First it was a Texas Monthly cover story. Then a coffee table book. And now it’s the basis of a newly opened exhibit at the Bullock Texas State History Museum. Jay B. Sauceda himself admits he’s a little surprised at the mileage he’s gotten out of a July 2015 aerial photography project that found him tracing 3,822 miles of Texas borders, shooting stunning landscape photos while leaning out of a single-engine Cessna he was flying himself. Not surprisingly, across each form it’s taken, the project has spawned a popular question for the 33-year-old photographer/author/entrepreneur/aviator/humorist. Did his 36 hours of flying time and the 44,000 photographs he amassed on the trip offer any insight into the current border debate?
“Yes and no,” Sauceda says. “You end up realizing how small we are relative to the landscape and you see how much of what we do is completely a byproduct of the landscape itself. It’s obviously such a complex issue. But I feel like if more people had an opportunity to see the world from above like that, they would have a better understanding that sound bite solution making is really terrible.”
Sauceda’s day job rarely involves weighing in on matters of national security: he’s the CEO and co-founder of Texas Humor, an online retailer that does big business selling witty Texas-themed apparel and paraphernalia. Its success spawned Sauceda Industries, an e-commerce fulfillment company that handles logistics for other e-retailers.
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On this week’s podcast, Sauceda—who’s also the author of Y’all: The Definitive Guide to Being a Texan—outlines his business’s unique approaches to cultivating cooperate culture, details the inspiration for Texas Humor’s wildly popular “Ain’t Texas” line of gear, and explains just how he managed to pilot an airplane and take 44,000 photographs simultaneously.
Some highlights (condensed and edited for clarity):
On Sauceda Industries’ corporate culture
I do this thing where your first, your first week at the company, I make you stand in front of everybody and tell us where you’ve been, something good you have going on in your week, and what you did previous to starting here. It’s funny, to me—they just feel like common sense things. It’s treating people like human beings. You’re not a number. Celebrate the wins. At our team meeting today, we were wrapping it up and one of the guys raised his hand and wanted to let everybody in the room know that one of our other employees closed on his house. And the whole room erupted into a clap or applause. Saying it out loud, they seem like a lot of really little silly things. But it’s the cumulative effort of all those little silly things that kind of add up to people feeling like they work for a big family, like they really own it.
On the value of teamwork metaphors
Anyone who works for us can attest to the fact that I love speaking in metaphors. To me what we’re doing at the company is not all that different than running a ranch or a cattle drive. You’ve got a chain of command, you’ve got people with very different responsibilities. We always used to do the big Terlingua Chili Cook-off in West Texas and we’d take a chuckwagon out there every year. And it’s come up a lot, like who’s the trail boss, who’s the person running the chuckwagon? And the cook is this really unique person that was typically this older person, rode with the chuckwagon, and got to spend the time setting up the camp. The cowboys went out and they were out gathering the all the cattle up or whatever. And at the end of the day they’d come back and the cook would feed them. And comparatively speaking to being in saddle all day, the cook seems like they’ve got the easiest job. But they were really the one that kept the groups together. And so when the cowboys would sit around and read their poetry that they wrote maybe after dinner it was this older person bestowing knowledge on them and really keeping the team tight. And we talked about that idea at our company a lot. You can be the cowboy, the cool [one]. It doesn’t mean that you don’t work together as a team and you don’t have to feel compelled to try to keep people inspired. This is just my style. I just prefer cowboy culture and what it stands for, what it represents in our state.
On what makes Texas special
For as much as we talk about how it’s a small world and we’re all the same—or any number of these speeches that astronauts gave about us all being on this planet together—that’s a beautiful thing and I believe it. But I also think that one of the things that is really fun is the contrast between people. And so for me, it just so happens that the color contrast that Texans have is a ton of pride based off of all the mystique and legend around Texas. I think there are certainly people who hate it who aren’t from here. But we all have that friend who’s kind of annoying, but it’s sort of endearing that they’re annoying. You still invite them everywhere because you like them. There’s something that’s unique about them. And I sort of think about Texas in that way. Everybody else looks at us and they might be kind of annoyed with us, but they still like us. There’s something that’s unique and very American about Texas culture. I look at this stuff and I think the t-shirts and the attention that we get through our products is still just as fun. It’s amazing to me that I sent the first tweet out in 2011 and we’re almost ten years in and it’s almost like the joke is brand new.
On the apolitical nature of Texas Humor
Nothing is political. The “Ain’t Texas” concept is more about the fact that Texans view the world through the lens of Texas, and through that lens everything that isn’t in Texas is just a little gray. It’s more about that joke and that sort of homesickness and less about this idea that we’re better than anyone else… Make fun of someone being from Philadelphia if you want, but this is not a political ideology. They like wearing one type of jeans and we like a different type. And that’s what’s funny. Let’s poke fun at that. Let’s not poke fun at ideology.
On the border issue
When Scott Kelly came back from the International Space Station, he talked a lot about the fact if you spent any time up there you just see everybody on this one blue dot. And I’m a big fan of Carl Sagan and his pale blue dot essay. It’s just incredible that we all live in this one place and you sort of lose track of that. You sit in traffic and you’re pissed at everybody else for being there, forgetting that you are an everybody else to someone else. And it’s easy to miss out on the fact that you’re a cog in the machine… But at like 5,000 or 6,000 feet, where I spent most of the time on that project, you can still see life being lived and you can see that one car driving on whatever random highway between whatever random, no-place town and the next. And I would just find myself over and over and over thinking about what’s going on in that person’s life. And so I got to view people living as specimens, in a way. And you end up realizing how small we are relative to the landscape. And you see how much of what we do is completely a byproduct of the landscape itself. And so that’s the big takeaway. We think that we’ve made all these calls and all these decisions. And yes, the Treaty of [Guadalupe] Hidalgo set up that border and was a decision. But that was partially the decision we made because there was a river that had been cutting through that area over millions of years that created this border. I feel like if more people had an opportunity to see the world in that way, they would have a better understanding that sound bite solution making is really terrible. And there are few political questions that can be answered in a black-and-white way like that.
On “The Texas Entrance Test”
Being Texan is a mentality. Davy Crockett wasn’t born in Texas, Sam Houston wasn’t born in Texas. Did you come here wanting to pull yourself up by your bootstraps? Did you come here wanting to contribute to the melting pot? If you answered yes to those two things, cool, here’s your hat and boots.
On why he used a plane, not drones
If you’re flying a drone, you have to know that whatever it is that you’re trying to photograph is really interesting and there’s a limitation to how far away you can be. I was just kind of driving around. I got up in the air and I created a structure. I said, I wanna fly around the state: I’m not going to fly more than 40 miles in from the border and I’m going to try to stay between these altitudes, and that’s kind of the whole vehicle for the story. So I think that’s really what makes it unique. It’s not so high that it’s similar to what you see at 30,000 feet when you’re flying commercial. But it’s not so low that the guy or girl that bought a drone at Best Buy can do what I did.