Today Underground Elephant joined Congressman Scott Peters, the Downtown San Diego Partnership and the local entrepreneurial community for the fourth annual Startup Day Across America. Fellow Downtown technology company, Classy, hosted the press conference at their new sales office on F Street, a fitting location for our town hall discussion that explored what needs to be done to nurture Downtown San Diego’s already thriving tech-startup ecosystem.
Startup Day Across America was created to serve as an open forum for entrepreneurs and their local representatives to discuss challenges facing the startup community, brainstorm avenues for growth and collaboration, and to ultimately celebrate innovation. Downtown San Diego Partnership president and CEO, Kris Michell, introduced Congressman Peters, myself and Classy Co-founder, Pat Walsh, to a room full of innovators, business owners, industry professionals and press–all invaluable stakeholders in the overarching cause for today’s gathering.
Congressman Peters started off by highlighting the driving forces of our economy, including tourism, military, innovation and science, stressing San Diego’s potential as a city. “We are a natural place for innovation. If we do our job right, the kinds of business you are doing will fill Downtown and create a new economy for us.”
With 446 startups emerging in 2014, it’s no wonder Forbes named San Diego the best city in the nation to start a business. Additionally, this year Entrepreneur highlighted us as one of the three cities that have found the secret to Startup Success. While stats like these continue to highlight San Diego as a new leader in the tech and business world, conversation at the meeting gravitated towards some of the known pain points facing startups in the city.
While Qualcomm stands as the flagship example of innovation and tech in San Diego, our city isn’t commonly recognized as a tech hub nationally, or perhaps even locally. The issue of public perception surfaced time and again during the discussion, with everyone agreeing that something we can all do better as a city is raise awareness around the fact that San Diego is a place for entrepreneurs to found and scale their startups. That starts by hearing more from–and about–the entrepreneurs, startups, and fast-growing companies that are already succeeding. “I was recently in the Bay Area talking to folks about San Diego, and we have a challenge to make them understand this is a hub for software and technology. We need to attract the talent,” Peters emphasized. Experienced outside talent, venture capital, and entrepreneurs need to understand that San Diego has a rapidly emerging innovation economy, ripe for those willing to be early evangelists. That will take sustained, multi-stakeholder collaboration and marketing, much of which I can assure you is in the works already.
The organization of tech-dedicated real estate was another topic. For the tech industry in San Diego region to have gravitas, there needs to be a centralized hub, and Downton provides the much needed density for such a hub. Here, the Downtown San Diego Partnership has already proven to be an instrumental partner in this community-building pursuit, convening high-level meetings and using their “Creative Office Space Program” to advocate for more tech-startup office space and streamlined permitting processes. Not only is the Partnership willing to help startups work with the city administration and developers, they help raise awareness with events such as these.
A nearly unanimous challenge mentioned was the lack of investment capital finding its way to San Diegan startups. This starts with increasing local awareness in order to generate a platform that reaches well beyond San Diego’s pool of potential investors, which in turn increases San Diego’s national visibility as a technology and startup hub.
Pat Walsh, Chief Impact Officer & Co-Founder at Classy, pointed out that they didn’t have an easy beginning, which can be the case for many startups, and were around for 8 years before their brand was a household name in San Diego. “The Downtown San Diego Partnership is doing a great job uniting San Diego,” Pat pointed out. “But anything we can do to build greater awareness externally would be great.”
This concept applies to both the City and its businesses, but it starts with the businesses. Both Peters and Nels Jensen, editor of the San Diego Business Journal, stressed the importance of being your own brand evangelist. “Relationships are so important in your business, and those external outreach relationships are important too,” Jensen added.
Another point made was the importance of visibility for resources available to local businesses. Startupsandiego.co has hundreds of listings and an ongoing editorial schedule, while San Diego Startup Week is in its third year experienced its largest attendance yet in 2015.
Access to Talent
This is as much about retention as it is about attracting talent. San Diego has three large, prestigious universities. And while some Downtown tech companies and startups claim to be benefiting from this, much of the room agreed that our community could do a better job as bridging the divide between local job creators and seekers. The Partnership and the San Diego Economic Development Corporation are already working on this issue with a university engagement program called Link 2 Downtown. Of course, the need for experienced talent is important too, and as soon as perception and awareness are addressed by evangelism, gone will be the fear of the proverbial “second-job problem” when prospective talent considers coming to San Diego.
The Big Picture
Although there were many other takeaways, overall, the meeting provided an important open forum for entrepreneurs to focus on our collective opportunities and find ways to collaborate around them. Congressman Peters iterated on how valuable this process is to him and reaffirmed his commitment to helping local innovators succeed.
Our City is writing a story of success through the collective efforts of startups, business owners, industry professionals, community leaders and organizations, all working toward accelerating the wave of fresh energy Downtown that is poised to fuel San Diego’s innovation economy well into the future. This will require cooperation between local entrepreneurs, elected officials, nonprofits, universities, developers, and city planners. We have to break down silos across geographies, industries, sectors, and generations.
That being said, I look around and see everyone doing their part to collectively water our tech-startup ecosystem and work toward this vision–and these efforts are yielding dividends. 2014 was a record year for startup creation, the “second-job problem” is on the decline, San Diego Startup Week had record attendance this year, UC San Diego launched The Basement incubator/accelerator, and the Brookings Institution named Downtown San Diego as one of the nation’s premier Innovation Districts.
As America’s Finest City is rapidly emerging as its Smartest City, the perception of having to accept a sunshine tax is fading fast. To all the ambitious minds out there, you can and should achieve professional success while liking where you live; it’s not a zero-sum game. The gravitas of this economic reinvention reflects our community’s unique ability to collaborate.
Our City’s history is built on an entrepreneurial relationship with the federal government–that’s why the US Navy is here and we are celebrating Balboa Park’s Centennial this year. For our future, we are positioned to become a national example of how to build a community of innovation. Now it’s on us to work together to make sure that Startup Day Across America becomes a day of action, and it starts with events like this.