By linking entrepreneurs through digitally focused resources and networking, Lani Rosales plugs in the local tech community.
By Rachel Rascoe, Photos by Rudy Arocha
As a profanity-loving professional, introverted event planner and seasoned veteran of new media, Lani Rosales is full of contradictions. These seemingly conflicting aspects align to make her the ultimate power source for Austin’s tech and entrepreneurial communities.
Explaining the origins of The American Genius, the digitally focused entrepreneurial news site Rosales runs with her husband, she’s the first to admit “initially, it was just a passion project, which is pretty much the story of how all our different things have succeeded.”
“It was like, ‘Let’s just do this for fun,’ and now it’s our whole life,” Rosales says. “We’ve totally made it up as we go along.”
This trailblazing approach to serving national and local business communities has snowballed into the formation of The Real Daily, a sister real-estate news hub, as well as hyperpopular Austin linkups like the Big Ass Social Happy Hour and the Austin Digital Jobs Facebook group.
“We’ve married them all and made a big picture,” Rosales says, explaining the far-reaching web of her business ventures. “We’re all over Austin, but if you meet someone that knows me, they’ll only know me through one of these pockets.”
Across all platforms, Rosales maintains an immutable, authentic sense of optimism. She swaps business casual for jeans and a T-shirt, and promotes the power of curse words, all the while trekking toward an inclusive online utopia.
By linking entrepreneurs with niche and necessary news and personal-turned-professional connections, she’s ensured all the unhindered executive ventures add up to her biggest goal: to make the web—and Austin—better.
During her senior year at the University of Texas, Austin native Rosales met her eventual business mentor and entrepreneurial match, Benn Rosales, while studying at a Starbucks. The powerhouse duo got married the day after her last final exam.
After graduation, Lani Rosales found herself at a crossroads. Working in marketing at a commercial real-estate firm, she was overworked, underpaid and felt pressure to push herself as one of the few women on staff.
“It was really soul-sucking,” Lani Rosales recalls. “It’s the only job I’ve ever had where I felt like I wasn’t making a positive impact. If I’m not helping somebody or making a difference, then I’m not fulfilled.”
Meanwhile, Benn Rosales, in addition to running his own boutique brokerage, had started blogging about national real-estate issues. Using a pen name, he found a budding community interested in the interplay of realty and the emerging digital world. While Lani Rosales transitioned careers, he asked her to come help market the side project. Building readership for the blog, Lani Rosales became one of the first digital-marketing managers in the entire real-estate industry.
“Our dynamic works really well,” Lani Rosales says. “It turns out I enjoy working alongside him much more than separate. We’re both passionate about building new things and concepts.”
As the site continued to expand, Benn Rosales came on full time, beginning the business partnership that would grow into a self-made empire. The strategic husband-and-wife duo transitioned from simply blogging to launching a topical news site dubbed Agent Genius.
The American Genius
As the real-estate site racked up monthly readers, the couple realized their cutting-edge, undercurrent content was reaching many friends not in the real-estate industry, but in Austin’s tech community.
“They were saying, ‘We know it’s for Realtors, but we’re reading it,’ ” Lani Rosales remembers. “So, we dropped the moniker that it was for real estate because literally every Realtor is an entrepreneur.”
Now named The American Genius, the online news outlet provides tech-centric updates on national entrepreneurial news and business-focused “growth-hacking” tips to an average 5 million readers each year. Since its 2007 start, Lani Rosales has moved from marketing to editor-in-chief to her current role as chief operating officer. She funnels the latest happenings into story assignments for her freelance writing team of coders, professors and Ph.D. students.
Avoiding the endless stream of clickbait, Lani Rosales emphasizes content that matters to her national audience.
Four years ago, the couple returned to their roots in adding on The Real Daily, a real-estate-focused sister site.
By entering the scene during the emergence of blogs, social media and web-based news, Lani Rosales found herself breaking new ground in the realm of online marketing. Interacting with a small group of early digital adaptors helped The American Genius builds its initial tone and audience.
“Digital marketing is really special because we were part of the pioneering crowd,” Lani Rosales elaborates. “We really did, together, get to help shape a lot of this culture. That’s what happens when you’re first to the gate.”
She still finds herself representing slightly off-center, opposing viewpoints during her frequent speaking engagements, as well as her editorial writing about gender diversity and the Austin tech community. At the first-ever Ignite Austin event, she presented an etymology of curse words. Her unfiltered, gritty personality lends bite to her business-underdog championing.
“We were very passionate about building this community,” Lani Rosales says. “We found this unique little niche of like minds and that’s still our core, the counterculture, D.I.Y. kind of vibe.”
Her innovative online action also made her one of the Texas capital’s first Twitter users, joining about 40 other locals who interacted online in the app’s first year.
“One day, we decided to meet each other in person because back then, you didn’t meet people online,” Lani Rosales explains. “I just wanted to know that they weren’t serial killers.”
In the following months, the growing Twitter community kept asking her, “When’s the next hangout?”
Beginning as the Big Ass Twitter Happy Hour, Lani Rosales’ face-to-face reunion of online pals has since evolved into the Big Ass Social Happy Hour, which is now in its 10th year. With no speakers or stuffy business-card pushing, the popular monthly meetup is marketed as “a networking event for people who hate networking.” Considering herself an online extrovert and in-person introvert, Lani Rosales provides ample online information, encouraging “love notes” and volunteer opportunities for weary attendees.
To curate an inclusive culture at her events, the party-planning whiz cross-promotes with other niche and minority tech-focused local groups. Acting as the key element of B.A.S.H.H., Lani Rosales’ meetups actually skew more female, which is unique for the tech world. She’s a strong proponent of taking direct action toward diversity instead of just complaining on social media.
“When you feel strongly about something, especially when it’s gender issues, it’s so important to get involved,” Lani Rosales emphasizes. “If you’re pushed out of an event, or you feel like an event is sexist, start one [of your own]. It’s a lot of work, but if you really want to make a difference, do your own thing.”
Her low-key, all-are-welcome approach to building business connections mirrors her love for Austin’s professional ethos.
“The culture in Austin is not plastic. Nobody’s better than anyone else. We’re all dressed the same,” she says, adding, “Austin allows you to be mission-oriented. Doing the right thing is a luxury that most business owners can afford here. People that are more cutthroat tend to thrive better in Dallas or LA, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s definitely not Austin.”
Austin Digital Jobs
In 2011, Lani Rosales noticed friends in tech packing up for jobs in other cities. Taking initiative in her own digital-savvy style, she expanded her slew of projects to include the emerging platform of Facebook groups.
“If somebody’s privately confiding in you that they’re unemployed that they’re about to lose their apartment, I guess some people would just be like, ‘Oh, go to a homeless shelter’ but being an overachiever, I’m like ‘Well let’s get some appointments for you tomorrow,’ ” Lani Rosales says. “I’m from Austin. My husband loves Austin, so we wanted to do our part to attract and recruit people.” Her Austin Digital Jobs group exploded to include almost 40,000 members, absurdly nicknamed “boatfaces” or “boaties.” The online community provides recruiters, employers and employees a space to link up and ask questions on their own personal profiles.
“Everything’s kind of a boat reference, like we’re all on this ship together,” Lani Rosales shares. “When recruiters meet other people in the group, literally part of the interview is commiserating over the ridiculous stuff that goes on in this little community.”
As the reigning administrator and tough-loving leader of the group, Lani Rosales tries to keep things light, being deeply sympathetic to the stresses of her unemployed “boaties.” She structures the organized chaos with multiple posts a day, including a meme thread, and quarterly recruiting events. The gatherings average 400 to 500 attendees.
“You’re organizing people and the culture without making them feel like it’s programmatic,” Lani Rosales admits. “Everything looks like it’s unchoreographed, but the dirty secret is it’s very carefully concocted. I’ll spend 10 minutes picking which GIF of flipping the bird I want to give the group.”
In recounting the evolution of The American Genius Network, which now encompasses The American Genius, The Real Daily, B.A.S.H.H. and the Austin Digital Jobs group, as well as all the interactive events, Lani Rosales is quick to attribute her co- founder, Benn Rosales, with the master plan.
“He is the captain up top, looking over the shore, and I’m down below rowing the ship,” she explains. “Benn and I balance each other very well as yin and yang because he can see the big picture and I’m the workhorse. He thinks way up here, like, ‘Let’s do this huge thing,’ and I’m down here being more risk-adverse and realistic.”
Through all their shared ventures, Lani Rosales credits her husband with serving as a business mentor, his background in public relations at Apple providing their initial connection with the Austin tech world.
“I don’t think many people would do well to work with and for their spouse,” Lani Rosales says. “When you have two people, somebody has to be the tiebreaker. We’ve never been in a situation where I’m like, ‘No,’ and he’s like, ‘Yes,’ because we’ve worked from our yeses and noes to the middle of what we can do together.”
Lani Rosales’ role as the event-planning, boots-on-the-ground face of the business used to include frequent late nights and working weekends. A few years ago, her priorities shifted abruptly when her husband had multiple heart attacks, followed by open-heart surgery.
“You think you appreciate somebody, but when they’re in a hospital bed struggling to live, everything changes,” Lani Rosales says. “Everything used to be an emergency. When that happened, it was like, ‘OK, whatever fire you think you have, it’s not more important than my husband.’ What I ask myself now when I’m planning out my day is, ‘Will this be important to me in 10 years?’ ”
She now batches out her daily schedule to prioritize her many projects and get offline by 5 p.m. Lani Rosales and now-recovered Benn Rosales both work from home in their North Austin abode, using evening walks to think big about what’s next for the business.
The forward-thinking twosome is currently mapping out a new five-year plan, always adjusting to the changing tides of online news and the evolving needs of Austinites. Admitting it’s another one of her idealistic views, Lani Rosales says their business’ relatively small size allows them to focus foremost on the user experience in both events and news consumption.
“Our focus is always on improving our community and their surroundings,” Lani Rosales asserts. “If we’re not doing that, we don’t feel like our business is succeeding, no matter what our profit-and-loss statement says. It’s not about what are we getting? It’s about are we giving enough?”
The duo works to constantly improve the Austin tech world, shown both in their early influence and extensive current iterations. Through all her various roles linking locals and national readers with professional resources and community interactions, Lani Rosales strives to maintain a genuine, personal touch.
“I would hope that any time I crossed paths with somebody, they understood that I sincerely cared about their journey,” she expresses. “When somebody messages me that’s unemployed or has a question, I don’t shove them off to someone else. I stop and say, ‘Well, let’s see if we can help you answer that question.’ ”