When Sam Lillie found out that his Washington-based startup Vinder was accepted into a new Austin accelerator program, his plan was to live in his van during the four-month program.
He and co-founder Mark DeJarnatt spent three days driving from Port Townsend, Wash., sleeping on the side of the road.
But upon arriving in April for the launch of the MassChallenge Texas startup program, they realized that van life wasn’t conducive to building their company, which is an online marketplace that connects people with extra produce with those who want to buy it.
Unfortunately, the alternative, a short-term rental, would get pricey fast.
Then Lillie met two other startup founders - Farhaj Mayan of Arlington and Jonathan Partlow of Fishers, Ind. - who were also looking for housing for their teams. Partlow suggested renting a house together, with room for other startups to come and go.
“One of the barriers to get to Austin isn’t actually getting here — it’s staying here,” said Partlow, whose company Aggressively Organic designs hydroponic chambers for growing food. “So we said, ‘Let’s get a big house, lots of space, put air mattresses down and make it happen.”
Partlow went online and found what they were looking for — a 5,500-square-foot custom Mediterranean style home with five bedrooms, four bathrooms, a gourmet kitchen, a bar, a pool and hot tub and a view of Walter E. Long Lake — in eastern Travis County. The three-acre property at 9000 Decker Lane also has two horses that live on a pasture that the landlord rents out separately.
Partlow secured the property for five months using money Aggressively Organic won at a startup competition during the South by Southwest festival.
They dubbed the house the Aquarium, after an online post Partlow saw that said sharks don’t complain about Mondays, they just wake up early and bite things to let people know they’re a shark.
Rent is $5,000 a month plus utilities, internet service and other expenses. Depending on how many are staying there - usually around 15 people - the cost works out to about $500 per person. Entrepreneurs and friends who pass through and stay a night or two are welcome to pitch in whatever they can afford.
‘It’s not a frat house’
Other than multiple mattresses laid out on bedroom floors and some camp chairs, the house is virtually unfurnished. The group carpools to their offices at a WeWork co-working space downtown.
“It’s not a frat house,” Partlow said. “We work all day, and MassChallenge has been extraordinary. But our conversations at 4:30 in the morning, when we make up and somebody is making breakfast for everybody and we’re drinking coffee, those conversations are not technically work-related, but they’re invaluable.”
While tenants are all male, women often attend networking gatherings and other events, and wives and children sometimes fly in for the weekend to visit.
Chores are shared, and everyone buys their own groceries. But when someone is cooking, anyone who happens to be around is invited to join.
Moving in together, the founders say, changed the way they decided to approach their MassChallenge experience. A cash prize that startups will compete for when the program ends is no longer the chief motivator.
“I came in thinking of this as a competition, with everyone fighting to win $50,000 in the end,” said Mayan, co-founder and CEO of Fade, an app that lets men book, schedule and pay for appointments with local barbers.
“Jonathan flipped it all around by saying ‘We’re not in it to win the money, we’re in it for life. Because of that we should just collaborate and move forward and help each other out. Everybody’s mindset has switched.”
Meanwhile, the Aquarium has become more than a living space for its tenants. Many nights and weekends, when they’re not working in their Austin offices, the founders host other MassChallenge participants as well as entrepreneurs and business owners they’ve met through local startup events.
“The best discussions happen just sitting around the pool and talking about issues we’re having with fundraising or marketing or keeping our teams motivated,” Mayan said. “Getting to interact with the Austin startup ecosystem has been amazing. Dallas is more like a rat race. You have to be one step ahead, be the best company, have the best results. Here, it’s like let me connect you with someone who can help you.”
‘Better to join forces’
More than 500 startups from around the world applied to be part of the MassChallenge inaugural Austin class. Of those, 280 were invited to pitch their ideas before a panel of experts.
In February, the Boston-based accelerator unveiled the 84 companies that made the final cut. The list includes startups from five continents, 11 countries and 12 states. A total of 45 companies are from Texas and 33 are Austin-based.
Over four months, the companies receive access to mentors and investors, training and networking events and free co-working space at WeWork locations across Austin. MassChallenge is a nonprofit organization and unlike many for-profit accelerators, it does not take equity in its portfolio companies.
Startups in any industry were eligible to apply. Applicants must be seed stage or early stage, which is defined as having raised less than $500,000 and having annual revenue of less than $1 million.
The Austin program ends in August with an awards ceremony where top startups from the cohort will pitch for the opportunity to win a portion of up to $500,000 in equity-free grants.
When the program ends, the Vinder team plans to remain in Austin; Fade will maintain an Austin presence as it prepares to launch its app in Dallas; and Aggressively Organic will be headquartered in both Austin and Indiana.
MassChallenge mentor Robyn Metcalfe, who has advised Vinder and Aggressively Organic, said the Aquarium has helped enrich the experience of the formal MassChallenge program.
“A lot of the best ideas come when you’re not focusing intensely on the problem at hand, but in the more casual conversations,” said Metcalfe, who is a research fellow at the University of Texas and director of Food+City, which seeks to improve the global food supply. “They decided it’s just better to join forces and brainstorm and collaborate, and it’s benefiting everyone.”