having equal voting power to elect the board of directors which sets the company's goals. Membership is open to anyone over the age of 21. How many of us would love a say in how our local bar or pub is run? This is what's happening at the Black Star Co-Op.
- Opened: September 2010
- Founded By: Steven Yarak and Jeff Young
- Industry: Hospitality - Brewpub
- Location: 7020 Easy Wind Drive, Suite 100 Austin, TX 78752
- Website: blackstar.coop
Special Feature: Environmental Sustainability
Black Star has put a lot of work into its environmental policy. They purchase local, organic produce wherever possible which helps the business keep a small carbon footprint.
Black Star wants to be a zero-waste business by 2015. All compostable materials are sent to a local composting company and the spent brewing grains go to a local rancher who re-uses them for animal feed. You can read more about Black Star's environmental policy on their website.
Freestyle Language Center
Freestyle Language Center is Elizabeth Mack’s exciting start-up where people come to learn languages in a way that's totally unique. The business has enjoyed rapid growth in the last 18 months. They now have more than 100 students learning French, Spanish, Italian or Portuguese at their classes, which are held in The Khabele School in Austin.
The Freestyle Language Center makes learning languages fun and relevant. The classes are intimate, with an average size of 12 students. Every session is extremely interactive and students are encouraged to converse and express themselves in their second language in a variety of different ways.
These classes are also supported by regular social events, which are the key to the businesses popularity and success.
- Founded: 2012
- Founded By: Elizabeth Mack
- Industry: Education
- Location: The Khabele School, 801 Rio Grande St., Austin, TX 78701
- Website: freestylelanguagecenter.com
Special Feature: Social Learning
Freestyle Language Center's model brings language learning into the 21st century. Their interactive classes are supported by regular social events where students can interact and converse in the second language they’re learning in an entertaining way.
Studies have shown that students need to be put in dynamic social situations where they'll use the language in order to learn effectively, and this is what Freestyle Language Center does. They run museum tours, wine tastings, book groups, movie nights, karaoke parties, conversation cafes and many other events which help the students immerse themselves in the languages they are learning.
Gourdough's Big Fat Donuts
Gourdough's Donuts is perhaps the smallest business on this list. They have been selling their signature "big fat donuts" out of vintage Airstream since 2010, and in 2012 they opened a bar/doughnut restaurant called Gourdough's Public House.
You won't find donuts like this anywhere else. They offer more than 20 different flavors. There are sweet donuts, savory donuts and even concoctions like the Mother Clucker (topped with fried chicken strips and honey butter) that combine the two. They're doing great things in an extremely competitive market.
- Founded: 2010
- Founded By: Paula Samford and Ryan Palmer
- Industry: Retail - Food and Drink
- Store locations: 1503 S 1st ST, Austin, TX, 78704
- Website: gourdoughs.com
Special Feature: Marketing Excellence
Marketing your business is significantly easier when you have a great product that's unique and desirable, which Gordough’s do. But Paula Samford and Ryan Palmer have gone the extra mile to create a brand that’s fun and that customers want to interact with.
They are extremely active on social media and have a very engaged group of fans on Facebook and Twitter. You can even buy Gordough's t-shirts on their website. They're a cool brand with a cool product that people want to part of, and they're great at getting people involved.
Software Advice helps companies find the right software solutions for their business needs. There are so many options on the market these days which is why the input of a company like Software Advice (who have reviewed over 1000 systems) is invaluable to a business.
The best (and coolest) thing about Software Advice is that it is completely free for software buyers to use. There are hundreds of reviews to read through on their website or you can call them for a free fast-start consultation. The company gets paid by software vendors when they make a good match with a buyer.
- Founded: 2005
- Founded By: Don Fornes
- Industry: Business Services
- Area Served Worldwide
- Website: softwareadvice.com
Special Feature: Work Abroad Program
Being an employee of Software Advice has many benefits, but the company’s work abroad programme is one of the best ideas we have ever read about.
Every year each employee is entitled to spend one month working remotely from any location in the world. You need to work for the company for a full year to earn eligibility and choose a place with great internet access, but these are the only restrictions.
Many employees have used the opportunity to spend a month working near family or friends in other parts of the United States. Others have gone further afield, to locations including Vietnam, Australia, France and Argentina. It is rare to find a company that will go to such lengths to keep their employees happy.
You don't have to be a technology start-up or an artisan ice-cream manufacturer to be one of Austin's coolest companies. The world's largest online sign retailer is based here and in our opinion it's definitely one of the city's coolest businesses.
BuildASign.com is a leading online custom printing provider of signage and home decor items. Products include signs, canvas, apparel, business cards, car wraps and more. They have served more than 1 million customers to date, which is extremely impressive for a company founded in 2005.
The coolest thing about BuildASign.com is the culture of philanthropy that runs through the business. Dan Graham, the founder and CEO, is extremely passionate about giving back to the community and the entire BuildASign.com team does a great deal to give back. As an example, through the BuildASign.com Giving Program the company has contributed more than $800,000 to over 1,700 local and national nonprofit organizations. The company was a winner of the 2012 Austin Gives GeneroCity Award (Big Hearts Category) and the 2013 Greater Austin Business Awards for Community Relations.
- Founded: 2005
- Founded By: Dan Graham, J.R. Kraft, Blake Borgeson
- Industry: E-commerce
- Operating locations: United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany
- Website: buildasign.com
Special Feature: The Troops Program
BuildASign's Troops Program is special. Since 2008 the company has donated more than 325,000 banners and signs to military friends and families to help them welcome their loved ones home from deployments. The total market value of these donations is more than $9.5 million.
A soldier coming home is a really big moment, and BuildASign's generosity has helped thousands of families and friends celebrate is a truly special and fun way.
When Tim and Karrie League opened the Alamo Drafthouse in 1997 their only qualifications were that they both loved movies. As it turned out this passion was all they needed to create one of the coolest movie theaters in the United States.
The Alamo Drafthouse is a movie lover's theater. All the staff members recognize that a trip to the movies is as much about the experience as it is about the film you see. Each seat comes with a cabaret style table and customers can order food and drink which is served to them in their seats.
They put on loads of great events including the Rolling Roadshow, where they show famous movies in famous locations. Think The Shining at The Stanley Hotel and you'll get a feel for the sort of shows they organize. They also put on screenings where the food and drink served matches what’s being eaten by the characters in the movie. So it's no surprise that Entertainment Weekly named the Alamo Drafthouse has the number 1 theater in America.
The Alamo Drafthouse brand has expanded significantly since the first theater opened in 1997. They now have many venues across Texas (including 5 in Austin) as well as branches in other states including Colorado and New York.
- Founded: 1977
- Founded By: Tim League and Karrie League
- Industry: Hospitality - Entertainment & Leisure
- Theater locations: Texas, Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Virginia
- Website: drafthouse.com
Special Feature: Behavior Policy
The Alamo Drafthouse is famous for its policy of zero tolerance towards mobile phones. Anyone caught taking a call or texting during a movie will be removed from the cinema (after one warning). They also do not allow children younger than 6 years old into their theaters, and older children must be accompanied by an adult.
It takes courage for a business to take such a hard line and risk alienating customers. Normally we wouldn't think a brand is cool for excluding people from their service (the customer is always right after all) but in this instance we could not agree more with their stance. The poor etiquette of just one audience member can ruin the experience for everyone else. So it’s good that movie lovers can choose a brand that identifies with them and their needs.
That completes our list of the coolest companies in Austin for 2014. What do you think? Are there any businesses you think we've missed that you'd like to see make the list next year. If so let us on Twitter or Facebook. Or you can drop us an email if you prefer- firstname.lastname@example.org.