Austin’s Will Hurley on the city’s incredible tech rise – TechCrunch

In Austin Tech world, there’s one entrepreneur everyone knows by a name: Whurley. “Whurley” is serial tech entrepreneur Will Hurley’s Unix username, and it’s his trademark.

“The phrase Keep Austin Weird really should be changed to Keep Austin Whurley because it embodies so much of what we value in this town,” said Hugh Forrest, Director of Programming at SXSW. “He brings a certain eccentricity to almost everything he does – how could he not go by that name? Moreover, his wide variety of professional and personal interests makes him nearly impossible to categorize.

Whurley co-founded and successfully sold two Austin-based companies: Chaotic Moon Studios to Accenture in 2015 and Honest Dollar to Goldman Sachs in 2016. He raised no capital for Chaotic Moon. But he raised $3 million for Honest Dollar. He launched his latest venture, Strangeworks in 2018 and raised $4 million in seed capital. Additionally, he created Ecliptic Capital, a $100 million evergreen investment fund that could grow to $150 million by the end of the year. Ecliptic is also actively raising the Ecliptic Global Growth Fund which will be $500 million and could see its first closing by the end of the year, Whurley said.


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Whurley’s success followed Austin’s success.

“Truly, it’s finally realized the vision we all had to become a leading city in innovation, technology and culture,” Whurley said. “When I moved here in the early 90s, everyone was talking about Austin like it was all that, but if we’re realistic, we had the basics to be a breakout city, but we were left still a long way to go.”

Over the past 10 years, Austin has really evolved into a major tech hub, Whurley said.

“The progress has been tremendous, but it’s a double-edged sword and we have to stay vigilant if we don’t want to lose what makes us ‘Austin,'” he said.

Whurley’s shrewd insights into the future have won him the ear of many national and international leaders, Forrest said. At SXSW 2022, Whurley gave a session on applying quantum computing to transportation problems. And he met with US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. At recent SXSW conferences, Whurley has been pitching companies. He threw legendary parties and also hosted a dinner party for President Barack Obama at his home for a Democratic fundraiser the day before President Obama’s speech at SXSW.

“Most importantly, he will go out of his way to help newcomers (as well as veterans) to Austin’s tech scene whenever they need help, advice or guidance,” Forrest said. “We like to say that the Central Texas ecosystem sustains itself a lot more than a lot of other places. In my experience, Whurley has always led by example on this front.

To that end, Whurley founded Ecliptic Capital in 2018 with longtime business partner and friend Mike Erwin. Ecliptic Capital provides seed and seed investment to startups. Its portfolio includes Strangeworks, Unchained Capital, Earbuds, Threat Warrior and Sourced Craft Cocktails, among others.

Image source: Errich Petersen

Whurley can relate to the scrappy Austin entrepreneurs starting out and trying to get a foothold here. He strongly believes in hard work. He is the son of a US Army Special Forces sergeant and grew up on military bases before his family moved to Temple, Texas. Whurley is a self-taught technologist who never graduated from college.

In 1993 he officially moved to Austin where he had played gigs with his band since high school at Ray Hennig’s Music. But a horrific car accident ended his band days.

“The city was much different back then,” Whurley said during a recent interview at Strangeworks headquarters in East Austin, on the corner of Cesar Chavez and Linden. A neon eye, the Strangeworks logo, glows above the building’s entrance.

Whurley began his career in Austin working for Apple and eventually left to join Austin-based Tivoli in 1997 in its Internet Business division. IBM acquired Tivoli and Whurley became a principal engineer and master inventor at IBM. But in 1999, he hears the siren song of the Internet and leaves.

“The whole 90s were the early days of the internet and I saw a lot of opportunity,” Whurley said.

Whurley joined Hirestorm, an online job app, but it closed after the dot-com bubble burst in March 2000. Austin was hit hard. Many internet companies have bitten the dust like Furniture.com, DrKoop.com, Garden.com and more. Even Intel halted construction of its new office building in downtown Fifth and San Antonio St.. The building shell was later torn down and became the site of the federal courthouse.

In 2001, for six months, Whurley left Austin to follow a girl to Las Vegas and break into casinos as a hired hacker. He returned to Austin to launch a cybersecurity startup, Symbiot.

“This business was super cool,” Whurley said. But the US government essentially shut them down in 2005, he said. He worked at another startup, Qlusters, a systems management company, then BMC Software before launching his next venture, Chaotic Moon Studios.

In 2009, Whurley and Erwin met Ben Lamm at SXSW and they decided to launch Chaotic Moon, which focused on software, mobile development and design, the following year.

Chaotic Moon made Whurley rich. He made more money in this business than in any of his other ventures, he said. It was also very fun. He’s built mind-controlled skateboards, smart shopping carts, and Taser drones.

One of the company’s first breaks came when Chaotic Moon landed a contract with Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily to create the first newspaper app for the iPad. Chaotic Moon went on to work with the biggest brands in the industry, including Disney, General Motors, Samsung, Sesame Street, United Nations and Discovery Channel. In 2015, Accenture purchased Chaotic Moon for an undisclosed price.

By then, Whurley had already moved on to his next venture. In 2015, he started Honest Dollar with Henry Yoshida to focus on providing retirement accounts to gig workers and small businesses at an affordable price.

Sir Mix-a-Lot performed at the Honest Dollar SXSW Launch Party. Whurley offered to invest in the business. But Sir Mix-a-lot turned him down. The following year, Goldman Sachs purchased Honest Dollar for an undisclosed price. They announced the sale to SXSW. Whurley joined Goldman Sachs to run the business for 18 months.

In 2018 at SXSW, Whurley launched Strangeworks, which focused on quantum computing. It targets applications in the aerospace, energy, finance and pharmaceutical sectors.

Austin-based serial entrepreneur Will Hurley sitting on a bench in front of a wall at Strangeworks

Will Hurley at Strangeworks Headquarters. Image source: Errich Petersen

“Whurley has a much more nuanced understanding of the long-term future than most. His vision is a bit like that famous Wayne Gretzky quote: ‘I skate where the puck is going, not where it’s been,'” said Forrest with SXSW “This foresight explains the work he’s been doing for the past few years in quantum computing.”

Whurley has spent time at large companies and knows how to approach startups with structure and system, which has helped him succeed, said Amber Gunst, CEO of the Austin Technology Council.

“The real legacy comes through entrepreneurship, which makes for an incredible journey,” Gunst said. Whurley did and continues to help others, she said.

Whurley is one of the few breeds of serial entrepreneurs with multiple successful exits in Austin, said David Perez, founder of Lumen Technologies, who has worked with him on two startups.

“He has big ideas and executes those ideas,” Perez said. “He also surrounds himself with the right team to do that.”

No matter how many startups an entrepreneur has created, startups are always tough, Whurley said.

“When a founder tells you everything is fine, he is lying to you, to himself or to everyone within earshot,” he said.

People need to stop romanticizing entrepreneurship, according to Whurley.

“Startups rarely end up being what they started out, and they’re always in one of two phases… struggling or bankrupt,” he said. “So be thankful for the struggle because it’s part of the game.”

In addition to his entrepreneurial adventures, Whurley is also a good musician, according to his friend Bob Metcalfe, inventor of Ethernet, founder of 3 COM and former professor of innovation at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Whurley mentions too often that a long time ago he toured with a guitar-playing band,” Metcalfe said. “One day I called his bluff and asked him to play for us. He agreed, but only if I wanted to sing with him.

They held a concert for 100 people at a WeWork party on Congress Avenue.

“We played my favorite song, ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” Metcalfe said. “I can’t sing, but turns out Whurley can play.”

Writer’s Note: Whurley supported Silicon Hills News, the tech news site I founded in 2011.

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