Geekdom co-founders Graham Weston and Nick Longo believe they’re a third of the way through building a proper tech ecosystem in San Antonio.
The downtown co-working space is in its seventh year. By Year 20, Weston – who helped start the managed cloud provider Rackspace, one of San Antonio’s most successful tech companies – expects another multimillion-dollar company to emerge from the burgeoning East Houston Street tech district.
Sometimes that means losing startups to other properties in town, but that’s precisely what the founders want to see.
“Once a company gets to a certain size they need to leave the nest,” Weston told the Rivard Report before speaking at Geekdom’s “Fireside Chat” series on Monday. “We want to focus on being the place where startups begin.”
Weston and Longo touched on a range of subjects at the Monday talk in the Geekdom Event Center, including how much San Antonio’s tech community should read into H-E-B’s decision this month to build an 81,000-square-foot innovation center in Austin that will house hundreds of tech-centric employees. Some in the local tech ecosystem took the move as a slight against San Antonio’s talent pool.
But Longo said he believes there was never a competition between San Antonio and Austin, as the decision hinged on new H-E-B subsidiary Favor, which is headquartered in the state capital.
“Favor ended up changing the center of gravity for the innovation-focused section of H-E-B,” Weston said, adding San Antonio currently lags behind Austin when it comes to the pool of local software developers. “They bought this company with hundreds of employees in Austin. This is the reason they’re choosing Austin. They already had a critical mass there.”
Weston added that H-E-B’s decision was “easy” because of the high stakes involved. Amazon is mounting a serious challenge to H-E-B’s long-held near-monopoly in Central and South Texas since acquiring Austin-based grocer Whole Foods last year. The e-commerce giant has also rolled out features that have made shopping for groceries, wine, and beer more feasible for customers who receive discounted shipping by subscribing to Amazon Prime.
“We are personally involved,” Weston said of the Geekdom and broader tech ecosystem downtown. “Each of us can play role in building the capability and depth of expertise we have in the city so that some day we’ll be saying to H-E-B, ‘Hey, how about putting your software developers here?'”
Despite taking some recent lumps, San Antonio is on the rise as a desirable city in which to live and grow a business, Weston said.
He pointed to Mayor Julian Castro’s “Decade of Downtown” for being the spark plug for entrepreneurship and a growing tech scene in downtown San Antonio. In addition to founding Geekdom, Weston is a principal in the urban-core-focused Weston Urban real estate development firm.
Continuing to increase density in the urban core as well as introducing new quality-of-life offerings that appeal to the millennials at the heart of many companies’ tech workforce will be crucial to the city’s ability to draw talent and avoid brain drain.
“For Rackspace’s whole history we struggled to recruit young people,” he said. “If you don’t have kids, San Antonio just does not have a good value proposition. Today having urban experience in San Antonio, I think, is a must. The mayor kicked it off with his visions along the way, and I helped precipitate the process.”
Asked to assess the progress made at Geekdom, Longo said, “we’re ahead of the curve” in the co-working space’s goal of laying the foundation for a strong tech ecosystem.
He said he’d like to see entrepreneurs continue to focus on physical components and pointed to examples such as Parlevel’s smart vending machines, which scan barcodes on food items and match them with items in the vending database to complete a transaction. He also highlighted Merge VR, a virtual reality company whose headsets are built with soft foam.
“If keep we keep swinging sticks at these things we might hit something,” Longo said.