Texas strong

The show must go on with these SXSW-related events in Houston and Austin

SXSW was canceled this year due to the rising threat of COVID19, aka the coronavirus, but these events are still ones to check out if you are still planning on attending. Marie Ketring/via sxsw.org

With SXSW canceled — and now the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo has followed suit — and Austin and Houston entrepreneurs are reeling from the loss of networking, pitch competitions, and business opportunities. But unaffiliated organizations are trying to keep some of the spirit of SXSW alive in both Texas cities and online.

"Coronavirus dropped an economic bomb on Austin, and we are trying to triage the scraps," says Marc Nathan, vice president of client strategy at Egan Nelson, an Austin-based, startup-focused law firm.

The economic impact of SXSW 2019 was reported by the organization to have been over $350 million, and, even assuming this year's festival was on par with that, the city of Austin has lost more than that — from the affect on restaurants, lodging, and more. At this point, refunds are not being given out to badge holders.

Additionally, the organization itself is hurting. The 10-day festival has a year-round staff of over 150 people, and SXSW has recently laid off around 30 percent of those employees. Nathan, who says he highly suspects the organization will have to look into restructuring or even bankruptcy, also notes the cancelation will hurt individuals in a way that's not so easy to track.

"This did affect individuals," Nathan says. "Yes, the big brands were hurt and lost a lot of money, but it's not about them. It's about the little guys — the startups that wanted to launch, the bands that wanted to play, or the films that were selected for the contest. It's all the people who use SXSW as a platform, and that platform just disintegrated."

A group of scrappy Austinites have banded together to create Rally Austin and are putting together resources and events online for those still coming into the city and are looking to network responsibly. A few events are also taking place digitally. Here's a list of events to attend, and keep an eye on Rally Austin for any last-minute updates.

Houston-based WatchHerWork's Female Founders Day (March 12 in Austin)

Two Houston female founders — Reda Hicks and Denise Hamilton — saw an opportunity to make SXSW more female friendly, and that's what they've done by introducing this new unofficial SXSW event. Click here for more.

Hicks recently joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the opportunity. Click here to listen.

SoFin @ SXSW 2020 (March 13 in Austin)

Focused on fintech solutions, SoFin will go on as planned and will feature Houston-based iownit.us, a blockchain-enabled investment platform. Click here for more info.

The Austin Tech Happy Hour will also still be held on Friday, March 13, in Austin. Click here for more info.

Houston-based Hatch Pitch Competition (March 16 hosted online)

The annual pitch competition, which is usually streamed online, will switch to completely online only. Click here for more info.

Hatch Pitch is also expected to host a Houston-based, cybersecurity-focused competition next month. Click here to read more.

OpenCoffee Club (March 16 in Austin)

Open Coffee Club, a monthly networking opportunity, will continue as planned. Networking is encouraged, handshaking is not. Click here for more info.

Digital Pitch - An Alternative to SXSW2020 (March 17 hosted online)

Houston's Startup Grind has organized a digital pitch competition that will be hosted completely online. Click here for more info.

Startup of the Year Virtual Pitch Competition (March 17 hosted online)

The Established's annual pitch competition is going online, despite The Established House's physical location being canceled. A Houston-based company will still pitch and the competition has Houston judges involved as well. Click here for more info.

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Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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