By LAURA LOREK
Founder of Silicon Hills News
But the story he told wasn’t a fairy tale. In fact, it was Longo’s own entrepreneurial journey and how his experiences and those of Graham Weston, chairman and co-founder of Rackspace, led them to create Geekdom, a collaborative coworking space for geeks in the heart of San Antonio. The two-year-old startup has come to be known as “a place where startups are born.”
“Every entrepreneur has a story,” Longo said. “A story of their success and a journey of their failures to get there.”
“I believe we are all entrepreneurs,” Longo said. “We were born this way. It’s in our DNA – some a little and some a lot.”
Kids learn from an early age how to become entrepreneurs from running lemonade stands, mowing lawns, working jobs and lessons in school, Longo said.
“Entrepreneurship is not just business,” he said. “Business is the mindset. Entrepreneurship is the heart set. Because of frustration, desperation or a passion you cannot let go.”
To succeed as an entrepreneur, Longo said he believes people need to find their “noble cause.” But they can only do that when they conquer their fears, he said.
Next, Longo shared “a little bit” of his story.
He recounted how he grew up poor in rough neighborhoods and lived in the projects. And when he was 12, he had a friend named Roman, who was a pale kid with black hair, “who everyone took turns picking on,” Longo said.
“We collected baseball cards together,” he said. “We added aluminum foil to the ends of walkie-talkies to talk to space and into the unknown. We were the different ones.”
Longo told a tale about going to Roman’s house one day and how he stole a $100 bill from Roman’s birthday card. He avoided going over to Roman’s house for the next few weeks for fear of being found out. Then Roman’s mother showed up at his house with all of Roman’s birthday cards in her arms. Longo thought he was in big trouble.
“She told me Roman had an asthma attack the night before and died,” Longo said. “And she handed me those cards and said he would have wanted me to have them. I was never able to say goodbye, never able to say I was sorry and never able to give him that $100 bucks back from his birthday card. I held those cards in my arms like they were him. I was lost. And to this day, I still have those cards.”
For the next 15 years Longo struggled and wandered to find his way. He tried to start different businesses.
“I was in the Air Force. I was a racing Greyhound trainer – the dogs, not the buses,” Longo said.
Then, in 1994, he opened a coffee house in Corpus Christi by maxing out his wife’s credit card.
“After a year, like a lot of other things I tried to do, the coffee house wasn’t really working,” Longo said.
He decided to offer free Internet access.
“What I didn’t know is we ended up being one of the first Internet cafes in the world and I ended up making the first commercial website in Corpus,” he said.
The story spread quickly through the local press and soon Longo’s phone was ringing off the hook with everybody in Corpus wanting him to create a website for them.
“So I started making websites for $500 to $1,000 a pop when I wasn’t making espresso,” Longo said.
No good tools existed for creating websites back then, Longo said. He created the websites but he realized that the work was really hard and time consuming because his customers wanted changes all the time.
“Then one day my world changed forever,” Longo said. “When someone asked for yet another change. I was angry. The coffee house wasn’t doing well and I was desperate not to fail again. In an outburst that could be heard a block away, I yelled these people need software so they can make their own bleeping websites.”
That’s when Longo realized that he should create software to let them do that.
“I found my noble cause,” Longo said. “I would empower and help people get on the web.”
With a dial up modem and a $500 home built computer, Longo set out to take on the software industry, but he didn’t know how to make software. That’s when he had an epiphany.
“No idea I had done alone had worked,” Longo said. “Maybe that was the problem all along. I needed to collaborate with other people that liked what I liked. That had the same passion, the same noble cause. I needed help.”
He teamed up with a regular customer who was a computer programmer. Together they created the Coffeecup HTML editor. They released it in 1996 and it was a hit, Longo said. He made more web design software. He helped “people fulfill their dreams just like I did. This was the noble cause that led me here.”
Next, Longo “skipped forward a few chapters” to recount how Geekdom was created to help entrepreneurs.
“A couple of years ago Graham Weston, the Chairman of Rackspace and myself got together and said wouldn’t it be cool if there was a place where startups were born – not the Internet but a physical place, a place where developers and designers and entrepreneurs could get together and work on their ideas in person,” Longo said. “We would call it Geekdom. You see in the urban dictionary it means a place where more than two geeks gather.”
Geekdom would offer memberships and desks at a low cost so everyone had a chance to meet their team, to build their dream, Longo said. Each member would be asked to give one hour a week of their time back to another member or do a workshop once a month on their expertise, he said.
“The noble cause of Geekdom is to empower people by creating a center where every kind of geek and entrepreneur can go to build a business,” Longo said. “A place where meeting someone in the hallway and sharing an idea would be happenstance and serendipity and something would get built right then and there.”
Geekdom is about creating an organic ecosystem that lets its members build and develop it, Longo said.
“I believe if we take people and place them together to collaborate and help each other they will change the world,” Longo said. “They will fulfill their noble causes.”
He also believes “mentorship is the new classroom.”
“We are all makers of something. Every person we meet knows something we don’t,” Longo said. “I learn from people that are likeminded that share my passions.”
Longo said he didn’t learn this lesson until after he sold his company and that he burnt out because he was working hard all the time.
“I needed someone to turn to who wasn’t there. I needed all of you,” Longo said. “There’s no reason to waste potential. Every person in the wrong job, or kid without a dream yet, can do what we do.”
It’s our responsibility to show them the way, he said.
“I’m an entrepreneur,” Longo said. “I was born this way. I was made this way. I cannot talk to myself or to the unknown for help. I can help you and we can help each other. So what would your story be?”
Longo ended his talk by pulling out a walkie-talkie with an aluminum foil antenna.
“Hey Roman, are we even yet?” Longo asked.
Full disclosure: Geekdom was a sponsor of Silicon Hills News