Geekdom’s Mentor-in-Chief Shepherds Next Tech Generation
Second in a two-part series.
Just about everyone with a login and password in San Antonio has heard about Geekdom by now, the technology incubator and collaborative workspace established by Graham Weston, chairman and founder of Rackspace.
Fewer people know Geekdom’s majordomo Nick Longo, whose personality imprint defines the space much in the same way Greg Popovich defines the San Antonio Spurs.
An article profiling Longo‘s path to starting and selling CoffeeCup Software and then coming to Rackspace appeared here yesterday. Longo is the main man at Geekdom, the guy in the pork pie hat with the fast mind, sharp tongue and acidic sense of humor, the guy who happens to have a natural affinity for mentoring young computer geeks looking to turn ideas into real businesses. He’s the president of a university with few walls, even fewer rules, no textbooks, practically no tuition costs and, believe me, no dress code.
Geekdom, only six months old, is approaching 500 members, and more people are clamoring to join. Illuminated flat screens greet the visitor exiting elevators, displaying who is on the floor on any given day, and what seminars or hackathons are on the calendar.
The population of Geekdom changes daily, depending on who’s in town, who’s working in the office that day, and what kind of programs are on tap. Geekdom’s membership fees are structured to make it easy to come and go. Students pay $10 a month to work there, and individuals and startup companies pay between $50-150 a month, depending on their space and privacy needs.
It’s not just a co-working space. Geekdom’s primary shared resource isn’t space, although there is 15,000 sq. ft. of Class A downtown office space, not the usual venue for tech startups. The real resource is Geekdom’s intellectual capital, and a nurturing environment where just about anything goes. Students and young tech workers get daily access to Longo and to the other successful entrepreneurs who visit, some from companies like Rackspace, others from places like Silicon Valley, Boulder, and New York.
There are no bad ideas, although failure is a given in many instances. Ultimately, most of the ideas under development in Geekdom won’t stand the test of time. A walk around Geekdom inevitably leads one to an open door where a programmer, a designer, and a marketer are sitting around feeding off the same big idea, trying to shape a concept, a market need, into something tangible worth pursuing.
“Geekdom is an eco-system. Co-working is a real estate play, this is all about collaboration,” Longo said. “Good ideas are a dime a dozen, but execution is the key to building a lasting business with a real outcome. I know a lot of kids today are drawn to this because of the money, but it isn’t about getting rich quick.”
Longo remembers the mantra of CoffeeCup Software, the successful software company he founded in Corpus Christi in the 1990s that took millions of novices onto the Internet with their own websites: “Fresh software. Warm people.”
“It was never about the money for my wife and me once we had enough money to invest in the Texas Tomorrow Fund and make sure our daughters’ education through graduate school was fully paid for,” Longo said. “We used to tell customers, ‘We make software so you can make your own Website.’ It was our mission, our passion.”
Geekdom at times looks like a Trinity University dorm, perhaps because so many students from there are Geekdom members. But not all the tenants are still getting carded at bars.
“I was in the process of re-tooling my business when I moved into Geekdom in December of 2011,” said Alan Weinkrantz, a well-known tech PR adviser who divides his time advising hi tech companies in Israel and the U.S. ” Nick has provided not only the physical space, but a place – and a culture of true collaboration where I am now doing business with some of the teams on my floor. Business aside, Geekdom is just a great place to surround yourself with people that are incredibly smart, really nice and fun to hang out with.”
Longo’s energy is infectious, and that spirit permeates the premises.
“Geekdom has been the kind of “workplace Red Bull” that came at just the right time in my life, said Carlos Maestas, who owns his own video production company, Key Ideas. “After 10 years of owning my own business, this place has helped me rediscover the same unbridled energy I had when I was a start up.”
“The thing that has always really struck me about Nick is his boundless energy,” said Rackspace co-founder Dirk Elmendorf, making an appearance at Geekdom in his trademark tropical shirt, Bermuda shorts and flip-flops. ”Anything Nick chooses to focus on, he pours his heart and soul into it. When you are around him he forces you to match his energy level. I always wondered what his secret was - but in a meeting at a Starbucks near the Castle (Rackspace headquarters) I quickly realized that the entire staff knew him by name. I would drink triple ventis all day long if it gave me as much drive as Nick has.”
Weston, Elmendorf, Rackspace co-founder Pat Condon and others have such “Founder” offices in Geekdom, as does Longo, although I’ve never actually seen him in his office. He usually is found holding court in a conference room behind his bright red laptop, or leading a contingent to Starbuck’s for a caffeine break.
“Nick built Coffeecup into an incredible business because of his ability to build and energize his community of followers around his cause,” Condon said. “At Coffeecup he really, really wanted to make it simple for even a novice to build a web presence. His users were everyday folks and they loved Nick for making tools they could actually use. Nick’s passion around building things the community wants is the same thing that makes him successful at Geekdom. He’s great at getting members involved and contributing, and he’s a guide for them as they embark on their entrepreneurial endeavors. Even though his title is Director of Geekdom, an even more appropriate title might be Chief Mentor.”
Heather Chandler, a television reporter turned video entrepreneur, first met Longo in 2011 and realized she had found a mentor. “I called him up out of the blue and asked to tour the place,” Chandler said. “Nick was very gracious and took time out of his day to show me around. I found his enthusiasm for entrepreneurship and genuine belief in ‘what could be’ very inspiring. Nick took a chance on my video production company and hired us to create the video for Geekdom’s website. He has been a great mentor, very supportive, but someone who does not sugarcoat his advice… no matter how hard it is to hear.”
Luther, a Geekdom tenant who started ZippyKid, his own Word Press site hosting company after leaving Rackspace, has known Longo since he was running CoffeeCup.
“Nick’s been my boss, a friend, and a mentor,” Luther said. ” He taught me that loyalty to the company and its members was more important than money or profits. The idea for ZippyKid as a viable business actually came about when we were having black-eyed peas in Corpus on New Year’s Day in 2008. If Geekdom were a family, he’d be the crazy uncle. You know if you hang out with him, you’ll do something most boring people will think is crazy, but have faith, he’ll get you out in one piece, and stronger.”
I also met Longo as Geekdom was launching. Several of its early members built and designed this website. Longo was unapologetically blunt in grading our evolving concept for a fee access website devoted to urban transformation in San Antonio. He’s also almost always right.
Geekdom was around for a few months before civic and business community leaders began to understand its significance. City Manager Sheryl Sculley was part of an entourage that included Mayor Julián Castro and Councilmen Diego Bernal and Rey Saldańa that toured Geekdom with Weston and Longo in February.
“While I admit that I did not understand 100% of what was going on at Geekdom, I was energized and very impressed, and it gives me great hope that we can grow, retain and attract young, talented technology entrepreneurs in downtown San Antonio,” Sculley said. “In fact, Geekdom is the best example of innovative economic development I’ve seen in San Antonio. It’s amazing what’s being learned, shared and created at the Weston Centre…Graham is once again on to something really big! Most important, it’s part of the strategy to get San Antonio on the radar as a hip place for people in their 20′s and 30′s to live, work and play.”
By May and June, Longo was operating at a speed faster than anyone in the media could really track. There were 50 workshops scheduled over the two months, nearly one a day. And for anyone glancing up to the 11th floor of the Weston Centre, Geekdom lights often burned all night, sometimes with people working, other times sharing a movie or meeting up at a Geekdom social.
One March night around 2 a.m. I left the 10th floor offices of The Rivard Report, and hopped the elevator one floor up to Geekdom just to see if anyone was actually there at that hour. The main computing room was filled with young programmers staring at screens, working on their business plans in the TechStars Cloud program run by its managing director Jason Seats, another successful entrepreneur who came to San Antonio after selling SliceHost, the St. Louis company he co-founded, to Rackspace. A few familiar faces from other startups housed at Geekdom wandered the halls as if it were just another day at the office.
Longo doesn’t stay that late, but he doesn’t having any trouble keeping up with the youth that surrounds him. He breaks down his work at Geekdom into four categories:
1. Code. Nurturing people who write code, the DNA of the Internet and any software program.
2. Circuit. Yes, inside Geekdom you can build things. Circuit defines making tangible things: soldering, robots, electronic kits and anything built with your hands.
3. Design. Learning and designing, whether Web or graphic design and the importance of user experience and user interfaces.
4. Entrepreneurship. Constructing a fully formed idea and learning how to develop it, launch it, and how to sustain the business longterm.
Longo still leads a frenetic life, commuting between his Gulf Coast home and family and his San Antonio base at the Hotel Valencia and Geekdom at the Weston Centre. I once asked him if wealth changed him, and he said no, other than making him independent and able to work on his own terms.
Longo then told me the story of how hard work, obsessive devotion to his startup and eventual success enabled him to finally buy his dream home. It was 2002, and Longo was still five years away from selling CoffeeCup Software and his web hosting company. But after six years, he was managing two thriving and fast-growing businesses. High profit margins were yielding cash flow beyond his wildest dreams.
“There’s this small waterfront residential community in Portland on Corpus Christi Bay, and the houses there never come up for sale, people keep them forever,” Longo said. “I used to drive my car over there, through the neighborhood, just dreaming of living there. I knew every single house. I was driving around one Friday and a guy comes out of his house, literally, with a ‘For Sale’ sign and starts to pound it into his front yard. I jumped out of my car, ran over to him, and told him he could stop right there, take out the sign. I paid him cash on Monday and that’s where we live.”
Longo and friends now fish from his own private pier.
“When I look back at where I came from to where I am today, there was a lot of luck,” he said. “But there was a lot more hard work than luck. All my wife and I wanted was a fulfilled life, and we earned that. We have that.”