The chaos and energy of South by Southwest 2018 is only three days away when I meet Chris Cates, but he doesn’t seem stressed. In fact, he’s pretty hung over.
That’s one of the occupational hazards you might discover when your job is keeping a finger on the pulse of events all over the city, but Cates, along with his friend and business partner Jose Gutierrez, seems to take this in stride. It’s just another day in the life as the founder of When Where What Austin, an Instagram account you might already follow if you’re in the know.
With 72,600 followers and counting, it’s getting harder every day to describe WWWATX, which runs under the slogan “Purveyors of Now,” as anything close to “cult” or “underground.” Despite not having a website outside of its Instagram and Facebook pages, the account, monetized by the promotion of sponsored events for local restaurants, bars, and brands, brings in enough income for Cates and Gutierrez that running the page is a full-time job for them both.
With a fiercely dedicated following and immediately recognizable branding — a few words on a blue background telling you when, where, and what is happening around town worth doing, a caption written in the casual, emoji-heavy and profane language of the Millennial Internet, and not much else — the account’s growth potential depends at least partially upon Cates and Gutierrez going to as many parties as they can. You’re not going to stay on the bleeding edge of whatever’s cool in Austin by staying home, and the hangovers come with the territory.
James: One of the first things I noticed while doing the research for this is that nobody’s done an interview with you guys yet.
James: Why is that?
Chris: I think we’re like, blacklisted from everywhere.
James: But why?
Chris: We’re edgy, I guess?
Jose: I think we’re the black sheep of social media. We’re on Instagram, right? Instagram, in general, is a platform for a lot of people to post like, a cute picture of a taco, or them at the beach or whatever, something very safe and politically correct. Like, “Nice day we’re having, great weather at the beach,” versus an account like ours that’s saying something more like “Man, this is an amazing beach. I’m having a Corona.” You’re just being real.
James: Yeah, I’ve definitely noticed a lot of the social media influencer people have kind of a “cult of positivity” thing going on.
Jose: Every single influencer looks the same, talks the same, nobody’s being real. It’s very cookie-cutter and we just kind of did it our way.
James: So what was the deal with Drinks Lounge?
[Note: WWWATX faced its first minor controversy last year after publicly calling out Drinks Lounge, an East Austin bar, for what Cates and Gutierrez perceived as poor service. The bar’s owner struck back, with various parties airing grievances on Austin’s Reddit page.]
Chris: They fed us information for their events a couple of times, trying to get us to spread the word. It turned out to be completely false – we brought 300 people there on false pretenses. We went ourselves, and nothing was happening – it wasn’t actually an event.
Jose: This happened, like, what, three times total?
Chris: Yeah, it’s a bad look for us.
James: Well, you obviously don’t want to give out bad information.
Chris: Exactly. It’s a direct representation of our brand if we send somebody somewhere to an event that isn’t what we say it is.
Jose : Even when we did that, when we did that, it was just like if you look at the whole thing in general, it was just a light joke and a meme saying, “We don’t go there.” That’s basically it, at its core.
Chris: We got attention from that.
Jose: Oh my god, yeah.
Chris: There was a ton of negative response – a lot more positive, but still a ton of negative. We looked at that post as something we could stand by. It’s not like we put a person’s name out there. It’s not illegal to say something bad about a bar. It’s kind of similar to a Yelp review saying something like, “I got horrible customer service from Chris Cates at Drinks Lounge.” And I’m thinking, “Are they going to screenshot that and put it on their platform, and then go off on the person?”
James: I’m mostly asking you about this because, as somebody who wants to be able to express my opinions in the articles that I write, I was curious to see if the situation made you consider what kind of responsibility you have as a brand. Do you think you’re reinforcing your authenticity to your audience by doing stuff like this?
Chris: Yeah. I enjoy doing things like that because I feel like it makes us who we are. If we were walking on eggshells with what we posted on the account, then the brand has already been diminished by outside influences.
Jose: All the stuff we post, it’s something either Chris has experienced or I’ve experienced. So, if we go ahead and vouch for the food at Valentina’s, saying something like “Top five tacos,” it’s because we’ve actually experienced those tacos. The same thing applies to Drinks Lounge. We said that because we’ve experienced bad service there ourselves.
James: You’re putting yourself out there — saying, “This thing is irritating me right now.”
Chris: And it was. But it was still a little bit of a wake-up call when it happened.
James: Because of the response?
Chris: The owner put my name out there. He’s like, even from the Drinks account put like – said like, “Chris Cates blah blah blah.”
James: Oh, after you posted about it on your account?
Chris: Yeah, he put my name out there, had the whole service industry trashing me and stuff.
James: Good times.
Chris: But regardless, I think it was important to be able to keep that voice – within reason, obviously.
James: As long as you’re not using your platform to punch down.
Chris: Yeah. If we’re just beating someone down for no reason, that’s one thing. But I feel like it’s okay to just be completely out there – like, try to be unbiased, but tell people “This is what we were experiencing.”
Jose: As you can see, our bread and butter is the blue and the white telling you where to go.
James: It’s a simple brand, but it’s memorable.
Jose: And we very rarely post anything other than that, like memes or other images.
James: But even then, there’s a tone that you maintain through all the captions on each post.
Chris: That’s very calculated. Since the beginning, the accounts that we see out there on social media doing similar things as us are very robotic. It all looks the same, talks the same. To me, it’s like, “That’s not how people talk to me. That’s not how I talk.”
James: So, how did you get started on this? What’s the history of this whole thing?
Chris: Back a long time ago, I used to write for ESPN. I did fantasy sportswriting. I was way younger, but my background is in journalism, I guess.
James: Are you from around here?
Chris: I grew up in Fort Worth. Came down here when I was 19 and I’ve been in the area ever since.
James: Didn’t you start doing an event spreadsheet for South by Southwest forever ago and that’s kind of what got you into this?
Chris: Yeah, yeah. I feel like South by Southwest influenced everything we do – just that culture, trying to recreate that year-round kind of influence that we like in the first place.
James: So are you still making the spreadsheet?
Chris: Yeah, we’re selling it this year. We didn’t start charging for it until like, last year, but before that we were just making it for ourselves and our friends.
James: It’s just a link that you share around?
Chris: Yeah. It’s funny — right now, people expect us, being this big, to have something more professional. But it’s just a Google sheet. Last year, people paid for it on Venmo.
James: What’s the going rate for it now?
James: Are the listings all for free stuff? Is that what the point is?
Chris: So the sheet, in general, is everything. It’s a lot of data entry. Right now, we have like 400 RSVPs in there, 600 event listings. It sort of provides a daily view so you can see what’s happening at any given time — the goal being, if you’re out on a Tuesday at 6:00 PM, you can know exactly what’s happening nearby. It’s like, “Oh, there’s an open bar two doors down.”
Jose: And the fact that we do that, in itself, means the official South by Southwest people don’t like us that much, because we talk about unofficial events.
James: Is there hostility because of that?
Chris: I don’t even think it’s hostility. I think people are kind of afraid to touch it, because it’s slightly off. I’ll say “fuck” in a post. But it’s funny, because businesses are paying us to advertise their stuff, and I’ll still say “fuck” in a post.
Jose: Exactly. So, that’s why the whole “going out” population feels attached to it. I think it’s inevitable that eventually some of the mainstream will be like, “Okay, this is a thing,” and acknowledge us.
James: How did you start doing the Instagram account?
Chris: I was lying on the sofa one day and was just like, “There’s got to be a better way.” We were going to a lot of events at the time, and with most event listings you’ve got to go sift through all the garbage and find the one good thing worth going to, and I’m thinking, “This needs to be more curated.”
James: Do you remember when you started out? How many years ago was this?
Chris: August 2015. Two-and-a-half years.
James: How did you decide to make the account the way it is, with the text on the blue background for every post?
Chris: I wanted to use Instagram in a reverse way from everyone else, and turn a picture-based platform into a text-based platform.
James: Did you have any particular reason for using the blue? Was it random?
Chris: No, we grew into it over time. I think I started with black the first month or two, then it got blue.
James: You just wanted to have some color in there?
Chris: Yeah. I wanted it to be something recognizable that just made people stop and stare. If you’ve gone to our events for like two years and you’ve had good experiences, I want the design to grab you and make you think, “Oh, hey, what’s going on?” It turns the engagement on its head.
Jose: What I think is amazing is that whenever we post something like, “Hey, go to Valentina’s, free queso, free beer, whatever,” to the general population, it looks so basic and easy. You finish reading that with a smile on your face, it makes you think anyone could do it. But really, Chris and I will hit back and forth on that post’s caption for 30, 40 minutes.
James: Brainstorming the copy?
Jose: Yeah, for everything. Even the image. Doesn’t matter if it’s just a blue background and a couple of words.
Chris: Like, even where the words should go on the screen.
Jose: There’s so much strategy going on behind the scenes, even on the smallest details.
James: I guess you’ve got to try to make something look effortless.
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Chris: I think a lot of people see it and think, ”I can do this.” There have been copycat accounts in Dallas and all that. They don’t realize we’re working 16 hour days to find this stuff.
James: So I know you didn’t start out like this, but what is your business model now? Don’t businesses come to you to organize and promote their events?
Chris: Yeah. Luckily, since we never forced anything like that off the bat, we just did what we wanted, and the people that we liked came back to us. That means they don’t want us to be something other than ourselves on the account.
Jose: Use the brand you started with.
Chris: We use our personality to tell people about their event. We tell a lot of people no, because some businesses will try to pay us for something that’s just out of character, and it’s bad for all parties involved.
Jose: Yeah, a lot of beauty salons will try to pay us, or like, a watch company or something. And I have to tell them, ”There’s no way to make this look like what we would actually be doing.” Just like, hold the watch up to the screen?
Chris: Also, since we’ve been here for so long, we do our own research for everything. So, for example, if we post, “Bar X has a happy hour; $5.00 drinks,” not only are we promoting their event, but we already know, “This is just one of seven businesses, and this company owns them all.” So, if we do our homework, we can garner the attention of the bigger companies that own the different bars or restaurants.
James: So you’ve gotten to a point where these people notice you?
Jose: Yeah, it’s all strategy.
James: Are the interactions friendly, or do you get some pushback?
Chris: They’re always friendly, yeah.
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Jose: Occasionally we actually get places telling us, “Please don’t advertise us,” because they don’t want all the people to come.
James: Because you’ve got people that just follow everything you post?
Chris: Yeah. I feel comfortable saying if it’s a really good event, and we tell people about it during primetime, we could bring 500 people there pretty easily. So, a lot of people have just said “Please don’t” — especially in the art community, which sucks, because we love art shows.
James: Because they get just swamped?
Jose: They get 250 people looking for free beer.
Chris: Like, 250 people in a 50-cap venue! I think I even see the value in the free beer thing, because we came from the other side of it — just going to events for the free beer and that eventually becoming brand loyalty. I used to go to SprATX events just because they have free drinks and parties. But I eventually ended up loving the brand, buying their art, buying their shirts and all that. That came just from free beer events — it can create lifelong customers.
James: From a business perspective, I’m kind of curious about how you separate the idea of people paying you to promote stuff, versus you promoting events that you just happen to know about organically.
Chris: Yeah, for sure.
James: Because to the end user, it’s invisible. Which events are being promoted by some company through its business relationship with you, versus the events you’re just posting on your page because you think they’re worth promoting? If you’re keeping the branding on the account consistent, it’s impossible to tell which posts you’re being paid for.
Chris: I think the easy answer is that everything we promote is what we want to promote — because the people we wouldn’t want to promote, we don’t work with them in the first place. We want it to be invisible to the naked eye, because we only advertise things we’d post about anyway.
James: So, you may not always charge somebody if the event is notable, something like that?
Chris: Yeah. We have our own agenda every week regardless of what’s paid or unpaid. Whatever comes along in terms of partnerships, that’s worked into the schedule. But we don’t assume we’re getting paid for anything, ever.
James: I guess you wouldn’t want to promote an event that would make you look bad to your specific audience.
Chris: For sure. Our audience is number one. If we put up a picture of a Rolex saying, “Chris Cates, Sponsored By Rolex,” people won’t trust us anymore.
James: But I presume you guys are excited to get those kinds of people looking for sponsorships regardless of whether they fit your brand. It’s an indication of growth, in terms of your visibility.
Jose: This is what we wake up for. This is daily. Everything’s exciting.
Chris: I want to work — 18 hours in a day, whatever. At no point do I feel like I’m working.
Jose: Even just getting an email from a company we like, everything’s exciting.
Chris: We both enjoy the process. I love writing, and I’ve found a way to use that. Now I have this platform, and people are listening.
James: So what do you think you’re going to do with the platform in the future?
Chris: So we don’t think of ourselves as an events company — more like a creative advertising agency. When you see us posting memes and stuff, it’s because we’ve found out we can drive traffic with them. In the big picture, it’ll become a lot bigger because we haven’t committed to one thing yet — it wouldn’t be unnatural for us to tell you about anything we liked on the account. If I told everybody about watching Atlanta on FX I don’t think it would be out of character for the brand. For example, we’re starting a podcast in April.
James: Oh, really?
Chris: I’m super excited about it. I’ve pictured it in my head and I think it’s going to be an audio representation of what you see on the screen. If we can do it in a way where we’re telling people about events for half the time, and then just talking or interviewing someone the other half, like “Here’s the week that was. Here’s an event we went to. Here’s the week at a glance. This is the happy hour you should look at this week.” It’s a podcast way of doing what we do on Instagram.
James: I don’t know if you’ve got a timeline for this, but what’s the future of this account — say, the next five years — look like to you both?
Chris: I’d like it to look a lot like it does now, honestly, because I think that’s pretty set in stone.
James: You’re not trying to change things too much?
Chris: Yeah, definitely not. I don’t ever want it to feel anything but natural, even when it’s something like an account talking about another city. So our growth will be a little slow in other areas, but it’s going to happen. I think in five years, we’ll be in New York and Los Angeles doing exactly what we do here.