Startup Leadership Lessons from Austin, Texas

Austin Texas is the #1 city for startups, according to the Kaufman Foundation, based on new business activity in 40 of the largest metro regions nationally. Austin also scored No. 1 in the CNBC Metro 20: America’s Best Places to Start a Business. Compared to New York City, Boston or Silicon Valley, Austin offers lower taxes and cost of living.

Recently, Ray Wang and I visited Austin and spoke with several startup executives to learn more about the Austin tech scene. We invited three extraordinary business leaders to our weekly show DisrupTV and asked each of them to provide leadership advice to startup founders on building and growing companies in one of the hottest, and most competitive, technology centers in the country.


Shaku Selvakumar is Vice President, Marketing at CognitiveScale, a fast growth company that specializes in delivering industry specific cognitive computing solutions. Selvakumar is a successful marketing, communications and digital leader with multi-country, multinational and start-up experience having worked for Fortune 500 companies like IBM, Shell, and Webify. Selvakumar was also a columnist for The Financial Chronicle and wrote about social and digital trends in addition to interviewing influencers pursuing work aligned with their passion. Previously, Selvakumar was the Customer Advocacy Leader for Social Business. Before this, she was the lead social and content strategist for IBM WebSphere. You can follow Selvakumar on Twitter at @ShakuS.

Shaku Selvakumar, Vice President, Marketing at CognitiveScale

We started our conversion with Selvakumar regarding the growing impact of artificial intelligence. describes the hard work of building an AI platform company that can deliver meaningful business results now. Innovation without the fundamental structure to be dynamic, highly available and scalable will not meet today’s customer needs.

Focus, accelerates. CognitiveScale is focusing on commerce, healthcare and financial industries. Selvakumar emphasizes the importance of focusing on delivering AI-powered services for a specific set of problems to solve across specific industries. Going broad with data does not work, according to Selvakumar.

Collaboration with line-of-business leadership is key. Today’s business leaders are leaning into technology, IT and their business partners to improve service delivery and business performance. Selvakumar and her team work closely with line-of-business leaders (chief data officer, CIOs, CMOs and CTOs) to analyze information on the inside, and outside, of their enterprise in order to improve their execution velocity based on a more informed decision making process.

It’s not about selling a tool and then running away. You have to understand the industry, the data set, and the algorithms in order to deliver sustained value, according to Selvakumar. Cognitive systems are not passive intelligence, it’s active intelligence. Selvakumar gave us examples of how CIOs use cognitive systems to continuously discover, predict, recommend and deliver personalized services that uses augmented intelligence to help companies deliver proactive services to improve quality of life and customer experience.

Boring can make you billions. Selvakumar reminds us that incremental improvements in execution velocity and insights can significantly improve business outcomes.

The four letter word that matters most at work: duty. Do your job. Do it well. Be responsible. Stop complaining. Be optimistic and helpful. People who care and do their duties with a great sense of pride carry these traits, this according to Selvakumar:

They are conscientious perfectionists, harder on themselves than any performance appraisal you can give them. They will care about their job. About the company. About their team. They are self-motivated and loyal. They are lifelong learners. They are consistent and don’t indulge in workplace drama.They invariably inherit a heavier workload than their peers.They will volunteer their time to get involved in additional projects.The dutiful are resilient and reliable. They are ones who will be missed when they finally leave.

Selvakumar has a beginner’s mindset, where she is confident enough to learn from everyone including her children, colleagues, customers and community. She is a fantastic blogger and a must follow on Twitter at @ShakuS.

“Duty is patient and steady. Constant, consistent and right for your company. Duty is not particularly glamorous. Sometimes it requires standing in the shadows and not under the limelight. It takes the grind in its stride, and that is where steel is forged, and strength is gained. When you do your duty every day, the muscle that is built cannot be taken away.” — Shaku Selvakumar

Jim Messer is Founder and CEO at goTransverse. Messer has spent the past 25 years focused on the telecommunications and IT industries. He served as Vice President of Sales for LHS Group, one of the largest implementation and support networks in the global customer care and billing marketplace with more than 300 customer sites worldwide and 18 global and regional partners. Messer served as Vice President of Sales for Sema Group, which became the world leader in communications software and solutions after the acquisition of LHS for $4.75 billion.

goTransverse delivers intelligent billing for smart business and is recognized as one of the world’s most reliable and respected agile monetization platforms. Customers choose goTransverse to grow their revenue, go to market faster, gain visibility and increase operational savings, this according to Messer.

Work hard, play hard. Messer reminds us that it is important for a CEO to cultivate a culture of transparency and accountability, but to also have fun. Messer and his team enjoy the music scene, the food and the festivities of Austin.

Your company is only as good as the company you keep. The challenge for finding talent is a priority for all businesses. Messer and his team are doing an amazing job to keep employee attrition low – a credit to the company culture. Messer also recruits from colleges and universities to attract talent into his company.

The soul of your business is your talent magnet. Messer has a recipe of success that is based on creating a family atmosphere with his employees – staying focused, delivering results and having a good time, all the time.

Your company’s capabilities and viability is evidence based. Messer talked to us about both product and business model innovation and the benefits of delivering cloud based offering. Messer notes that CFOs are making CIO decisions and they are looking for cloud based solutions to accelerate their digital transformation initiatives. According to Messer, the vendor selection decisions are quite binary now, where the CFO/CIO is simply stating: “these are our requirements, what is your cost, these are our service level agreements (SLAs) … can you do it?”

After speaking a Messer, Ray and I spoke with an experienced chief marketing and strategy officer who is leading a growing startup focused in the retail industry.

Cheryl Sullivan is Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer at Revionics. Revionics is a leading provider of End-to-End Merchandise Solutions, including shopper-centric assortments, micro and macro space allocation, pricing, promotions and markdowns. Sullivan is a proven retail and CPG product management executive with 20 years of experience in driving product strategy, product management and program management. Prior to joining Revionics, Sullivan was the Director of Product Strategy for Oracle Retail.

Companies can minimize the impact of business disruption by using data science. Sullivan spoke to us about the age of the connected customer, where each retail shopper is holding a smartphone in one hand, and coupons in the other. 56% of shoppers would buy from another retailer based solely on price. Sullivan spoke about using science to optimize pricing models for retailers based on shopper behavior using machine learning.

Agility is key to relevance. Business process adjustments is key to adopting new technologies, according to Sullivan. Business leaders need to identify and define business model innovation opportunities with new technologies like cloud computing, AI, and other emerging technologies. Sullivan shared significant ROI data based on customer case studies. Retailers are competing against online product providers so dynamic, high frequency pricing is a core capability. Competitive intelligence and buyer behavior insights provide the information needed for retailers to develop an omni-channel pricing strategy.

It’s not about getting customers, it’s about retaining customers. Sullivan reminds us that it is so important for companies to keep their customers. To do this well, companies must hire the best talent and then collaborate with customers to co-create value. “It’s the people, it’s the culture and it’s the product,” said Sullivan. For companies that provide a subscription service, you have to work hard everyday to earn the right to your customer’s future business.

I encourage you to watch our video conversation with these 3 successful startup executives based in Austin. All three bring a unique perspective to what matters most in terms of growing a business. What they all have in common is this: they passionately work hard to serve their employees and customers, they all lean into technology to differentiate, but most importantly, they value culture and people as top critical success factors.

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