Beer, sweat and honor: How Austin tech trains for the Austin Startup Games

by Colin Morris
January 13, 2016

The Startup Games began in 2012 as a way to celebrate the core characteristics of Austin’s tech scene: Camaraderie amidst competition, a healthy respect for playtime and a desire to nurture the community through charity.

 
According to the event’s website, there are 13 other teams registered to compete at Fair Market on January 23. And based on our interviews with nine of them, SpareFoot is the team to beat.
 
SpareFoot sharpens their shot at the beer pong table.
 
For three years in a row, the company behind the online marketplace for self storage has dominated events like beer pong, flip cup and foosball, earning nearly $63,000 in first place prices for Kure It, a kidney cancer research and fundraising organization.
 

Scores to settle

“I don't think there are any teams that don't want to see SpareFoot lose or injure themselves based on last year's showing,” said Damian Borichevsky, ’s VP of client services.
 
The OneSpot team
 
“Between the non-employee ringers and the stunning lack of humility in their game, who actually does want to see them win?”
 
Those ringers weren’t typical teammates, either.
 
The day before the competition, SpareFoot joked in a press release that it had hired Hafþór Júlíus “Thor” Björnsson, the Icelandic bodybuilder known for his role as Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane on Game of Thrones, as senior VP of Icelandic business.
 
“[Icelanders] are anxiously awaiting the opportunity to compare prices at both of our self-storage facilities,” Björnsson was quoted as saying.
 
Björnsson’s involvement was no joke, though. He carried the torch to mark the beginning of the games, striking fear—and apparently resentment—into the hearts of the event’s other contestants.
 
And for good reason. One week later, Björnsson broke a legendary record by carrying a 32-foot-long, 1,433-pound log on his back during a Norwegian competition for the world’s strongest viking. (The video is worth a watch.)
 
For some among the mob of angry adversaries, the rivalry is even more personal.
 
The new uShip headquarters sits in the middle of Travis Heights within walking distance of bustling South Congress with plenty of private parking.
co-founded, hosted and won the first Startup Games in 2012.
 
uShip sported custom game face at last year's event.
 
“We are going to take back the first place trophy from SpareFoot,” said uShip events coordinator Meredith Cranch.
 
Another one of the event’s founding contestants, Boundless, has its eye on the top podium as well as an old friend.
 
“Our biggest rivals are definitely SpareFoot and uShip, since we’ve all been around since the first Games,” marketing manager Stephanie Freyer told us. “We also maintain a friendly competition with since they spun off of Boundless—they actually used to be a part of our company before starting their own operation in 2012.”
 
The Boundless team
 
But when asked whether has any scores to settle, Freyer copped to a common complaint.
 
“Who doesn’t have a score to settle with SpareFoot,” she asked. “They tend to be annoyingly awesome at every event.”
 
Maybe not every event. SpareFoot’s Juan Torres, an enterprise sales rep and SpareFoot’s team captain in the games, recalled losing a hard fought bout with Freyer’s team.
 
The final bracket for last year's beer pong championship. Photo courtesy of Boundless.
 
“Our strongest event is beer pong––we’ve medaled in the event every year and won gold three times. It's the most intense event. We have internal tournaments for each event, but we do have employees who specialize in beer pong, flip cup, and foosball,” he explained. “There was an epic triple overtime beer pong final last year where we lost to Boundless. We are going to reclaim that title this year.”
 
Meanwhile, OutboundEngine has gained strength with its independence from Boundless. Senior sales manager James Lipton was cagey about strategy in his interview, but he too has his rivals.
 
Henrik Johansson channels his inner viking at last year's darts competition. OutboundEngine Senior sales manager James Lipton accuses him of using human growth hormone to cheat at the event.
 
“Henrik Johansson at Boundless was clearly using human growth hormone in darts last year,” Lipton said. “And we are still awaiting a third party review of a last minute score recount that gave SpareFoot the victory in trivia last year. Last we heard, the Attorney General’s office is still investigating. But we always say revenge is a dish best served cold.”
 
Lipton said OutboundEngine has grown quickly as a company since last year.
 
“While I won’t say that the Startup Games has been the only reason for that growth strategy, well… let’s just say we feel like we’re well prepared this year,” he said.
 
OutboundEngine team members sharpen their shot at beer pong during Startup Week 2015.
 

Newcomers

The target on SpareFoot’s back is so big that even the newcomers are taking aim at it.
 
co-founder and chief operating officer Ryan Farley said several of his employees used to work at SpareFoot.
 
“We're looking forward to going up against the champs in a competitive but good-spirited way,” he said. “Our CEO, Steve Corcoran, is banking on personal success in Pop-A-Shot. And we've done a lot of practicing in Flip Cup, so look out.”
 
Nicole Brooks, a marketing manager at OwnLocal, said the Startup Games events were woven into her company’s culture long before it decided to compete.
 
The OwnLocal team indulges in one of the company's time-honored traditions.
 
“If you walk into OwnLocal's office on a typical Tuesday afternoon, it wouldn't be uncommon to see a group of people playing Mario Kart in the lounge, or going eye to eye on our branded beer pong tables,” she said. “Venture a block away and you would find more team members at Buffalo Billiards playing pinball and shuffleboard. Playing these games together is something that comes naturally for us as a company because we genuinely enjoy being around each other, on the clock or off.”
 
An OwnLocal contestant prepares for one of the games' more strategic events.
 
Perhaps the most enigmatic strategy to be employed this year is that of Home Improvement Leads, a company so eager to forget last year’s third place ranking that it changed its name. This year, the team is competing under its new name,  , and has new muscle to match.
 
“We entered the games at the last minute last year and managed to take 4th place, so this year we are aiming to knock SpareFoot off their throne,” said CEO Jason Polka.
 
Team Modernize, FKA Home Improvement Leads. 
 
Eager to change the subject, he added: “We have some pretty hardcore Ping Pong enthusiasts.”
 

The Charities

Modernize is playing to benefit Girl Start, a nonprofit focused on STEM education programs to inspire girls to enter careers in engineering and technology.
 
“As a tech startup, this is a cause close to our hearts — we’d love to see more females dominating the tech industry,” Polka said.
 
Each company chose a charity close to the heart of their culture. For Civitas Learning, a company that develops technology for improving student outcomes, it’s the Center for Child Protection.
 
SpareFoot chose a cause with personal meaning, too. Kure It is a cancer research organization founded by Barry Hoeven, a California-based veteran of the self-storage industry, when he was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 1998.
 
LawnStarter chose National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Boundless is playing for Meals on Wheels and More. uShip picked Communities in Schools, which helps children to stay in school and achieve in life. OwnLocal is playing for Austin Bat Cave, which runs writing programs and workshops for children.
 
The list goes on, which can be a challenge for a team choosing where to focus their efforts on making an impact in the community.
 
“It was very difficult to choose just one, as there are so many admirable charities in the Austin area,” said Heather Harrison, a quality assurance engineer at OutboundEngine, whose employees voted to support the Austin Children’s Shelter. “But we are extremely proud of and excited to support our choice.”
 
Even with tensions mounting, the games still reflect the culture of the community where they were created. The teams are driven to win at the games by the same ambition and passion that drive them to compete at work. And that’s what makes it personal.
 
Freyer says all of this is more than just a mantra in Austin tech, especially at Boundless.
 
One of Boundless’ core values is “embrace the fun,” she said. “It purposely wasn’t identified with the cliché ‘work hard play hard,’ and it actually doesn’t mean the same thing. It’s really about seeing the fun in what we do for a living. It’s not about working hard all day and partying all night – it’s about coming to work every day and recognizing the fun in everything we do, and the fun we have with the great people we work with.”
 

Photos courtesy of participating companies.

 

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