At Austin Tech world, there is an entrepreneur that everyone knows by name: Whurley. “Whurley” is the Unix username for serial tech entrepreneur Will Hurley, and is 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 city,” said Hugh Forrest, director of programming for SXSW. “He brings a certain eccentricity to almost everything he does, how could he not with that name? Furthermore, his wide variety of professional and personal interests make him almost impossible to pigeonhole.”
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 did not raise any capital for Chaotic Moon. But he raised $3 million for Honest Dollar. He launched his latest company, Strangeworks, in 2018 and raised $4 million in seed capital. In addition, he created Ecliptic Capital, a $100 million perennial 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 has been followed by Austin’s success.
“It really finally fulfilled the vision that we all had of becoming 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 of that, but realistically, we had the foundation to be an emerging city, but we still had a long way to go.”
Over the past 10 years, Austin has really become a major tech hub, Whurley said.
“Progress has been tremendous, but it’s a double-edged sword and we must remain vigilant if we don’t want to lose what makes us ‘Austin,'” he said.
Whurley’s keen insights into the future have earned him the attention of numerous national and international leaders, Forrest said. At SXSW 2022, Whurley held a session on the application of quantum computing to transportation problems. And he met with the United States Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg. At previous SXSW conferences, Whurley has launched companies. He has thrown legendary parties and also hosted a dinner for President Barack Obama at his home for a Democratic fundraiser the night before President Obama spoke at SXSW.
“But most of all, he will go out of his way to help newcomers (as well as veterans) to the Austin tech scene whenever they need help, advice or counsel,” Forrest said. “We like to say that the Central Texas ecosystem is much more supportive of one another than many other places. In my experience, Whurley has always led by example on this front.”
To that end, Whurley founded Ecliptic Capital in 2018 with his business partner and friend Mike Erwin. Ecliptic Capital provides early-stage and seed-stage investment to startups. His portfolio includes Strangeworks, Unchained Capital, Earbuds, Threat Warrior, and Sourced Craft Cocktails, among others.
Whurley can relate to scrappy Austin entrepreneurs just starting out trying to find a foothold here. He is a firm believer in hard work. He is the son of a US Army Special Forces sergeant and grew up on military bases before his family settled in Temple, Texas. Whurley is a self-taught technologist who never got a college degree.
In 1993, he officially moved to Austin, where he had been playing with his band since high school at Ray Hennig’s Music. But a horrible car accident put an end to his band days.
“The city was very different back then,” Whurley said during a recent interview at the 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, eventually leaving to join Austin-based Tivoli in 1997 in their Internet Business Division. IBM acquired Tivoli, and Whurley became a Principal Engineer and Master Inventor at IBM. But in 1999 he heard the siren song of the Internet and left.
“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 application, but it closed after the dot-com bubble burst in March 2000. Austin was hit hard. Many Internet companies bite 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 shell of the building 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 hacker for hire. He returned to Austin to launch a cybersecurity startup, Symbiot.
“That company was great,” Whurley said. But the US government essentially shut them down in 2005, he said. He worked at another startup, Qlustrers, a system administration company, and then at BMC Software before launching his next company, Chaotic Moon Studios.
In 2009, Whurley and Erwin met Ben Lamm at SXSW and decided to launch Chaotic Moon, which focused on software, development, and mobile design, the following year.
Chaotic Moon made Whurley rich. He made more money at that company than at any of his other companies, he said. It was also a lot of fun. He built mind-controlled skateboards, smart shopping carts, and taser drones.
One of the company’s first opportunities came when Chaotic Moon signed 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, the United Nations and the Discovery Channel. In 2015, Accenture bought Chaotic Moon for an undisclosed price.
By this time, Whurley had already embarked on his next adventure. In 2015, she launched Honest Dollar with Henry Yoshida to focus on bringing retirement accounts to freelancers and small businesses at an affordable price.
Sir Mix-a-Lot played at the Honest Dollar SXSW launch party. Whurley suggested that he invest in the company. But Sir Mix-a-lot turned him down. The following year, Goldman Sachs bought Honest Dollar for an undisclosed price. They announced the sale at SXSW. Whurley joined Goldman Sachs to run the company for 18 months.
In 2018 at SXSW, Whurley launched Strangeworks, focused on quantum computing. It is targeted at applications in the aerospace, energy, financial, and pharmaceutical industries.
“Whurley has a much more nuanced understanding of the long-term future than most. His vision is something like Wayne Gretzky’s famous quote: “I skate where the puck is going, not where he’s been,” Forrest said with SXSW. “This forecast explains the work he has been doing for the last few years on quantum computing.”
Whurley has spent time at big companies and knows how to approach startups with structure and a system, and that helped him succeed, said Amber Gunst, executive director of the Austin Technology Council.
“True legacy building comes through entrepreneurship, which makes for an incredible journey,” said Gunst. Whurley has done that and continues to help others, he said.
Whurley is one of the rare breeds of serial entrepreneurs with multiple successful starts in Austin, said David Perez, founder of Lumen Technologies, who has worked with him on two startups.
“He has great ideas and executes on those ideas,” Perez said. “He also surrounds himself with the right team to do it.”
No matter how many startups an entrepreneur has made, startups are still tough, Whurley said.
“When a founder tells you that everything is fine, they are lying to you, to themselves or to everyone in earshot,” he said.
People need to stop romanticizing entrepreneurship, according to Whurley.
“Start-ups rarely end up being what they started out to be, and are always in one of two phases … struggling or out of business,” he said. “So be thankful for the fight because it’s part of the game.”
In addition to his business ventures, 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 he toured with a band that played guitar a long time ago,” Metcalfe said. “One day I discovered his bluff and demanded that he play for us. He agreed, but only if I sang with him.”
They put on 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 it turns out Whurley can play.”
Writer’s note: Whurley has been a supporter of Silicon Hills News, the tech news site I founded in 2011.