Fast-moving storm clouds and some pretty scary thunder and lightning shook San Antonio Friday at mid-day, causing city officials and organizers to bow to the inevitable and “postpone” the fifth annual Luminaria set for Saturday evening.
At the same time, The Rackspace “Castle” in nearby Windcrest was rocking with hundreds of SXSW-bound young tech entrepreneurs who had first stopped at the fast-growing cloud computing empire to pitch their ideas and rub shoulders with Internet heavies. Luxury road buses lined up outside the former mall like so many circus elephants Friday morning, part of a cross-country Internet extravaganza called StartupBus and the Road to SXWSW.
The buses were filled with smart young people from Palo Alto and Mexico and New York and Washington D.C., all angling to persuade investors to help them develop the next big thing. The buses were on their way to Austin from all points in the country, but in this third year of a program started by Australian Elias Bizannes, the buses stopped for the first time in San Antonio.
San Antonio’s great big opportunity
As I watched the organized mayhem unfold Friday, it struck me that San Antonio has a great big opportunity to expand Luminaria from one-night arts extravaganza to a festival of creativity, using its proximity to SXSW to expand to multiple days of arts and hi tech — with a Plan B if it rains.
Three of the Rackspace “Founders” were on hand: Graham Weston, Pat Condon, and Dirk Elmendorf. One of Apple’s original leaders, Guy Kawasaki, interviewed Condon and Elmendorf about their days as young Trinity students who almost accidentally fell into the web-hosting business, and how they teamed up with real estate entrepreneur Weston to create Rackspace, which now employs 4,000 people (thanks, Rob LeGesse, Rackspace’s Chief Disruption Officer, for that correction to data supplied by, um, a Founder). The company is on a hiring tear with plans to add as many as 1,000 more employees in the next year.
Rackspace CEO Lanham Napier gave the welcome, followed by two hours of hyper-fast presentations by young, nervous (some were cocky) development teams busy trying to impress with their ideas, concepts and developments.
They faced a tough panel of judges: The Rackspace founders were joined on stage by the likes of Dave McClure, Paul Singh, Sequoia Capital, and TechStars. High profile Silicon Valley blogger Robert Scoble served as emcee of what can only be described as organized mayhem as young techies rushed the stage to grab the microphone and pitch their businesses.
Just the Rackspace wealth alone in the Castle would measure in the billions of dollars, yet most of the Founders, wearing their customary jeans, hoodies, and running shoes, wouldn’t draw a second look in a San Antonio Starbuck’s. All but Weston, who served as a trichair of Mayor Julián Castro’s SA2020 initiative and is an increasingly well-known philanthropist, keep a fairly low profile. But together they’ve helped invent the city’s new ‘s hi tech economy, and together they represent the most underappreciated brain trust in San Antonio.
Some of the teams were given the hook, some were given tough love encouragement, a few were applauded. These judges have sat through a lot of bad pitches and they didn’t mince words when they thought a concept was poorly articulated, or worse, simply fell flat, the next bad app nobody wants or needs.
By lunch hour, a mob of Rackers and visitors had moved to the food trucks that congregate at Rackspace every Friday. The weather forced the trucks into a garage, but it didn’t slow business.
Days earlier, a high level City of San Antonio delegation came to the Weston Centre and rode the elevators to the 11th floor, which looks very different from the rest of the Class A building that is home to Cox & Smith and other establishment law firms and businesses.
Mayor Castro, City Manager Sheryl Sculley, District One Councilman Diego Bernal and others were given a Founders’ tour of Geekdom and its most important tenant, the Boulder, Colo. based TechStars program. Both ventures have taken root here thanks to investments by the Rackpsace founders. The floor itself is a wide-open, loft-like space that is a cross between an Ikea catalogue and a West Coast startup, filled with young tech entrepreneurs developing ideas into businesses, or business pitches. I’ll write more about Geekdom and TechStars and Nick Longo and Jason Seats, the young, super-successful entrepreneurs who run the programs, in the coming weeks.
The bottom line is this: It’s a brave new world and everyone in the city should know about it, get behind it, celebrate it, and watch it take off. And for all of us who think Luminaria is the best thing to hit San Antonio in a long time, the Rackspace Castle and Geekdom hold they keys to taking a great idea and building it into something much, much bigger.
Photos by Robert Rivard.