The Business Guys that Try to "Keep Austin Weird"

by Vanessa Richardson on March 16, 2011
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Where did “Keep Austin Weird” come from? While the term’s origin is unclear (and could date back decades), the term was adopted as a campaign slogan  in 2002 by Steve Bercu, owner of the independent bookstore BookPeople, and John Kunz, owner of the music store Waterloo Records. The reason: Both stores, considered Austin landmarks, were threatened by the imminent arrival of a chain bookstore behemoth. As Bercu recalls,”‘We came up with ‘Keep Austin Weird’ when we were fighting city subsidies to build a Borders across the street. Somehow, it became the city motto.”

Bercu also became well-known for another reason: showing the economic impact local businesses make in a community. To battle the Borders development, he helped create the Austin Independent Business Alliance (AIBA), and commissioned a study, the first of its kind in the U.S., that showed how local businesses have a stronger economic impact than out-of-town box stores. The study showed that if someone spent $100 at a chain like Borders, only $13 would be funneled back into the Austin economy, whereas $45 of $100 spent at Waterloo Records would fuel the local economy.

The efforts were a success. Borders pulled out of the lease and headed down the road toward bankruptcy, BookPeople and Waterloo are still standing strong, and the AIBA now has 700 local businesses as members. While AIBA doesn’t hold the trademark for “Keep Austin Weird,” (that’s held by another Austin business, apparel maker Outhouse Designs), it still espouses that sentiment. AIBA is considered a national leader in helping local businesses flourish, and showing customers how important it is to “buy local.”

“The reality is most small businesses don’t know how to run a business in terms of bookkeeping, negotiating leases, dealing with city government,” says Bercu. “By joining AIBA, they get the ability to talk to other people in similar situations dealing with the same problems, and create a sense of camaraderie.”

AIBA sets the standard for promoting its members and sending business and customers their way. Besides profiling individual businesses in the “Shop Local” campaign on its website, AIBA has created “Indy Biz Zones” (IBIZ), neighborhood districts all over Austin with at least 75 percent of the businesses locally owned, and promotes them as destination locations for soaking up the micro-local scene.

AIBA executive director Rebecca Melancon says members get plenty of business via AIBA’s website, which gets 480,000 hits monthly. AIBA also uses social media extensively, with nine Facebook and nine Twitter accounts to promote AIBA and each of the eight IBIZ districts.  AIDA also coordinates co-op media buys, negotiating ad space in multiple media outlets and selling it to its members at cost. Expanding upon its “Shop Local” campaign, AIBA is launching a campaign in April to “Bank Local,” encouraging Austinites to move their money to the city’s locally-owned banks and credit unions.

AIBA also hosts a slew of networking events, from breakfasts and luncheons with guest speakers to First Wednesday happy hours rotating around members’ businesses. (Besides publishing IBIZ directories to place in hotels, AIBA doesn’t do anything special for the big SXSW fest, says Melancon. “It’s so huge that anything extra to attract business is not necessary.”)

The biggest benefit AIBA gives members is advocacy, spending time at Austin’s City Hall on behalf of small businesses. Last year, 45 members met with the mayor and city council to talk about issues that could be improved, from obtaining permits to getting required information from city offices. The result: a list of 134 items the city delegated to nine relevant departments to take care of. “This month, we had a follow-up with those nine department heads, who talked about new programs put in place to address those issues,” says Melancon. “It was outstanding.”

Besides advertising and happy-hour networking, AIBA president Bercu considers those advocacy efforts the most important reason why Austin businesses should sign up for membership. “Individually, you have zero clout with the City, but if you show up with 400 of your best friends, then the city does care. Austin’s independent businesses are the fifth-largest collective employer in the city, so we should be paid attention to.”

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