By Steven Cox, Founder and CEO of TakeLessons.com
Through all the ups and downs of building TakeLessons over the past eight years, I can say with certainty that San Diego’s ecosystem for tech startups is better now than I’ve ever seen it.
That said, we have reached a crucial juncture. Our entrepreneurial community can either take San Diego to the next level by doubling down on our assets and honing in on issues we need to improve, or accept our reputation as a beautiful city defined primarily by the sun, surf, and coastal lifestyle.
If we choose to build instead of “coasting,” I can see four areas that should be addressed in the near term, to benefit our city’s startup ecosystem:
Change Our Attitude
What we in San Diego need to focus on first and foremost is our attitude. We need to live and breathe a startup mindset. Anything worthwhile is always created twice: First, in our minds; and second, in reality. As members of San Diego’s entrepreneurial community, we must choose whether to focus on the challenges we face, or on actually making it happen by taking advantage of the strengths we have and moving forward, despite our challenges.
It is up to us to make this change first. Inner victories always precede outer victories. Only by being in the right frame of mind will we see the manifestations of our city’s true potential emerge. This is the fundamental key to shaping our reality and our future. By changing our attitude into that of a can-do city, we will begin to change the lens through which we view the world. Only then will we be able to influence the perception of how the rest of the world views San Diego.
Envision our Future
San Diego’s community and tech leaders all want to see our city’s emerging tech scene continue its explosive growth. The key to doing this is to first have a clear vision—we want to make innovation a key political, economic, and social initiative that shapes San Diego’s future.
With a unified voice, we should all strive to forego our egos and surface the best ideas that can help us move forward. In addition to working on our own agendas, there needs to be space for all of us to work on initiatives, narratives, events, and plans that support the greater good of the ecosystem.
Address our Weaknesses
San Diego has numerous challenges, real and perceived. One of the foremost challenges I’ve heard from VCs is the “lack of talent” perception: investors don’t think it is possible to
build a tech company in San Diego because they believe the pool of talent is “limited.” This perception is wrong, and has caused a lot of grief to those of us engaged in the ongoing pursuit of capital.
The truth is, San Diego has an incredible supply of talent: engineers, marketers, product developers, and business leaders. Our most overlooked opportunity, however, lies in our phenomenal existing and graduating student base—a resource that the city and area startups must retain. UC San Diego ranks among the top 20 U.S. universities in computer science, and San Diego State has one of the top 10 entrepreneurial programs in California. They graduate hundreds of students every year who represent the innovation community’s greatest potential resource and talent pool. Too many of these graduates are lured away by employers outside of San Diego. To capitalize on this resource, we must develop a stronger, more collaborative effort among local universities, local government, and tech entrepreneurs to engage these students in local startups and to give them a reason to stay. That sort of collaboration is currently lacking, and needs to be fixed.
Another challenge is keeping homegrown companies in San Diego beyond the startup phase. Our efforts would be best spent on keeping existing companies here, simply because they’re already here. They’re low-hanging fruit. We don’t have to convince them to move or pay relocation fees. Keeping our growing companies here is a lot easier than convincing others to move to San Diego, and has the added benefit of attracting larger companies that are in acquisition mode.
We don’t have Silicon Valley’s capital, and never will. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find unique ways to introduce wealthy angels to San Diego’s entrepreneurs. Instead of working in silos, we must develop a systematic approach for getting startups and potential investors to connect and engage.
Speak in One Voice
Finally, we need to speak in a unified voice. Human nature teaches us that we all want to be part of something greater than ourselves. We now have a unique opportunity to define a unifying message that every member of our startup community can get behind, and to broaden that message so we’re not just talking among ourselves. If we’re realistic and sensible, we can identify the unique benefits and strengths that make San Diego a great place to build successful tech startups.
San Diego has the ability to prove itself by focusing on these four action items, resulting in significant positive changes in a short period of time. Those who want to grow San Diego, and are willing to change their mindset to help take action will make our startup ecosystem stronger than ever.
Steven Cox is a veteran entrepreneur who is the founder and CEO of San Diego-based TakeLessons.com, an online marketplace that matches students with the best private instructors.
This article originally appeared at www.xconomy.com on April 22, 2014.