One year ago, I was a former newspaper editor trying to create something out of nothing. Fortunately, I was invited into something equally new yet far more ambitious, a collaborative co-working space and technology incubator with the improbable name of Geekdom.
I walked into a world of dreamers, people young and not so young who, like me, were trying to create something out of nothing, relying on the generosity, mentorship and tough love of Rackspace founders and a tech entrepreneur who had built a successful company and sold it before joiningRackspace.
What all of us shared in common was workspace in the downtown Weston Centre and the support and encouragement of the building's namesake family, namely Graham Weston and his newly-appointed Geekdom Managing Director Nick Longo.
A decade ago, a Class A high-rise office space like the Weston Centre was the province of the city's biggest law firms, complemented by an array of establishment offices, wealth management firms, investment bankers, brokerages, accountants and the like.
Flash forward to 2011. Weston, co-founder and chairman of Rackspace, was deeply engaged as a trichair in Mayor Julián Castro's SA2020 initiative, work that only deepened his commitment to urban transformation and downtown metamorphosis. Weston had embarked on his own campaign to build a San Antonio that didn't lose so many of its own young, educated professionals to other cities, and also attracted young professionals from elsewhere to live and work here.
As law firms merged and consolidated space, it made sense for Weston the businessman and landlord, and Weston the entrepreneur and philanthropist, to invite a new generation of workers into empty offices in the Weston Centre. The building's 10th floor, once home to the Matthews & Branscomb law firm, was the first to have its cubicle walls torn down as it became Geekdom. The overflow, including the Rivard Report, found space on the former law firm's vacated 11th floor.
That was one year ago. In the space of only 12 months, Geekdom has become the state's leading collaborative co-working space, a gathering place "where entrepreneurs, technologists, developers, and creative professionals work together to build business in the Alamo City."
Geekdom's rate of growth exceeded all expectations. Soon enough, small startups like the Rivard Report found themselves moving to other floors as Geekdom gobbled up the 11th floor, and is now filling up a third floor. More than 500 members now occupy 45,000 square feet of space, putting it on par with some of the other biggest such ventures nationwide. And it's all happened by word of mouth.
Geekdom has infused the Weston Centre with a small army of techies -- individuals who go to work wearing jeans and t-shirts rather than bespoked suits, and who dine at food trucks rather than in private downtown clubs. On Weston Centre floors where I once marveled at Matthews & Branscomb's extraordinary corporate art collection, you now find downtime Geeks engaged in intense ping-pong games, facing off over foosball, or shuffling of in their hoodies and ball caps to nearby coffee shops.
“Geekdom has become a pioneer in San Antonio,” said Weston. “We’ve created a place for entrepreneurs to inject themselves into a true ecosystem on which they can thrive and take advantage of a powerful network of influencers. We want to make San Antonio the ‘Cloud Capital of the World.’ Having a thriving startup community is the foundation of that ecosystem. Our mission to take promising ideas and turn them into fundable ideas is becoming reality faster than any of us could have hoped.”
Weston convinced fellow Rackspace co-founders Pat Condon and Dirk Elmendorf to join him in backing and supporting Geekdom. Both men are using their Rackspace success and wealth to launch and support other technology initiatives and companies from here to Canada – but both maintain offices at Geekdom and appear there regularly, making themselves available to interact informally with other members. That kind of access for an aspiring young developer trying to turn an idea into a business is both unusual and priceless.
“We offer a space for the country’s brightest entrepreneurs to connect, work, and grow,” said Nick Longo, Mentor-in-Chief and Executive Director of Geekdom. “Our focus since day one has been simple: to attract talented startup companies to San Antonio with a dynamic space that offers them an opportunity to think and work creatively with the freedom to explore their business ideas with like-minded companies and mentors. In this way we can stimulate two things: San Antonio’s economic engine and driven entrepreneurs that will create up to 40% of all new jobs over the next 20 years.”
Longo is largely unknown outside the Rackspace/Geekdom world, despite the phenomenal success of the company he founded, Coffee Cup Software. I profiled Longo in a two-part series in July. The first installment, Coffee Shop to CoffeeCup.com, chronicled the high school graduate's improbable journey from greyhound dog trainer to opening the first coffee house in Corpus Christi to developing software that helped Mom 'n Pop startups find their way on to the Internet. His products have sold in the tens of millions. The second story, Geekdom's Mentor-in-Chief Shepherds Next Tech Generation, focused on the astonishing first six months when Longo took an idea and turned it into a phenomenon.
Longo doesn't credit himself for that growth. He points to the nearly daily tech events staged within Geekdom and initiatives like the weekend learning program, SparkEd. This program serves 30 middle schools in San Antonio, allowing students to learn how to write code, use it to build and program robots and then pitch their work as businesses worthy of investment.
Geekdom also plays host to TechStars Cloud, another hi tech venture brought here by Weston. TechStars, which started in Boulder, seeks out and mentors some of the globe's most promising young tech entrepreneurs, helping them take their ideas to fully developed businesses. Investors have provided TechStars graduates with tens of millions of dollars in venture capital. Jason Seats, the managing director of TechStars Cloud at Geekdom, was fresh out of college in St. Louis when he helped found and build SliceHost, another hosting company acquired by Rackspace, helping propel it into the cloud computing market.
Seats also was the subject of two stories here. The first, "Pitching the Next SliceHost," chronicles Seats' rise from university graduate co-launching a startup eventually sold to Rackspace, and Seats' arrival in San Antonio and rise to direct TechStars Cloud. The second story, "Let the Investing Begin: Demo Day at TechStars Cloud," covered the first class mentored by Seats and their on-stage business pitches at the Empire Theater before a packed audience of investors.
Geekdom might be best known for bringing together San Antonio's previously scattered and disconnected techie community. It's last legacy, however, could prove to be its growing efforts to inspire students to embrace math and science, their own continuing education into college, and eventually, future careers in the technology sector.
“We are keen to the fact that growth cannot happen without education,” said Longo. “Any business leader worth his or her salt will tell you that learning is a constant process. That is why Geekdom also offers members an opportunity to learn through a diverse set of programs that includes 3-Day Startup and TechStars Cloud. Startups that truly inspire Geekdom founders are also awarded $25,000 in funding. So far, seven deserving young companies have received funding from Geekdom in 2012.”
Geekdom has evolved from an inviting workspace that looks like an Ikea factory to also include state-of-the-art video and sound studio facilities. There is a completely outfitted "Maker Lab" available to inventors, builders and tinkerers doing robotics and circuit work.
Geekdom's newest venture is the Open Cloud Academy, which will "instruct and certify military veterans and the public to become System Administrators and in coding languages like Ruby and Python." If the Academy succeeds, trained, qualified young techies will stream out of the Weston Centre and into well-paying jobs at Rackspace and other San Antonio businesses learning to operate in the Cloud.
Longo: “The first year of Geekdom has helped transform the startup scene in South Texas. Our goal to energize the entrepreneurial and tech community is no longer a goal, it’s a reality. 2013 will be built on the back of the momentum 2012 brought us. We invite all interested entrepreneurs, startup companies, and students to experience the vibrancy of Geekdom. It’s why we’re here.”
Geekdom will celebrate its one-year anniversary Wednesday evening with a "community event" at the Weston Centre. That's code for a blowout party. Yes, Geeks can party with the hardiest. There will be live music, a mechanical bull, and in keeping with Longo's P.T. Barnum-like appreciation for the attention-getting stunt, the all-new Geekdom Bus, which will soon be traveling to area campuses to transport just a little bit of the Weston Centre magic to a school near you.
About Geekdom: Founded in 2011 by Rackspace’s Graham Weston and CoffeeCup Software’s Founder Nicholas Longo, Geekdom strives to provide an inspiring environment for bright minds to explore ideas in entrepreneurship, technology, leadership, and creativity, develop talents, and connect to a community of like-minded people. For more information on Geekdom, visit Geekdom.com.