Growing the Houston Startup Community
In the past few weeks, there has been quite a bit of discussion in the Houston startup community about growing the Houston startup community. With consumer web and mobile startups currently hogging the spotlight in mainstream media coverage, it is an often overlooked fact that Houston happens to have a tremendously successful energy and biotech startup community. Unfortunately, Houston’s technology startup scene pales in comparison to its counterparts.
Not to say that there is no technology startup community; Houston has a number of startup-focused events and meetups. I have been a regular attendee and promoter of Houston’s startup-focused meetup groups and events for a few years now. I routinely attend two of Houston most active startup-community meetups: Houston OpenCoffee Club and GroundUP Houston. I also helped organize the Houston Startup Weekend, a weekend-long event where people formed into adhoc groups and created a startup in a weekend. There are also other nascent groups that are forming such as the Houston Cofounders Wanted meetup group that recently had its first event.
Houston also has a number of technology startups at varying levels of growth. One of the more well known startups in Houston is a company called 80legs.com, a company that offers web crawling services and data feeds for data aggregators and consumers. The CEO, Shion Deysarkar, recently blogged about how Houston lacks a hacker culture that is shepherding and bolstering the tech startup scene. In particular, he says that:
Right now most of the regular entrepreneur events in Houston are driven by non-technology people. I.e., consultants, service professionals, etc. This leads to events that tend to be:
- Purely networking events lacking any hard substance
- Attended primarily by people that are at the “idea” stage at best
- Lacking any real takeaways or knowledge gained
We need to have more events that are driven by tech people. This means events organized by a tech company, engineering folks and the like. Events should center around cool technologies being built by these companies or a specific technology topic.
Deysarkar ends his blog post with:
Here’s what it comes down to for me: Hackers Unite. You Know Who You Are. Everyone else, you are at best our lawyers and accountants.
This triggered a chain of private and public retorts from a handful of local startup community leaders. One response from Marc Nathan, one of Houston’s most well-known startup community organizers, took issue with Shion’s tone, but ultimately agreed with the fundamental points. Marc decided to not break down the arguments in Shion’s post, to respond to them individually, but I’ll dig a little deeper into the specific points.
While there is truth in what Shion says about these events, some of what he says is not entirely true, and some is by design. The first thing to mention is that there is support and regular attendance in these groups from technologists (myself included). At any given meetup, there are a number of Java, C, Python, PHP, and Ruby developers present. Not to mention that outside of the startup community, these technology communities are very hacker-driven and strong in their own right.
These startup meetups are specifically meant to be unstructured and informal gatherings for the purpose of networking. So, by design, they are not meant to provide any hard substance. The meetups are not education or training sessions, pitch competitions, or cofounder speed-dating platforms. Not that these formats are bad, but that is just not the intention of the OpenCoffee Club and GroundUP Houston. Because the meetups are meant for informal networking, I would say that the takeaways and knowledge gained depend on how well you network and interact with people. For example, I have met many great contacts at these events over the last few years.
With regard to the notion that the events are attended by people who are “idea” stage because they are led by non-technologists, I would argue that correlation does not imply causation. This type of attendance is just a reflection of Houston’s entrepreneurial composition. Houston has too few technologists who have caught the entrepreneurial bug. We have plenty of developers, plenty of hackers, and plenty of smart and creative people. We just don’t have enough people who chose to stay here and dive into doing startups? People who are passionate about startups leave. Otherwise, people stick around here and work on enterprise software.
Why? I can think of many reasons, some of which were listed in Shion and Marc’s posts, but there is one key issue which I argue is the crux of the whole thing, and which is somewhat of a Catch-22: there are not enough tech startups in Houston. Houston doesn’t have many startups to inspire developers to want to work for or (better yet) start their own startup. Creating a community requires inspiration through example. There is no greater mechanism by which someone is inspired than through the jealously they endure when they see a friend or acquaintance succeed. I say that tongue in cheek, but ultimately, whether inspiration is born out of jealously, pride, respect, or curiosity people are more inspired when they’re closer to something. Listening to a recording of a pianist likely won’t inspire you to take piano lessons, but watching a skilled pianist play a masterpiece right in front of you likely would.
So if we want to inspire new startups to emerge, we have to keep existing startups. As Houston Chronicle techblog author Purva Patel has written, a slew of Houston Startups have been leaving Houston to go to cities with larger startup communities. These include companies such as NutshellMail, Giftiki, and perhaps RecycleMatch and Wawadoo. On one hand, I can’t blame startups for leaving, because from many perspectives it is easier to grow a startup in a city with an established startup community: finding investors, finding employees, finding an initial user base. On the other hand, if you dig a bit and weigh things out, I think Houston has a lot to offer, including a rapidly growing mobile development community, a low cost of living, a huge pool of talented developers, reasonable wages, business friendly licensing and taxation, and a large and diverse local economy.
What we need to do is provide more incentive for companies to stay after they get their first big break and start heading down the path of growth. Part of what can be done to convince startups to stay here is to integrate them more into the startup and technology communities. If we create a support network to help provide startups with what they need to thrive, then there is more of a chance that they will stay. We need to grow these communities with more meetups, more events, and more discussion on blogs and local news sites. Hacker-led or not, having these groups in place and working to grow them is important. A centralized calendar that mashes together all of the technology and startup-oriented meetups would be a great starting point where we can start integrating these two communities. Helping these companies meet up more regularly for CEO roundtables focused on technology startups would be another great thing. These should be free, invitation only, and should be void of any service providers.
The talent pool in Houston is actually quite incredible, but many startup companies just don’t know where to look for developers. I know, because as a software consultant, I spend a lot of time trying to recruit local talent for projects. Many talented developers are working for investment banks, energy companies, enterprise software companies, biotech companies, and medical technology or service companies. There are also quite a few highly-respected consulting, web design, and application development service providers here in Houston. A job board or list focused on Houston startups and developers interested in working for technology startups would be a great start. There are a few out there, but for any one of them to grow to the point of usefulness it must be free and many volunteer (wo)man-hours must go in to growing and promoting it to the point where it is well known and pervasively used.
Another way to inspire startups to stay in Houston is to create more funds, incubators, and support networks that incentivize small technology startups. The Founder Institute offered a single semester in Houston, but hasn’t offered a second. I suspect the reason is because the attendance or success rate was low. I think there is a hump that we have to get over, so the tolerance has to be high, and the barrier to entry has to be low. National organizations may not have this level of tolerance, so the local community will have to volunteer to create these support networks at little to no cost. This can be as simple as a local startup or technology company offering one or two small startups some office space, and scheduling a handful of mentors to give them one-on-one guidance a few times a week.
Another thing that several people have mentioned during this whole discussion is that universities tend to be a crucial part of what it takes to foment positive change within the entrepreneurial community. While I know there is much truth to this, I feel like sitting back and waiting for (or even funding) the universities to be the main catalyst is a cop-out. Local service providers, technologists, startups, and corporations all have to step in to help fill the void and help provide what universities in other cities offer their communities: lecture series, hosting of startup events, business-plan review, mentoring, etc.
One disadvantage that we have is that Houston is a very geographically dispersed city. As a large commuter city, it is hard for entrepreneurs from around town to meet at the same time and place. But if there is enough value in making the trip to a certain part of town, people will make it. Midtown has become somewhat of a central hub for the startup community. More of a concerted effort must go into growing midtown as the center of the startup community. We need coffee shops where startups and entrepreneurs hang out regularly. We need more coworking spaces like Caroline Collective and the Houston Technology Center.
There are many ideas I’ve summarized here, but ultimately, I think that Houston has the start of what it needs to grow its startup community. I think we just need to build, support, and keep a few more growth oriented technology startups here in town and we’ll be in good shape. Make sure you attend the meetups. If you have a better idea, tell me about it and I’ll help you start a new meetup. I see no reason why Houston cannot outpace Austin in the technology startup space, and I’m more than willing to help us get there.