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You know the blue square. But popular Instagram When Where What Austin has eyes on the whole world.

Ella Malena Feldman
Austin American-Statesman
Chris Cates works on the When Where What Austin Instagram account from the brand's office on Dec. 16. Their Instagram account informs almost 250,000 Austinites about events around the area.

What exactly is When Where What Austin?

If you were to ask one of the 244,000 or so people who follow @whenwherewhataustin on Instagram, they would probably tell you that it is an account dedicated to promoting events and deals happening around Austin — which more often than not include free booze. 

Posts usually look like blue squares overlaid with a white sans serif font that gives you the “when,” “where” and “what” of a given event. Just like we practiced in middle school.

If you ask founder Chris Cates the same question, though, the answer is a bit more complicated. Sure, When Where What may have started in 2015 as an Instagram account, he told the American-Statesman, but it has since evolved into a trademarked brand and growing startup company, complete with office space at Native Hostel in East Austin and five full-time, salaried employees. An additional five seasonal contract employees helped the team navigate what is arguable the account's busiest time of year earlier this month: Austin's South by Southwest.

Cates, however, said that at its core, When Where What has never changed.

“To this day, the heart of When Where What is this community water cooler, this curated experience for a group of like-minded individuals,” Cates said. “It's evolved into quite a bit more than that now, which has been pretty exciting to be a part of, but I think that's still the heart and soul of it.”

Chris Cates and Esteban Rey help run When Where What Austin, which is responsible for the omnipresent cobalt blue squares appearing in Austinites' Instagram feeds.

When Cates, 33, founded When Where What in 2015, he had just left a job in tech sales. He was also exploring Austin, discovering things to do and “partying a lot.” Cates, who is originally from Fort Worth and attended Texas State University, was enchanted by Austin's entertainment scene and events, particularly those held during SXSW, the city's flagship spring festival.

“I was really very inspired ... (by) the discovery of all these things going on under your nose,” Cates said. “But it felt like at the time, it was just listings of events."

So Cates set out to become that guide himself.

He devised the simple “when,” “where,” “what” text-based formula to stand out against what you typically encounter on Instagram. “This platform is built around pictures,” Cates said. “There’s a taco, there’s a baby. ... Scroll, double tap, keep it moving.”

At first, Cates put each post’s text on a black background. He started to experiment with color, and around December 2015 landed on When Where What’s signature bright cobalt blue, a shade that calls to mind the early days of the internet.

“Once we landed on that blue color, I could just tell it was almost like the bat signal,” Cates said. “You're scrolling mindlessly, and then you see this and it's like, ‘Oh, what's going on?’ The look and feel ... it's so recognizable.”

Austin residents appeared to think so, too. When Where What’s following began to grow and became much larger than Cates had ever anticipated. With occasional help from friends, he kept his thumb on Austin’s pulse and posted about city happenings multiple times a day. Cates developed relationships with venues and event planners across Austin, and he started dabbling in hosting events. Through event planning and brand sponsorships, When Where What began to generate revenue and became Cates’ full-time job.

Today, When Where What has a diverse income stream. They do consulting work, helping people plan events in Austin by finding venues and coordinating things like music and food. They manage a DJ, Joaquín, and hope to manage more talent in the future. They host their own events and post sponsored content to their page.

In any given week, Cates said, about 85% of When Where What’s posts come about organically, and the other 15% is “brought to our attention by partners,” and When Where What gets paid for posting about them.

Esteban Rey, right, and Chris Cates, left, work on the When Where What Austin Instagram account on Dec. 16, 2021. The brand has expanded to include consulting work and event planning.

“What we're putting out is always what we were already going to be putting out,” Cates said. “I would never ever want the paradigm to shift to where there's sponsored content going out in an overarching way. I've noticed the machine works best when it's us picking out what we like, putting it out, and then building the business in other ways.”

Addie Allen, a 22-year-old medical assistant, has been a longtime fan of When Where What. She's lived in Austin since she was in middle school, and she started following their Instagram account in 2018.

"When Where What gives you things to do that aren’t the same as everyone else, things that you wouldn’t really be able to find on your own," Allen said.

However, Allen noticed When Where What change as it grew into a brand — and it hasn't been her favorite thing as a follower.

"They still do a lot of free events," Allen said, "but they have also transitioned to, 'Hey, there’s this party going on with hundred dollar tickets,' or things like that. I don’t think that’s bad, but I do miss when it was just completely free things and it wasn’t anything that they’re getting paid to promote."

Cates said he never wants When Where What to be perceived as having sold out. “I’m very careful to make sure it doesn’t get to a point where it feels that way,” Cates said, “because then I know we've already lost.”

Cates has been “buying up online real estate” over the last few years. Type “whenwherewhat” into Instagram’s search engine and you’ll find dozens of accounts: @whenwherewhathouston, @whenwherewhatamsterdam, @whenwherewhatsports. All of them resemble When Where What Austin’s page, and most of them don’t have any posts. Expansion is not something Cates wants to rush, he said, but he wants to be prepared.

In 2022, the When Where What team plans to launch pages in Miami and Los Angeles. They’re also experimenting with expanding beyond Instagram to platforms like Twitch, TikTok and YouTube, where they’d like to publish interviews and other multimedia content. “I'm super inspired by a model like Barstool Sports,” Cates said, “in that they've been able to take a company that likes sports and put personalities into place under that umbrella that become extensions of a brand.”

Ironically, it was the pandemic that allowed the event-based brand to see a larger future for themselves. One might think social distancing and lockdowns would spell disaster for a startup that has built itself around in-person events. And Cates said it did, for a while.

One of When Where What’s most successful ventures has been a spreadsheet they compile every year that lists SXSW events. Back in 2020, SXSW was one of the first major events to be cancelled by the pandemic.

“At first, it was just devastating and shocking,” Cates said. “But the pandemic forced us to look in the mirror and ask, how are we providing value? When Where What, it doesn’t have to be an event. There’s news, stories. Everything has a mechanism of time and place. So in the early days of the pandemic, we thought, ‘How can we still provide value to people while keeping them at home?’”

Cates and his team started applying their formula to everything from COVID-19 testing and vaccine information to discussions of popular shows like “Tiger King” and “Succession.” During the winter storm that hit Texas in February 2021, When Where What made a spreadsheet providing information on free food, water and shelters.

“Now more than ever, events are very secondary,” Cates said. “It's about connecting with people and providing an experience that provides value to their life, whether it's entertainment or actually life-saving.”

On New Year’s Eve, When Where What posted their signature blue square with no text on it. In the caption, they addressed “the elephant in the room.”

“We skipped the NYE (expletive) this year,” the caption read, “because in the grand scheme, this ain't it.” They encouraged people to stay home as the omicron variant of the coronavirus spread. The team also teased their plans to transition from a “cool IG” to a “global media agency” in 2022. A few posts later, they put out a call for app developers, expressing their desire to transition to an independent app.

The When Where What team expects a lot of change in the coming year. But, for now, a scroll through Instagram shows the account is back to doing what it's best at — letting Austinites know where they can get the best deal on bottomless mimosas.