Alum Jay Watson’s enterprise revives, lights up Austin tradition
Like most successful entrepreneurs, Jay Watson is very good at identifying a problem and finding a solution.
The 1985 business management graduate from Clemson University did just that in 2012 and in the process endeared himself to residents of central Texas who longed for the return of a holiday tradition, and kick-started a successful business that today is one of the Lone Star state’s premier event organizers.
“Trail of Lights was a holiday staple in Austin for many years and one of the city’s biggest events. But in 2009, budget cuts ended its run,” said Watson, a 30-year resident of Austin. “We took it upon ourselves to bring this community institution back and in 2012, we raised a million dollars to do just that.”
“We” is Watson’s marketing and event-planning enterprises, Forefront Networks and 3Can Events. The combined companies plan, promote and execute large-scale events that are attended by hundreds of thousands of people. The Trail of Lights, a 15-day Christmas season event, caters to families and businesses with an array of attractions, including food, displays, music and many vendors. Since 2012, Watson’s companies have run Austin’s second-largest event, which draws about 400,000 annually.
Watson’s entrepreneurial mindset wasn’t developed in the event-planning business, though. His outside-the-box thinking was actually put to the test while cutting his teeth in the corporate world, working for an upstart company that today is one of the world’s largest computer manufacturers – Dell.
“I started my career in sales and marketing with IBM, where my dad worked. But I was recruited to come to Austin in the mid-80s by Dell’s predecessor, PC’s Limited. It was there that I was challenged in a very competitive environment to think creatively and find new ways to establish our brand in the enterprise sector,” he said.
Watson worked with Michael Dell, the company’s founder, who challenged his employees to also find a new way to sell their computers beyond the traditional phone call and face-to-face visit. “It was in the early nineties when Michael wanted to give consumers the tools to make their own purchases through the fledgling worldwide web,” Watson said. The experience he gained from those challenges gave Watson the confidence to delve into other ventures when he left Dell in 1998.
“I got involved in some investment and social ventures like The First Tee golf program,” he said. In 1999, Watson was a co-founder of The First Tee of Greater Austin, which teaches youngsters values often associated with the game of golf.
A few years later, he purchased a participatory sports event-planning business that organized basketball and soccer events around the country. Not long after selling that business, Austin’s Trail of Lights fell upon hard times. It was then, Watson saw a problem in the community and came up with a fix that would resurrect a tradition, and open doors for his fledgling Forefront Networks.
Though Forefront and 3Can have produced large-scale events around the country, today it considers Austin and the state of Texas its prime business territory.
“People like cool experiences and we’re in the business of creating and executing on those experiences,” he said. “People in Austin and Texas, in general, have become more engaged in their communities and we see ourselves as the catalyst for bringing those communities together.”
Watson says the biggest thrill he gets from his multi-million dollar enterprise is witnessing the reaction from someone attending one of his company’s events.
“It’s very gratifying to see an attendee thrilled in one of these high-energy environments. When you stand in the middle of that energy and experience the sights, sounds and emotions, it’s cool and something you just don’t get in an office cubicle environment.”
As a businessman who expanded on his industrial management training at Clemson’s business school, Watson’s word of advice for students entering the workforce is to widen their focus and venture beyond their comfort zones.
“I think it’s important for someone not to be limited by only what they have experienced. The world offers an endless sea of opportunities and by narrowing your focus, those opportunities are going to be missed and with it a potentially fulfilling career.”
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