I was going to write about what it’s like to live in San Antonio, Texas, but I realized that I spent 90% of my waking hours there at TechStars, so instead I decided to write about the TechStars Cloud experience. Here it goes.
Tuesday, January 24, 2012, I accepted the job offer with Epic Playground (then Callisto.fm), completed the salary/equity negotiations, and worked out flight arrangements from Raleigh-Durham to San Antonio with Michael, our CEO. I had applied for the position not even a week earlier. In fact, two weeks prior I had not even decided to get a job, no less, move to the other side of the country. I had just gotten my wisdom teeth out and had one day too many to think about what I was doing with my life and felt a sudden urge to drop into a new intellectual community of people much smarter than I. Accepting the job and moving to San Antonio (and later Boulder, CO) would prove to be one of the most valuable and worthwhile decisions I would ever make.
Saturday, January 28 my plane touched down in San Antonio. “Nervous” would be an understatement. It was my first “real”, salaried job. I had only spoken to the team of three over Skype. What if they were crazy? What if they hated me? What if I wasn’t good enough? I was also substantially younger than the founders – seven years younger than the youngest founder. This didn’t help my confidence. They pulled up at the airport pickup and we grabbed lunch. All went well, thank god.
Next was time for me to find a place to live. The housing availability in downtown San Antonio was really low – less than one percent. The rest of Saturday was devoted to finding a place to live. No luck; everything was over $1,000/month – far out of the budget. That night Michael was about to swipe his credit card at a hotel for me when I stopped him at the last moment and mentioned that I had always wanted to try CouchSurfing. Why not now? I jumped on a computer in the lobby of the hotel and quickly sent out a few quick requests to other CouchSurfers. No luck, but we decided to grab dinner before paying for the hotel just in case someone replied to me.
Right at the last minute, I got a call. It was a guy named Damien, and he was offering to host me. I ended up meeting him and a Canadian couple that he was also hosting for dinner, and he showed us around all of downtown. He explained to us a lot of the local history and gave us tips on where to go and not go. It was actually far better than staying in a hotel room alone and new to the area. Instead, I was getting Margaritas with three awesome people and getting a first-class warm introduction to the city.
Sunday came, and still no where to live. I decided to give it one more day before giving into the high rent. The company would pay the rent, but we wanted to save all the cash we could. It was not until Monday night – the first day on the job and the first day at TechStars – that I would find a place to live. It was a girl named Jasmine. She was, coincidentally, also a CouchSurfer. And she had an awesome dog named Zeppelin.
Day one was interesting. I woke up early. My commute was a 30 minute walk along the river walk – incredibly beautiful. This commute is one of the things that I miss most about San Antonio. I get to TechStars, take the elevator to the 12th floor, and am instantly surrounded by dozens of other people hacking away on their computers. Some on laptops. Others with monitors larger than I knew you could buy. There was quite a lot of coffee and energy drinks, though less than one would expect at a hackathon, as I had imagined. Sleep is a necessity when working 14 hours a day for three months straight. At some point I was introduced to the director, Jason. He seemed nice enough. I would quickly discover that he did not give out praise. But when he did - if he did – it was authentic; possibly because it was so rare. (I’m pretty sure our class actually ended up making some memes about this…) This made him a spectacular director and mentor. I met Nicole later in the week.
There was remarkably little free time outside of TechStars on week days. I literally woke up, walked to work, got in at 9:30, walked home around 11:00pm, jumped in the shower, and got to bed around midnight or 1am. I had never experienced such an intense schedule in my life, and frankly, I’m stunned that I was able to sustain it as well as I did. During the day, we would often grab lunch with other teams and discuss anything from our lives’ ambitions to what code libraries we were using. This served as a really useful time to trade ideas and get excellent technical tips. Afternoons typically included a 20 minute nap to take the edge off of the food comas which were inherent with all of the heavy Tex-Mex dishes. Around dinner time we would usually grab food somewhere somewhat nice, bring our laptops, and continue working, cocktail in hand, until it was time to head home. In all, we were probably putting in 14 hours of work a day total. Time not “working” was still spent discussing ideas for the company and bonding.
Weekends were always welcomed, as they were my only personal time to reflect on life. I had a routine of getting up Saturday mornings, walking down the river walk into the central plaza of the city, and people watching while I wrote down all of the millions of ideas that would build up over the intense weeks and read up on other topics that had come up. By Saturday afternoons I would make it back to the office and continue to get some coding in before heading home early for a night to let go. Sometimes there were shindigs and gatherings scheduled by the TechStars associates – paintball, group dinners, etc, but many other Saturday nights and Sundays I spent hanging out with Jasmine who was my window into the “real” world outside of TechStars. She invited me along to go rock climbing with her sister, invited me to go on the huge nighttime bike rides of 200+ people that San Antonian’s did once a month, threw a CouchSurfing party (which we invited the TechStars crew to, actually), and even almost convinced me to drive down to the border town, Laredo, in Mexico, where she was from – still regret not making it down there. I also somehow found the time to do some hiking in Guadalupe State Park and visit my friend Steve in Dallas for the weekend, taking a wonderfully relaxing 10 hour train ride back. Even with the insane hours put into building Epic Playground, I did manage to see a good portion of San Antonio and some of Texas.
Because I had missed the first three weeks of the program (it started January 1st), I missed getting to see most of the companies figuring out who they were and what they wanted to build. Many of the teams were accepted into the program with only a rough idea of what they were interested in and ended up completely pivoting into a new business trajectory after getting invaluable advice from mentors and industry leaders. The first month was also important because it was a period of mentor dating: each team got to meet a set of potential mentors and choose the top three or four that they felt they connected with the most and who could offer them the best help, advice, and connections. This idea of mentorship is one of, if not the most distinguishing and defining characteristic of TechStars.
By the beginning of month two, the teams go into a phase of rapid building. We called it the just fucking build it phase. There were two all-nighters pulled; there would have been many more but we quickly realized that one sleepless night could destroy productivity for the next two or three days and was thus not worth it. Nearly every single day there were investors and representatives from all of the large tech companies that came to give talks. Often they would fly across the country just to meet with the teams. Verizon, Sony, Facebook, Google… many of the large industry-leading multinational companies were accounted for. The talks were focused on cloud computing topics, operations, big data, engineering, and intellectual property, as well as business topics like raising capital and pitching an idea. Because there were only about thirty people in the program overall, we usually got to meet with the speakers one-on-one. Most of the talks also had catered lunch – quite a nice amenity given that we were usually so deep in code that we could hardly remember how to tie our shoes or speak.
By month three, the business sides of the teams had moved solidly to practicing their investor pitches. It happened once a week at first. Each presenting founder gave an approximately seven minute pitch which he (sadly there were no girls, so it really is just ”he”), would be critiqued on. Anyone was welcome to watch; sometimes they would pitch to an empty room. Other times to Jason and Nicole. And at other times to the entire class. This was the time to shout out what you thought sucked and what you thought rocked about someone’s presentation. By the end of the month pitch practice was scheduled for every day, and by the beginning of April, pitch practice was a full time job. Being new to the world of investment, I didn’t quite understand why pitches were so important. Come Demo Day – the day when each company finally pitches to a room full of multimillionaire angel investors and venture capitalists – I totally understood why; the future of the companies depended heavily on those seven minutes.
The tech culture of TechStars Cloud was phenomenal. I was coming from Raleigh – not exactly a tech hub. I was a good programmer; I had plenty of natural talent and I had put in my 10,000 hours, but I was still quite new to the industry. Dropping right into TechStars, I had never felt so humbled. Most of the technical founders had degrees in Computer Science from prestigious universities. Almost all of them had come from six-figure backgrounds at places like Sony, Intuit, Google, and Salesforce. To a recent college dropout, this was quite intimidating. But it was also one of the best experiences I could have made for myself. I felt like my knowledge and experience was doubling every week. I made it top priority to research and understand every new concept, framework, technology, or theory that someone suggested. Every book title was noted. I made it my goal to get up to their levels as quickly as possible.
Three weeks before Demo Day, South By South West (SXSW) Interactive happened. Since it’s only an hour north of San Antonio, in Austin, the class all went to network, party, and promote our companies. “South By”, as it’s called, was definitely one of the highlights of the three months as it’s an experience akin to living in the future. It’s an opportunity to be surrounded by thousands of other people that also celebrate technology and the free flow of ideas, and I have to admit, they love TechStars. I didn’t have my TechStars hoodie on at the time, but someone had handed me a TechStars sticker to wear and as a result, everyone that I met would ask me if I was in the program, what it was like, and would explain that they too were working on a startup and wanted to get in. Well – everyone except for the Y-Combinator guys anyways.
Finally, Demo Day arrived. It was an odd feeling – difficult to believe that it had come so quickly; yet so much had happened in those three months that it simultaneously felt like it had been eons. The morning was sheer excitement. Adrenaline. Caffeine. Everyone was getting revved up for pitches. It could not have felt more exclusive. TechStars is incredibly good at generating hype, and this extends right to the founders and investors. A room full of people ready to write million-dollar checks – what could be more exciting?
The next day I packed my one suitcase of stuff and headed for Dallas. We had one last afterparty sponsored by SoftLayer – a last chance to bond with the class and say goodbye. The next morning I was on a plane back to North Carolina for the first time since I had moved to San Antonio in January to visit the family before moving permanently to Boulder. What an adventure.