Since August 2015, Austinites looking to shake up their routine have sought guidance in the When Where What Austin Instagram, which points followers to the best happy hours, art galleries, and DJ sets in town. But even after close to 2,700 posts, most of the 87,000 people who follow these culture gurus have no idea who they are.
Chris Cates and Jose Gutierrez, the two thirty-something men behind the account, began When Where What Austin with a simple mission: guiding people toward free or cheap refreshments and entertainment. Almost every post is the same: a royal blue background and white text detailing the “when,” the “where,” and the “what” of an event. By releasing only the essential details, they offer streamlined recommendations with a personal touch. In their captions, the self-described “purveyors of now” swear, own up to their hangovers, and voice an abiding hatred of mayonnaise. Over time, they begin to feel like friends you’ve never met. The influencers behind the brand seem mysterious—until you attend an event and meet the friendly duo in person.
“People want to be told what to do by someone like-minded,” Cates says. “You vibe the best with the people you can relate to the most . . . it’s non-robotic, personality-driven content.”
The Instagram account works because it’s grounded in friendship and field research, developed by two Austinites who’ve put in their time on the local social scene. Cates, a Fort Worth native, created the account as a way to share his recommendations with friends more efficiently than through individual text messages. Gutierrez, a good friend, suggested they expand it. Within a few weeks, the account had 3,000 followers.
Three years later, Cates’s and Gutierrez’s phones are constantly ringing with details about different open bars, parties, and art shows. They usually spread the word to their followers, but occasionally keep an exceptional event to themselves. (Sometimes, Cates explained begrudgingly, Gutierrez even keeps events secret from him.)
The pair started a recent Friday like most weekend evenings: with free beer and fun. As they watched the Texas Playboys play baseball against the Jardineros at Govalle Neighborhood Park, they cracked cold ones and bantered about their recent trip to New York, enjoying the quiet of nearly vacant bleachers. They had kept this pregame to themselves.
After Gutierrez stuck a road beer in his North Face backpack, we left for the next event: an open house at Canopy, a neighborhood community collective of art galleries, creative spaces, and 45 studios. The back parking lot homes the Museum of Human Achievement, a former sex toy factory, where a fashion show and photoshoot took place. Behind the stage, a never-ending loop of trippy digital art played on the walls to a soundtrack of electronic music. In a neighboring building, a full crowd gawked at Bob Schneider’s new wooden art installation, as the artist himself socialized nonchalantly in the mix. A bronze casting of a tumbleweed, going for $100,000, rested nearby.
Cates and Gutierrez mingled amongst the partygoers, greeting friends and introducing themselves to new faces. They had posted the event to When Where What Austin a few days prior, and estimated that they had increased attendance by 300 to 400 people. The number of people the influencers can get to show up varies depending on the event itself. For an event with a central location, prime time scheduling, and great incentives for showing up, a promotion can bring out 500 or so people. The posts that perform the best are those involving mimosas, puppies, or yoga, says Cates, calling the trifecta the Instagram starter pack. “If we could combine [all three] into one event, we’d break the internet,” he jokes.
When Where What Austin isn’t just a passion—it’s a business. Cates and Gutierrez both make a living by charging businesses and companies to promote their events on the account. They select the sponsored posts carefully. “If somebody like a Botox place from Westlake comes to us, saying ‘Hey, we’d love to run an advertisement,’ I don’t know how we’d look,” Gutierrez says. “Somebody scrolling down could be like, ‘Ah, these guys, they sold out.’” (Although the ratio of paid and unpaid posts vary from week to week, the pair say that the majority aren’t paid advertisements.)
Like many influencers, their income is multifaceted. In March each year, the two assemble a master list of everything going on during SXSW and charge about $10 for access to the spreadsheet. Cates and Gutierrez also double as party planners, charging admission to some of their events, like after-hours warehouse parties that run from about midnight to 4 a.m. In 2018, they hosted a Wes Anderson-themed movie series in the courtyard of the Weather Up bar in East Austin. Entrance was free, but Cates and Gutierrez were paid a percentage of the bar tab. With a combination of party planning and recommendation, they’re able to keep from finding day jobs and focus on the night life.
Historically, local partygoers relied on print platforms like the Austin Chronicle to find out about upcoming events or turned to digital recommendation sites like Do512 or the Austinot. But for a younger population, When Where What Austin offers a more streamlined version: tailored recommendations, without the background noise.
“There’s a trend for millennials to have information consumed together in one sort of feed,” says Megan French, a PhD candidate at the Stanford Social Media Lab. “This speaks to a trend where I want to find events in the same sort of way that I want to find out about news or see what my friends are doing—all together in one place.”
Jackie McNulty, a 28-year-old Austinite, uses When Where What whenever she looks for upcoming events, and says that all of her friends do the same. “It’s kind of like a one stop shop for me,” McNulty says. “We’re on Instagram already all the time, so having that right in front of us is so easy and so accessible.”
When Canopy closed at 10 p.m., the night was just beginning for Cates and Gutierrez. They led a squad of friends to the next destination: Camel House, a pop-up lounge on Sixth Street painted in warm, geometric patterns. The space wasn’t as packed as Cates and Gutierrez had hoped, so the influencers posted about it on their story. (They didn’t charge for promoting this event.)
Within a matter of minutes, friends and unknown followers showed up, many of whom met the influencers before the end of the night. Beyond recommendations, the account serves as a sort of social network, where frequent users befriend other frequent users, recognizing familiar faces from previous events across the city. “We want you to get familiar and socialize,” Gutierrez says. “Who knows who you’ll meet and where you’ll end up after that event.”
Cates and Gutierrez continued their evening with followers in tow, criss-crossing the city as they stopped at bars and a private party. The next day, Gutierrez would end up out late again, at a beach-themed, white attire, full moon celebration. For him and his co-founder, the party never stops.