Maintaining a 140-Year-Old Start-Up Culture

Austin founders at tableWhen I speak with our internal teams, clients, professional organizations, groups of students, and young professionals, I almost always in one fashion or another talk about the “140-year-old start-up” culture we strive for at Austin. A culture I am always working to strengthen and maintain within our team. In these talks, one of the questions I am often asked is, “What does it mean to be working to keep Austin in a ‘140-year-old startup’ mindset, and why do it?

I admit, it does sound a little strange at first. How can a company, born of the Industrial Revolution and at the center of so many early 20th Century industrial plant design, construction and operational advancements, be a “start-up” today, more than 100 years later?

Instead, it would seem that being in the small club of 100+-year-old companies still operating puts Austin on the other end of the cultural spectrum.

That thought is mistaken though.

In fact, it is our commitment through the years to stay focused on that start-up culture that has allowed Austin to stay in operation and be part of that prestigious 100+-year club. Despite these many years in business, we haven’t—and won’t—be dragged away from who we are: innovators, disrupters and industry leaders. And we will remain committed to keeping the start-up culture alive in our 140-year-old organization.  

So, what does it mean to be a “140-year-old start-up,” and why do it?

It means we keep in our core that start-up and entrepreneurial culture. We understand, embrace, honor, learn from, and are proud of our long and successful history. We don’t forget who we are and how we got here, and the lessons we’ve learned along the way. We also don’t let that history, or our growth, success, or our failures change our values, our drive, or our energy and innovative spirit.

Instead, we aspire to emulate the teams that came before us—who set the bar high, with a goal of rising to and exceeding their high standards.

It means we don’t become complacent, lose interest, slow down, or stop, but instead stay on the leading edge of our industry and work to maintain the start-up spirit of enterprise that has shaped our success to-date. We don’t view decades of sustained success as justification for resting on our laurels—ever.

Why & How?

Close your eyes and think of a start-up. What you see in your mind is much of what we keep at our core at Austin. Things like:  

United Burbank Airport 1930

Innovation

At the core of a start-up is displacement, disruption, and solving real problems with true innovation. This aptly describes the root of Austin’s culture—who we have been since our foundation, and who we want to remain.

Standing still is dying (a common refrain), and since our founding, we have never been a company that stands still. Austin has led the way for the industry—and will continue to lead.

We innovate to solve real world problems, we don’t innovate simply for the sake of innovation. As the saying goes, a solution in search of a problem is often the worst kind. And this is true for Austin, too. We aren’t in laboratories—we’re in the world, designing, building and maintaining plants and facilities, changing the face of the Earth.  

In that honorable work, we are exposed to real world issues faced by our industry and project owners. Issues that are opportunities for true, useful innovation on which we can focus.   

Chicago Douglas Airport Hangar 1940s

Passion

Start-ups are brought to life and success from dreams, passion for the mission, sweat and drive (and often credit cards).  

People working at start-ups aren’t usually chasing money as their outcome —they care more about the work, the vision, the mission, and their peers than they do the perks or their salary. Of course, they hope the money and perks will come someday, but they chase the work itself (valuable because of what it accomplishes).

They get the most excited about being part of a team where similarly driven and passionate people all row in the same direction as a collaborative team.

At Austin, we’re a little blessed in this sense.

We have the unique opportunity and responsibility of changing the face of the Earth for the benefit of humankind every day, in all that we do. Plants designed and built by Austin produce products that feed millions, allow millions to have transportation, bring the news of the day to millions, save and improve the quality of life for millions through medicine, and help defend freedom.

We work in an industry and for an organization that literally impacts the world. Our intention is to never let day-to-day tasks allow us to lose sight of the noble work that we do every day.  

Austin construction worker with crane truck

Action

Start-ups are driven by action, often bold action. Incumbent (aka “older”) companies are often less prone to action because they have more to lose – an existing cash flow at risk – and therefore are less driven or motivated to take action, especially bold action.

While incumbent companies sit back and evaluate risks and build consensus, the start-up acts, disrupts, and passes the incumbent, leaving it wondering, “What just happened?”

We are action-takers, bold action-takers, because we have an action culture.

The growth origins of Austin were from Samuel and Wilbert Austin’s bold and disruptive change in the way projects were delivered, allowing for better, faster and higher-value project delivery, eventually changing the entire industry’s mindset on project delivery.

We must keep those ideas and actions embedded in who we are. Austin has more to lose than a brand-new start-up, but we also have the benefit of years of lessons learned, experience, and an existing cash flow that can all be quickly leveraged for successful, effective action.

Inaction and indecision simply don’t work for us.

Austin’s dynamic teams work together and quickly come to intelligent recommendations that support prompt, effective action.

Austin project groundbreaking

Love the Customer

Start-ups love their customers.

Think about that for a moment. In the early days of a business, customers aren’t “just customers” to the business. They validate the founders’ vision and confirm that all the effort is worth it. They also help steer the ship along the path of growth by providing essential lessons about what works and what doesn’t.

Courageous entrepreneurs risking everything to make their dream a reality view customers as partners, and part of the family—since everyone knows those customers are directly putting food on the team’s table.

Start-up teams adopt customers and work to do whatever is necessary and feasible to help them be successful. Start-ups must win the hearts and minds of their customers; that is the way they will succeed and the only way they will survive. Start-ups must go out of their way to ensure their product or service serves the customer above expectations, above what they can currently get in the marketplace, and provides true value to the customer’s mission and vision.

At Austin, these values and approach were set in our DNA from the beginning.

Samuel Austin was a religious man, and his early days in the business were built on service, on delivering the highest quality, and doing good for those who honored Austin by selecting the company as their contractor.

Today, we follow the same mission, staying highly engaged in pertinent industry organizations, and – although some project owners look at us a little funny – we’re always digging to understand the project’s true business drivers, goals and mission.

We strive to be the partner that drives project owners’ success—beyond any single project. We value owners who partner with us and we work to keep them more than happy with their selection of our team – our family.

New York Central Railroad project 1918

Persistence

Most success in life depends on persistence and determined dedication to facing challenges and getting the right result. For start-ups, persistence and perseverance are perhaps the most important qualities of all.

Entrepreneurs intuitively understand the road ahead is hard as hell and filled with obstacles and potential disasters. They commit to the process anyway, knowing that “getting it done” is the only option – an option well worth the struggle—because accomplishing big things (solving real problems for lots of people) rewards everyone involved.

Start-ups that morph into stable, successful companies don’t get there without a heavy dose of persistence—the commitment to stick with it until the objective is attained, no matter how hard, complicated or overwhelming things get. This attribute is hardwired into the successful start-up mindset. And, they don’t stay successful (no matter how often they succeed), unless the element of persistence remains strong and is deliberately sustained.

Austin remains a start-up enterprise at heart after 140 years because we “get” the imperative of persistence and deliberately cultivate it in our approach to attaining project owner objectives and resolving challenges. We don’t give up in the face of obstacles, uncertainty or discomfort. Every project, every innovation, has its own challenges and road blocks. We view them as opportunities, knowing that the right ideas, attention—and sweat—get us to the right outcome.

Great achievements aren’t possible without persistence, and the harder the challenge, the more significant the outcome. This is what informs our processes.

Austin team holiday toy drive presentation

Teams

Start-ups hang in the balance of team building.

Austin’s founder knew that without great team players working in sync with each other, success for the company was a dim prospect. Samuel carefully assembled his teams and supported his teams (often seen up early delivering materials and late in the evenings checking on the work) with the aim of high efficiency, function, energy and purpose.

Without effective, collaborative teams, not much worthwhile gets done—or worse, disaster looms. Accomplishing a project mission takes having the right people on the project in the right positions.

Teams that work well have the right players and well-aligned visions and personalities. The players can accommodate intense interaction in a collaborative manner and understand the value of getting the right result for the project—as opposed to doing what’s right for them.

Successful teams are successful collaborators. It’s all about serving the mission, not advancing personal, parochial agendas. As I often say, we are seeking to build an all-star team, not a team of all-stars. For start-ups, getting teams right isn’t a choice. It’s key to winning and getting results.

The minute a company falls away from focusing on the caliber and composition of teams, is the minute it begins failing to generate outstanding results. Austin’s teams know this and live it. Which is why we still – and will always – work to ensure we have the right players on the team, in the right positions.

Whether your organization is one year or 100 years old, or anything in between, developing and keeping that start-up culture takes constant vigilance. The Austin Company is a 140-year-old start-up. Has your organization maintained its start-up character?

I’d love to hear from you on this topic. Please email if you would like to share your story.

 

Recent innovations by our family of companies:

  • The development of a device for measuring concrete leveling for super-flat floors, solving a gap in available technology.
  • Invention of an oil damper that provides unprecedented improvement in seismic control performance – stopping vibrations using earthquake energy. Useful in buildings, bridges and urban infrastructure.
  • Early development of automated integration between a separate design platform and Revit.
  • Development of the “Cut & Take Down” building demolition technology, and the first in the world to use this demolition methodology, which quietly dismantles buildings from the ground floor, resulting in: less noise, less dust, improved recycling of materials, improved safety environments, and improved efficiency in the mobility of workers and equipment.
  • Patenting of a new plant design for the food and pharmaceutical industries that integrates the process and FDA/USDA safety practices directly into the facility design.
  • Development of some of the most advanced real-world uses of automated autonomous construction machinery, allowing massive construction and earthwork machinery to be controlled remotely with GPS.
  • Investment in and one of the first industrial project uses of masonry robotics technology, allowing for the elimination of some of the “back breaking” work associated with the trade and improving the quality of life of masonry workers.
  • Investment and development underway as part of a 15-year program to advance in-house autonomous construction machinery software so it can be used on Mars. This will include machine-to-machine communication to avoid repeat work and collisions with other equipment – something that will be necessary due to the delays in sending signals from Earth.