Last night, I had the privilege of attending Startup Grind San Antonio for the first time at Geekdom. Events like Startup Grind are the main reason I joined Geekdom. While the event was open to the public, I recognize how special the Geekdom community really is and I want to continue the conversations started at the event with members in the future.

Guest speaker Debra Innocenti-Placette of Innocenti-Jones PLLC said a lot of incredible things last night, but the words that resonated the most with me came during the Q&A session at the end.

A great conversation usually has to warm up or be sparked spontaneously. So co-speaker Drew Placette was bent on asking Debra a tough question. He asked why our tech ecosystem in San Antonio seems to be dying.

Our tech ecosystem, especially scalable startup ecosystem seems to be dying. We don’t see a lot of things coming out of here, like we used to. I know we have a lot of good things, but there is also a lot of smoke and mirrors in San Antonio around stuff. Why don’t we see actual viable startups coming out of San Antonio? Besides capital. What do you think we can do to actually change that?

This is the pink elephant in the room. I think most San Antonians can acknowledge that true innovation is more likely to be found in other places (insert your own city here, like Silicon Valley), not San Antonio.

Personally, I don’t think of San Antonio when I think of innovation. When I think of San Antonio, I think of flintlock rifles and cannons going off at the Alamo or Fiesta. Not bad things to be known for, but I would like to see San Antonio also known for other things too! Creativity, innovation, and the city of the future… I don’t believe I’m alone in this characterization of San Antonio or my desire to see it grow in new ways.

Debra’s answer struck a chord in my heart. Things I had been saying all along but thought I was the only one thinking these things. I thought that these ideas were at best revolutionary or at worst the Twilight Zone (a delusion).

Her answer was so good, I’ve loosely transcribed it for you. Quote it, tweet it, share it with your friends. Let’s do something about this!

In full homage to Startup Grind, which is bare knuckles honesty… I think there’s a number of things that we are failing on and we need to work on. I think we can do it! One of the things is, we need to go back to the beginning values. Geekdom has a touchstone value that is critical. It’s the initial mantra of ‘where startups are born’, the embracing of the creatives, the messy people, the disorganized people, the people who are disruptive and don’t follow rules well, the engineers who have cabling and circuit boards falling behind them as they walk… we have to make sure that we continue to embrace and nurture creatives.

And creatives are not comfortable with rules and structure. That’s not to say you can’t have rules and structure, because there’s always a balance. I love rules and structure! But, I also love creatives and I think that balance is critical. I think that pendulum has swung too much, citywide, [to the other side].

We really need to have a conversation about what innovation is… innovation literacy. When we use the word innovation, this is what we mean. If a company is striving to be innovative and disruptive, we need to understand what that means.

Innovation means a number things: it means that you must have a commitment to hiring people who ask questions. Why are we doing it this way? Is this the best way to do it? Can we do it another way? Why is this person in charge? People who challenge things, loosen up structure and allow for disruption.

Creatives and innovators don’t like rigidity. In terms of, if you have dress codes where everyone has to wear suits and ties—that’s not going to promote innovation. If you’re hiring people who are followers and not challengers and leaders that’s not being innovative.

If you are requiring people to have degrees… a bachelor’s degree, if that’s like a requirement in your job description… you’re going to be shutting the door to a lot of creatives.

When you go into portals for jobs and one of their requisites is 5 years of experience in X or the system kicks you out… we have a broken hiring system! That needs to be fixed.

The work is heavy in terms of shifting that whole culture. But, we also have a culture in San Antonio where people want to stay in the same job for the rest of their life and be comfortable. And they don’t want to hire people under them that are smarter than them or that will challenge them. Because they don’t want things to change. In other more viable, more vibrant ecosystems we have people eying a position above them and they want to hire someone under them that can take their place. They want to cultivate that. They want a dynamic system that’s going to change, that’s not static. We’re not there yet in San Antonio. That’s not the culture here. There’s work to do there.

There’s a lack of diversity in most of the leadership organizations here, including in the tech community. How can we say that we are an ecosystem or an industry of innovation and disruption, if we cannot even be innovative in representation in leadership? That’s not innovative.

That’s saying innovation because it’s a nice shiny word and it sounds good, it’s got good PR ring, but we’re not serious about it. We’ve got to re-dip into the well of our core values. We’ve set them right, we just need to understand the words that we are saying. We’ve got to be serious about them and not drift away from those values.

You can drift away from your core values unless you revisit them and think about them. That’s why organizations have mission statements. It’s not because some lawyer said you need to have a mission statement that’s one sentence in this part of the document. It’s because you must have an understanding of mission.

Until we learn what innovation means and really commit to it… until we invite creatives in, encourage them and make them want to stay… until we embrace diversity… we’re not doing what we’re saying we want to do.

Her 7 minute response summarized every conclusion I came to over the past year of unemployment and even before that. I thought about companies I had worked for and startups I had been a part of; each experience taught me a slow lesson about what’s needed to be innovative.

I had asked myself why San Antonio wasn’t at the pinnacle of human progress—now I know. I was slowly placing a finger on key reasons, but her answer neatly summarizes a significant time of reflection.

Granted this is a perception. There are lots of great things happening in the city that I don’t know about. And I’m likely not alone in this. So it makes sense after several interviews and rejection emails. Even at my own university. The place I credit for teaching me a large portion of what I know. That I can 100% relate to what Debra sees wrong with San Antonio. But the good news is we can do our part to fix it and we are not alone in this common vision.

Conversations like this one are special. They spark curiosity. They lead to more questions and eventually more conclusions. Like why stay in San Antonio when there are other places that have figured this out? Is there any reason to attend college anymore? These were also touched on in the full talk.

We are not alone in these thoughts. There are more people, even where you live, who think like us. People who question things. Who are curious. In San Antonio, Geekdom is one place where people like us gather. I’m glad I found this place. Maybe I’ll see you there sometime?

37 Comments

  1. Aaron, I would be happy to be part of this discussion. I feel Innovation is not dying in San Antonio, but my perspective is that we need to focus innovation on problems for our residents that make their lives better.

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    1. You don’t feel innovation is dying. I feel innovation in San Antonio is a 1980s innovation. It’s not dying it was never here in a real way.

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    2. Craig Hopkins I actually agree with you, it is not dying in San Antonio as a whole. I think our startup ecosystem is taking a hit right now. Innovative startups affect the lives of our citizens. I would love to connect for lunch one day.

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  2. Innovation isn’t defined by everyone the same way. Its not just a term in the dictionary, its a term defining personal experience and that experience is a continuum, not a point. Also, there is a tremendous amount of insecurity in SA. Ive lived in a lot of other cities, states and in Europe and its not like this everywhere. There is a cultural insecurity, fear and complacency here that is linked to higher education not having been valued and prevalent here for very long. Not enough people here take chances. Its not edgy. It’s changing some but has a long ways to go. Its not New York, Boston, Washington, or even Austin, any of which would be a good role model for cutting edge higher education being a mainstay for two centuries+ (aside from Austin but ATX is creative central, another thing we’re not). Again, SA is changing for the better: creatively, in tech, architecture, design, energy and frequency, especially lately, but has much to do.

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  3. People are getting too hung up on the term “innovation” and trying to make it happen and then feeling sad when it doesn’t. Not every city needs to be a “tech” hub.

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  4. If you really want to see why there is not innovation in SA, look no further than the fact that most of the city isn’t driven by private enterprise. It’s driven by non-profits, and federal contacting. When your whole lifeline depends on federal or state funding, it doesn’t lead to a lot of innovation. Silicon valley and Austin don’t rise and fall based on dollars coming in to JBSA. And as for a lack of diversity in tech here, just take a look at how every contract coming down the pike the last several years has had to have some manner of 8A or other disadvantaged business in front of it. Most of the fundraising efforts for start ups in this town are absolute jokes. It’s all lip service with the possibility of $25k that may be tossed your way if you can get out from behind yet another green energy app or communal farming effort. I’ve seen great medical apps have to leave here and go to Chicago and LA, not because they were bad ideas or poorly run. It was because there was absolutely no private capital here to support growth funding. The limited assets here simply don’t cut it if you aren’t part of some special city-led effort, or part of a research contract.

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  5. My previous comments on the subject match the sentiments in the article and the comments, but my somewhat rhetorical question is: what are the solutions? Since I came back here, I’ve seen so many people point out the flaws with no corresponding solution.

    It’s clear to me that the ways to turn things around will have to be different than what we’ve seen. That means doing something totally different and uncomfortable. Comparing ourselves to whatever region is missing the point, as a) we’re not them, b) it isn’t perfect there (lots of fun Quora posts from Austinites on that subject), c) it doesn’t bring solutions.

    These problems can lead to innovation. How do you do more based on what you got?

    I am with everyone on the frustrations, and I’ve got about 9 years of them to share. And while no major successes yet, I’m using those to create solutions and try something different.

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    1. I have a solution but it will mean a radical shift in leadership. Human-centric leadership is about business development THROUGH human capital development. When employees are valued as assets. Invested in not only for what they bring but how you can invest in them more. How they can each be a part of the success instead of pinching a clock. You then inspire creativity, solution driven environments. But this mentality has not been easy sale for me here. Training is so greatly undervalued here. My attempts to get my training to leaders here has met a good deal of resistance. The solution is creating change agents in leaders… I have the tools just need to get the message out better.

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      1. As someone who runs a training technology company, you’re preaching to the choir.

        That said, I don’t put all my eggs in one basket, and, despite what I see in other comments, I don’t find value/purpose in just running to Austin, because that’s missing the point. I legitimately believe it’s going to feel like a difficult if not flat-out lonely experience. It’s felt that way for me this year, and at the outset, I originally had 0 interest or plans to do business here.

        It was the people who are from these other regions everyone idolizes who persuaded me. I still have a good mixture of SA and non-SA companies I approach.

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  6. I have been “innovating” for 10 years, building my project CubeSpawn, I was lightly involved in the startup of 10bitworks, and spent 3 years trying to network at Geekdom, nothing much came of it, I partnered with a large recycler in Austin, who has visionary leadership, and after 3 years of steady work I’m finally where I’d hoped to be 6 years ago… 😉 but, the progress is real, San Antonio has way too conservative a business culture to shine for innovation, plus the reasons Shaun and Angelo cite above, you’ll get slow incremental change here at the fastest or more frequently: Nothing at all.

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  7. Yeah. I remember your manufacturing ideas from a previous geekdom engagement. It was great, but required some capital to really make it work.

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  8. The best part is: It actually cost next to nothing, I use their machine shop, have access to their materials stream and anything from their 200k sq ft of raw inventory, they get some very occasional technical advice, but there is virtually no cost to them and no cost to me.

    So this is innovation in a different dimension: Progress toward a shared goal, using what is at hand, WITHOUT relying on “capital” in the direct sense at least – this is more efficient 😉

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  9. From what I’ve seen the alledged tech industry of San Antonio is mostly a myth perpetuated by the hopes of locals.

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  10. Definitely stirred up some good convo! I think it might be time to dive deeper into innovation vs startups vs tech and which specific pieces of each we can improve.

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  11. It’s a legit question, and everyone who has weighed in so far are bringing up great points. #KeepitclassyntechieSA

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  12. The question of innovation is bona fide. Here are a few statistics comparing innovation and patents:
    http://cityobservatory.org/what-patents-tell-us-about-americas-most-innovative-cities/

    And here are some good starter points from a report by Accentûre:
    https://www.accenture.com/us-en/insight-outlook-innovation-cities

    BUT – let’s not get ahead of ourselves. San Antonio is doing well, and there are a number of innovative ideas, not the least of which, of course, is Geekdom. Somebody just might establish a City House for Innovation (a new “CHI”) and let the ideas flow, encouraged but not criticized. Some won’t work – some will. There is no hurry on this; great ideas are seldom forced. Note: We do not need ‘central government’ to approve ALL innovations and ideas, such as we might find in countries run with “-ism” philosophies, but having a sort of gathering point might be useful.

    So, when USAA moves a few thousand people to downtown San Antonio, and traffic challenges are more complicated, I still think it’s an innovative idea to create centralized transport drop points and use the SA River for move workers within the city…and to build some overhead pedestrian crossings.

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  13. The question is a valid one. Everyone brings up good view points in the comments. SA does need more innovative solutions. This City must grow in all Tech sectors. My thing is multiple modes of transportation.

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  14. This is so cool. Thank you, Aaron, from both Drue and me for this post! I hope we can all keep talking about this as a City and keep working to figure it out.

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  15. Aaron thanks again for sharing and writing! I don’t think we’ve ever had a attendee (who’s not a journalist) write a follow up about a topic that should be talked about (which I love!) ! But as I said earlier not a big fan of the word “dying” 🙂 there’s too many awesome people here for it to be dying.

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    1. I’ll address the title first. The title is a provocative opinion. It’s sensational. It makes people want to click; to either validate their existing opinion or to challenge an opposing view that they strongly disagree with. The original question provokes passion. Before coming to Geekdom, I’ve associated with creative circles who weren’t enthusiastic about San Antonio as a city. To each of them, there was someplace better (like New York City, Los Angeles, Austin, Silicon Valley, Paris, London, Germany, etc). Name the place, someone here will look up to there as somehow better. It’s subjective, sometimes objective statistically, and most definitely extreme. So I would agree with you that the word “dying” is over the top. But when I speak with people of this opinion, they speak in absolutes. That’s what gets the clicks and honestly, that’s how people express themselves (in absolutes). I had a P.E. teacher in grade school who used yell (as a motivation), “if you’re not growing, you’re dying!” Maybe there’s some truth to it. Had a nice ring to it. I assure you that the article is meant in a positive way, but not so positive that it glosses over the brass knuckles honest conversation every city needs to have. I’ve experienced many of the things Debra L. Innocenti-Placette mentioned. There’s room for growth culturally in San Antonio. As is in every city and every person in every city. The shadow proves the sunshine. A year of rejections and associating with cynicism has been hard for me. But, now I’m starting to see the light peep through the clouds. People know what’s wrong and we can fix it—together. Geekdom brought the fire back to my heart. Hearing someone validate what I had been thinking for so long, brought a ray of sunshine. When you feel this way, sometimes you search for titles that match your mood. I have a feeling this title will attract attention and spark a lively conversation about the role of creatives in innovation. The more people who believe innovation is dying in San Antonio, the less true it will become because people will want to come to its rescue. The Reverse Tinkerbell Effect. I believe that’s what these 7 minutes were about. Challenging the status quo. Inviting those who are not content with how things are and see standing still or regression as a negative.

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    2. As far as publishing posts on events… I love this idea. I wrote this because Debra’s words sparked something inside me that I just had to write. But, I’d love to film and write about events. I think what’s happening on Geekdom needs to be broadcasted, shared in easily digestible soundbites on Instagram, on Twitter, on Medium and LinkedIn Pulse. On Reddit. Just 7 minutes of content can produce a 9-minute read and a plethora of tweets. That would be my dream job! I promise to write more positive titles. There’s a lot of great things I don’t know about yet and when I learn about them I’m sure I’ll be ecstatic. It’s the valleys that will make me appreciate the summits even more. The challenges of entrepreneurship are what makes it rewarding when things work out.

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  16. Wow, Aaron, thank you for this post! I’m so glad that this topic resonated with you and that we had the same percolating thoughts. If we keep on this message, we can help reshape our community for the better.

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  17. Aaron, I agree with your post! Not only am I in the medical field (which SA is becoming known for) but I feel that we could benefit from more technical innovations to help our facilities run more smoothly and efficiently with less error.
    Ps SA is not known for fashion innovation either
    Side

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  18. Judging from the comments, people found this topic interesting. Many want to see our city grow in new ways. We need San Antonians to recognize that we need to improve. Acceptance of the status quo is a disease. I am excited that there are others who are hungry for progress and wish to see it here in San Antonio.

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  19. Thanks for writing that summary, Aaron. The part about hiring people who question why companies are doing it a certain way… is that the best way? Etc. made me laugh. I was “released” from a contract role I had with a cold email writing startup because I was the person asking too many questions! They had a LONG process for researching, drafting and formatting email campaigns for clients. It was anything but efficient. I was so relieved when we parted ways!

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  20. Aaron, who all have you talked to in the broader tech community here? Any of the startup founders, investors/funds in particular?

    Just curious how this impacted your perspective.

    I’m not entirely disagreeing with your article or anything, but I see a lot of pieces like this written with very little outreach from people writing them to those of us grinding and building day to day.

    We definitely have a long way to go, but this is not the San Antonio “tech scene” from 5 or especially 10 years ago, which was almost nothing.

    We have a lot of work to do to continue building, but there is always more happening than these articles let on, IMO.

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    1. I remember asking: Is the purpose of this process to create perceived value for the client (i.e. look at all the work we did! Feel good about paying us thousands of dollars) or is the purpose to benefit me the writer? Seemed it was the first, though they wouldn’t admit that.

      Yeah, I too found the tech ecosystem “dying” remark a little harsh lol

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  21. Aaron, normally I would not put this out there, but I am probably leaving so I owe it to SATX (My Hometown). I have a BSCS from Texas State and almost a BBA from UT-Austin; so I’m educated. I was the technical lead on the 1995 DIDS project at TDS and worked as the first white hats for the USAF and lead to the creation of the AFIWC and then the intrusion detection router at Wheelgroup (Now Cisco Systems…. in Austin). I built the team and designed a Forward Facing Intelligence System for a foreign government 7 years ago; so I’m technically capable. I developed a building access control company here in San Antonio that was the first to give a physical door an IP address in 1998, along with 1024-bit PPK authentication and a built in web server. I was the fonder of the Venture Capital Group that funded WheelGroup ($3.2M from Ohio and Florida investors), and I also consulted with Richard and Dirk and helped them start the business plan for Rackspace; so I am a successful entrepreneur.

    [My access control company was stolen from me by a dishonest CEO brought in by two of the San Antonio Investors who wanted a quick flip on their money, which he promised them, as they moved it to Austin. I effectually went bankrupt fighting them, and then after they removed me, I watched them lose customers like Universities, the Hard Rock Casinos and the Titan Launch Facility with such sadness. They blew $24M in Austin with the Idiots before it went belly up.

    I’ve built system after system that work and are fully released products. But I don’t like to wear a suit, I hire As and Bs and fire the Ds and Fs; when allowed. I work too much (productive sprints) and my hours get shifted (not 8-5), and it is said that “I burn a path to release.” i.e., Lead, Follow, or Get the hell out of my way. I am that creative misfit.

    So I am currently looking for work, having finished my last task, and I do not seem to be getting any response here. I would do a start-up, but the investor base is not friendly here; and Interwest or Sevin Rosen would just move it to Austin. If I get a job, it will be at 60% of what I can get in Austin. So my house is sold, and I am applying in Austin. My family is here, so it will be sad to leave.

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