The TechStars Cloud could serve as a catalyst to ignite San Antonio’s startup technology community.
That’s because ten new startups will locate here for the 12-week program, which kicks off in January. Also, Nicole Glaros, TechStar managing director, will move here with her family. She will run the TechStars Cloud along with Jason Seats.
On Saturday, about 120 applicants, mentors, funders and others gathered at Rackspace’s new collaborative workspace downtown, called Geekdom. The 15,000 square foot offices on the 11th floor of the Weston Centre will host the TechStar Cloud companies.
At TechStars for a Day, applicants listened to speakers and panel discussions about what it’s like to be a TechStars entrepreneur. They also networked. The program ended at 4 p.m. but many stayed until past 6 p.m. to drink Dos Equis and Shiner beer and chat.
Seats ran the TechStars for a Day program. People sat in bright red, black and white stools and chairs or on large red bean bags in front of a giant screen on which Seats projected the images of Glaros and TechStars Founder David Cohen, both located in Denver, via Skype. Glaros is in the last trimester of her pregnancy and can’t travel right now. But she gave sage advice and insight into the program.
“TechStars’ secret sauce is its mentors,” Glaros said, which include some of the best and brightest minds nationwide, she said. “These mentors are giving freely of their time to make sure these companies get to the next level.”
Glaros told the room to “put down your smart phones and start talking” and to “participate actively” to get the most out of the day. She also told them to “nail your elevator pitch. It should be two sentences and less than 30 seconds.”
“Don’t hog too much of anyone’s time,” Glaros said. “Keep conversations to five minutes.”
And on that note, Glaros’ broadcast froze. Seats tried to fix the connection, which prompted Rackspace Chairman Graham Weston to say “This is the only production in town where the guy running the show is also the audio and visual guy.”
The lean production speaks to the culture of the TechStars startups to do as much as they can on strict budgets. But all of the TechStar Cloud winners get money. They receive $18,000 and access to a $100,000 loan. They must relocate to San Antonio for the duration of the program, which culminates in April with a TechStars Cloud Demo Day, in which they pitch their companies to investors. Weston, Rackspace Founders Pat Condon and Dirk Elmendorf have provided the funding for TechStars Cloud for the next four years.
Cohen, also spoke to the group via Skype because his mother was visiting him. TechStars has already funded 100 companies of which nine have been acquired by larger companies and 14 have failed. Collectively, the startups have raised $100 million. Anyone can apply for the program, including foreign companies, as long as they obtain Visas. The program is about “a community” of expertise around funding technology startups, Cohen said. Successful entrepreneurs serving as mentors, combined with alumni and TechStar’s network of 75 venture funds and angels nationwide help to make the program a success, Cohen said.
“A large focus is on quality,” Cohen said. TechStars provides 10 mentors to one company, he said.
“Our goal is to make every single company we fund successful,” Cohen said.
The two biggest startup killers are lack of a market for a product and issues with the team, Cohen said. TechStars mentors can help with those issues because they have faced them before in their own startups. To succeed, the companies need to “be the best in the world at what you do,” Cohen said.
Trying new things, failing and learning from the mistakes are some of the biggest advantages startups have over large and well funded companies, Cohen said.
In response to a question from the audience, Cohen said the biggest misconception about TechStars is it’s “only for very young companies or 21 year old white dudes.” The average age of a applicant is 31 and the age range of TechStar entrepreneurs is generally between 22 and 42 years old, although they’ve had older entrepreneurs, he said. Lots of companies are already established in a market but need help getting to the next level, Cohen said.
“Many companies come into TechStars with $1 million in revenue or $1 million in funding,” he said.
The inaugural TechStars Cloud program focuses on “companies that are building the cloud and not building on the cloud,” Cohen said. The cloud provides companies the ability to deliver computer services online.
After the overview of the program and advice from Cohen and Glaros, Seats introduced Weston to the crowd.
“The legacy of this man is going to be all about this town,” Seats said. “Graham Weston has done more for this town than any single man since Davy Crockett.”
Rackspace knows how to help startups because it was one not too long ago.
At a San Antonio hamburger joint in 1998, Weston and his partner Morris Miller met with three Trinity University students, Elmendorf, Condon and Richard Yoo, the founders of Rackspace, a startup hosting company. Rackspace has since evolved into a publicly traded hosting giant with $1 billion in revenue and nearly 4,000 employees. It is San Antonio’s largest technology company and Weston, Elmendorf and Condon want to create more like it.
Weston, referencing the book “The Coming Job’s War,” said most of this country’s net new jobs are produced by companies less than five years. Startups are fueling the country’s economic growth now and into the future, he said.
Then Weston gave a pitch on the city’s shining attributes that would have made the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce proud. He mentioned the city’s low unemployment rate and huge medical and biotechnology industry, which is larger than the tourism industry. He touted the city’s rapidly developing urban life with thousands of apartments and condos being built in the downtown area and the city’s 68 miles of bike trails and 11,000 acres of urban parks. San Antonio has affordable housing, Weston said.
“You can buy a great house for less than $200,000,” he said.
San Antonio has the benefits of a large city, but the feel of a small town, Weston said. It’s kid friendly and a great place for families, he said. He also mentioned the city’s 31 higher education institutions and 100,000 students and its thriving arts community.
The city also has five Fortune 500 companies and a few large private companies like USAA and HEB. The startup community in San Antonio is poised to take off, Weston said.
“The founders and I are determined to create the next Rackspace over the next 20 years,” Weston said.
Weston then introduced Seats, who founded Slicehost, which Rackspace acquired in 2008. Rackspace’s cloud revenue has grown from zero to $200 million since that acquisition, Weston said. One of the requirements of the acquisition was that Seats move to San Antonio, Weston said.
“He’s the sort of entrepreneur San Antonio needs more of,” he said.
Seats has an office in Rackspace’s Geekdom and is looking forward to helping other entrepreneurs succeed with their ventures.
In addition to the entrepreneurs, Ned Hill, a venture capitalist with DFJ Mercury in Houston, gave the audience advice on how to seek funding. DFJ Mercury provides investments ranging from $50,000 to $1 million and has $110 million under management. One of DFJ Mercury’s hot portfolio companies is Austin-based Game Salad, which allows anyone to create a game for a variety of devices without knowing any coding.
Hill often gets asked “How do I choose the right VC?” He says “The right VCs are easy to spot. They are the ones writing the checks.”
He told the entrepreneurs to be flexible and persistent.
“You’ve got to be really good at telling your story,” he said. VCs invest in ideas that make sense and have value and in people who are passionate and know their market better than anyone, he said. “Vision, passion and drive,” Hill said. “Let it shine though. Don’t give up, make it happen.”
Deals can take only a few days or up to a year to get funded, he said. DFJ Mercury likes to own at least 20 percent of the company upon exiting the investment. VCs like to see the opportunity to earn ten times their investment when they give a company money, but most deals don’t earn anywhere near that, he said.
He advised the entrepreneurs to always be thinking about their exit strategy, especially if they receive funding.
“You can’t be in it for the lifestyle,” he said. “If you’re not able to sell a company in five to seven years then you’ve got a problem. Try to exit your business within five years.”
Elmendorf told the group that one of their greatest strengths was not knowing a lot.
“You literally have no idea how hard it is what you’re trying to do,” he said.
But that’s ok, and failing is also Ok, he said.
“As long as you keep doing this, it’s a learning process,” he said. “Failing is totally awesome as long as you don’t stop. If you stop and go get a real job, then you’re a failure.”
Starting a company is a “messy, hard endeavor,” Elmendorf said.
Startup companies need to know what problem they are trying to solve. It’s easy to get sidetracked, so entrepreneurs must constantly focus and ask themselves what they’re trying to work out, he said.
Entrepreneurs often play multiple roles in the organization early on, but they’ve got to spin those off and hire more people as the organization grows.
“I was HR because I had the most jobs,” Elmendorf said. “I slowly carved off the other things that weren’t related.”
Other panel discussions and talks featured former Techstars entrepreneurs, some who succeeded and others who did not.
Don’t be afraid to try something that doesn’t work out, said Josh Fraser, founder of EventVu and Torbit. He shut down EventVue after three years in February of 2010. EventVue created an app that allowed people to network at conferences. After closing up shop, he started getting calls from Facebook and other large companies that wanted to hire him. He also got calls from former investors who wanted to know what he was working on next. He’s now founder of Torbit.
Donning a brown stetson and cowboy boots, Lance Walley founder of Chargify and a TechStars Cloud mentor, talked about customer acquisition and pricing.
“Pick a niche and charge enough for your products,” he said. “If you know who your customer is, you can acquire them.”
In a later panel featuring other TechStar mentors, Rackspace Founder Condon said that narrowing the market and focusing the product on a specific customer is the best way to succeed.
“You have to say no to a lot of folks,” he said.
The application deadline for the Rackspace TechStars Cloud program is Monday, Nov. 7.