San Diego Startup Week Was Marvelous

Published in UT San Diego, June 30, 2014

Americans were more optimistic about starting a business in 2013 than any year since 2001, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor.

The week of June 16 was San Diego Startup Week, and it was a doozy. The town was awash in venture capitalists, young idealists, older mentors and hucksters of every age, everybody looking for something shiny and new, and if it comes with a business plan, that would be even better.

“If you are an investor, the more incubators the better. You want 1,000 companies started, and then you pick the ones that rise to the top,” said Dave Titus, head of the San Diego Venture Group. Another opinion came from Ned Hill, managing director of Mercury Fund: “Everyone wants to be the next hot technology center and they think starting an accelerator is the answer. It doesn’t always work out that way.”

My own thought here echoes another venture capitalist, “The companies we were interested in wanted their own space and didn’t want to be in an incubator.”

And frankly, the key issue for the whole accelerator/incubator muddle puzzle is the quality of the mentors and their Rolodexes. I know that is an old-fashioned term, but who you know matters a lot — whether on an iPhone or a 3-by-5-inch card.

The week featured parties, pub crawls, demo days, pitches and puffery. It was a marvelous week. But I sensed a bit of misplaced frenzy, focused on getting rich quick, sometimes pitching thin air, purporting to solve problems that do not exist — and chasing my favorite animal, the unicorn. For example, Silicon Valley has spawned a new company called Yo, which has raised $1 million. It is an iPhone app, and all it does is send one word — “yo.” This makes me nuts.

So, from now on, Barbara and I are no longer going to write this column. We are simply going to hit the “Yo” app on our phone. No real thinking, no topics of heft or interest — we are just going to send you a hearty “yo.” Yo calls itself “a context-based messaging” application. It took the founders eight hours to write the app. Gimme a break.

One of the most powerful things to come out of the past week was to see the number of San Diego companies and entrepreneurs doing “hard things.” Our city is never going to be Silicon Valley, and that thrills me. San Diego boasts a vibrant biotech community, working on and solving massive complex problems. And we have an equally robust technology sector, working hard to solve problems in clean tech, chip sets, cybersecurity, mobile health and networking, etc.

Most importantly, we have a sense of history. The night before Venture Summit, 75 venture capitalists gathered in the Western Metal Co. building to watch the Padres game. The building, originally designed in 1909, was purchased by San Diego entrepreneur Tom Hom and his family in 1977 when downtown was struggling. Hom, 87, one of the visionaries behind the establishment of the Gaslamp Quarter, turned it into a farmers market and later sold it as part of the development of Petco Park.

It was fitting to be in a building once owned by an entrepreneur who had success in many different fields — real estate, farming, wholesale produce and restaurants — and who was also the first minority elected to the San Diego City Council. (Barbara just finished reading his autobiography — “Rabbit on a Bumpy Road” — and highly recommends it.)

Without sounding like an old fogey, it is sometimes nice to note that the world of entrepreneurship has existed in this town for much longer than just the latest restaurant or travel phone app or video game.

Rule No. 358

Everything new was old once. It’s just been repackaged.

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