Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Can you imagine a downtown tech scene built on a community of progressive, like-minded people in San Antonio? Not many could not so long ago. Flash back to October 5, 2011: I had just met Corpus Christi internet entrepreneur turned Rackspace "Racker" Nick Longo. In our first conversation, Nick laid out his plans to kickstart that very thing in tech-starved San Antonio. I had never heard of a co-working space, and Longo had to explain the concept to me three times. His plan was to develop one on the vacant 11th floor of the downtown Weston Centre with Rackspace Co-Founder and Chairman Graham Weston's support.
There were a few other tech co-working spaces around the country back then, but the big difference in San Antonio would be a mandate that all members had to collaborate. Members would have to give back to one another, building cool tech products and companies that didn’t exist before. It was going to be called Geekdom.
“What a terrible idea,” I said to myself after listening to Longo lay out his vision. There really weren't that many tech people in San Antonio outside of Rackspace, I thought to myself. Any spare tech people in San Antonio had been hired in the nearly 10 years I had worked at Rackspace. It was the city's one real tech destination.
"Dude, have you ever worked with tech people before?” I asked Longo.
I had worked as a business analyst at Rackspace and on a couple of software development projects. To me, true hardcore geeks wanted to be in a closet where they had removed the light fixtures, were surrounded by six monitors, had headphones that blocked outside noise, and a sign on the door that said something like “Project Darkness.”
But here was this guy Nick Longo telling me that he was going to get tech people, entrepreneurs, and creatives to not only share space but collaborate on ideas and become friends and co-workers. Impossible, I thought at the time.
The grand opening of Geekdom changed everything, for me and for a lot of other people. I was shocked as the doors opened and people streamed in. Graham and Nick weren't the only one able to imagine a new day in San Antonio for the tech community.
Before Nick’s idea became a reality, all these people must have been sitting at home or inside at Starbucks, imagining a place where people like them could congregate and collaborate. They were imagining a nonexistent community, and suddenly, it existed. The first time I met Cynthia Phelps, she told my wife that Geekdom saved her from moving away from San Antonio and gave her the community she had been desperately awaiting.
One day, I went to this event Geekdom held called 3 Day Startup, and I watched 10 groups of young entrepreneurs imagine companies that didn’t actually exist. Two of the presenters who stuck out in a crowd were Luis Gonzales and Walter Teele. Both grew up in Mexico, came to school in San Antonio, and were now imagining the formation of a tech startup incubated at Geekdom. That company exists today. It's called Parlevel and has more than 40 employees building the next generation of vending machine management software.
A few months later, Graham (nobody I know calls him "Weston," not even in a news article) went out and recruited the number one tech accelerator in the world outside of Silicon Valley to establish a program inside Geekdom. This was the birth of the Techstars Cloud program. Once again, Graham imagined something that the rest of us did not. He was imagining the San Antonio tech scene becoming known for something specific, what I like to call “under the hood tech.” Graham imagined our tech scene playing to our strengths and not trying to be the “next Silicon Valley.”
As the Techstars Cloud program progressed, new members and companies kept pouring into Geekdom. Nick had to take a second floor of the Weston Centre. Then, Graham called Nick and me to ask us if we could imagine filling a building with tech companies if we had one. “Of course!” we naively answered.
I never imagined that Graham would go out and buy a building, but that is exactly what he did. I remember the day Weston Urban CEO Randy Smith, another former Racker, walked me out of the Weston Centre onto Soledad street, pointed at the Rand, and asked if I could imagine Geekdom World HQ. The moment still gives me chills.
The next two years were a blur as we built out our new space in the Rand, the former home to Frost Bank workers, and long before that, a turn-of-the-century department store. We focused on imagining the entire building brimming with startups, co-working space, and kinetic energy. Then something amazing happened. In short order, Geekdom and the Rand ran out of space. In fact, one company, Michael Girdley and Jason Straughan’s Codeup, outgrew its office before it was finished being built. Determined to stay downtown, they set up shop in The Vogue.
Only then did we begin to imagine tech spilling out of a single building, the rand, and spreading throughout East Houston Street into other historic buildings waiting for new life. We began to think about the emergence of the tech district.
Geekdom has become the place where individuals chase their dream and find their team. And as Geekdom closed its books for March, we realized we had crossed the 1,000 member threshold, with more than 450 companies represented. There is a great TED talk that explains how to start a movement, and one of the principles is that you don’t have a real movement until the first follower shows up. With 1,000 people now a part of our movement, it’s obvious that a genuine, homegrown entrepreneurial ecosystem isn’t something to imagine anymore in San Antonio. It's a reality.
Graham and Nick imagined Geekdom becoming a place where the startup scene could start. What they didn’t imagine was that it would become the center of the ecosystem. They didn’t imagine that its gravitational pull would be so strong that other people would move their companies from other parts of the city and even other cities and countries to become part of it. When I think about what to imagine next, it becomes so clear to me. One day, you will be able to walk from the front doors of Geekdom all the way to The Alamo, and you will see more local entrepreneurs than tourists. That will be the day when I know we finally have arrived.
Imagine that with me.
Top image: Geekdom members work in one of the many community areas. Photo by Scott Ball.