Four Ways to Build a Better Ecosystem for Tech Startups in San Diego


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, an online marketplace that matches students with the best private instructors. Follow @Steven_Cox

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13 responses to “Four Ways to Build a Better Ecosystem for Tech Startups in San Diego”

  1. Great post Steven. Can you and others expand on the third point and list two or three things San Diego policy makers can do (or get started on) this year that will make it more attractive for graduates to stay in town and for local companies to stay here? I think of a need for a more diverse housing stock for instance. We need specific asks of our civic leaders.

    • Steven Cox says:

      I’ll list one (and leave room for others to list their own). I believe that it’s not necessarily housing or infrastructure changes that will keep graduates here. Remember, they are ALREADY living here, so they’ve found housing that suits them. Where we can make the biggest impact is having the city work with our colleges to introduce Juniors and Seniors to the world of San Diego technology companies. Between bioinformatics, cyber security, unmanned technology, wearables, hardware, and consumer internet, we have enough genres of innovation that would spark our graduate’s interest. What I haven’t seen is a full-court collaboration effort by entrepreneurs, our civic leaders, and our chairs and university Deans to show the graduates what’s here in their backyard. However, we are starting to see EDC, Downtown SD Partnership, Todd Gloria, the Mayor’s Office, and the Chamber of Commerce recognize that technology could be the third leg of growth for the city (behind defense and tourism). They see the vision. So, the next step is crafting the unified message and then introducing our computer science, engineering, and business graduates to the idea of joining a San Diego company or starting their own.

      • Miguel Salcido says:

        Love the post and the rally cry. It would be hard to find anyone in SD to disagree with your points.

        In terms of your response above, you call out many parties that need to jump in and help and I totally agree with that. But I see this movement being started by entrepreneurs and local SD business leaders. Isn’t it on SD companies to reach out to universities, civic leaders, and the such in order to get this thing going?

        • Steven Cox says:

          Fully agree. It has to start with entrepreneurs – and it is. Entrepreneurs have put together San Diego Startup Week (see, entrepreneurs have started putting together meetups between EDC, council members, Downtown SD Partnership, and more. Personally, I’ve committed to working at least 1 hour a week (2% of my work time) on building a better San Diego. I know we all have obiligations, businesses to run, and families to love, but I’d challenge all of us entrepreneurs to do the same – or more. By all of us pulling together, we start to turn the ship.

          • Craig Probus says:

            Agree w/ your points and am grateful you posted this article.

            San Diego will become more and more dependent on startups and small companies as larger companies flee to TX and AZ for a more business friendly environment (e.g., Active Network, Websense, etc.).

            To fuel this growth in startups & small companies, we’ll need leverage recent grads. I would say that San Diego has a great brand w/ college grads on the east coast (that’s why I’m here!). I think we can leverage that for grads already here.

            The unified voice is a good point, “Silicon Beach” was used in the mid-2000s, but it’s too obvious of a derivative from Silicon Valley.

            BTW, I signed up to help w/ the San Diego Startup Week

        • Randy Apuzzorandyapuzzo says:

          Small example: We are working with USD marketing students, integrating them into local business while using a local startup platform.

  2. Kimberly King says:

    Steven, well said. I am so tired of the complaining and excuses. The first step is a can do attitude and moving forward. We need to grow and foster what we do have and face the challenges all startups go thru. It would be great to have you come talk in one of my classes at UCSD and SDSU.

  3. Melani says:

    Love it. Thanks for the thoughtful post. I’m curious to understand what the “unified voice” is in San Diego. I’ve heard this phrase before, but it seems like a buzzword at this point. What’s the unified voice of Santa Monica or Austin? Or do THEY even have one?

    • Steven Cox says:

      Hi Melanie – the phrase we hear in Austin is “Keep Austin Weird”, and for NYC, it’s * Built in New York *. I don’t know about SM.

      • shawnmon says:

        I just moved here from Austin TX, and the phrase “keep Austin weird” was coined by one guy originally as awareness of Austin’s culture as he noticed big change coming with the tech-boom pre-2000.
        The phrase was later adopted by the small business alliance in Austin as a way to raise awareness of and “support local business”.

        Well, after the recession (2009) Austin has been booming again, and the last three years alone have nearly washed out the “weird” of Austin and it’s becoming “commercialized” in a way that proves we didn’t keep Austin weird, we let it go, exactly what the phrase was originally intended for 14 years ago.

        San Diego and Austin are very very similar in culture and in size actually. In fact, Forbes put San Diego in the #1 spot for startups, and Austin in the #3 spot (following Denver CO).

        In regards to “unified voice”, I’m wondering what you’re after on that.
        Would you consider “Silicon Valley” a version of a unified voice?
        Austin’s tech/entrepreneur scene knows itself as “Silicon Hills”, as a play off Silicon Valley of course. Austin also was recognizing itself as “Small Business Capital of the World” with tons of mom and pop shops (although that is changing these past 3 years), and “Live Music Capital of the World” with the music scene.

        New York City, also known as – “City that never sleeps”. Is that their unified voice or is the “Built in NY”

        Las Vegas – “Sin City” – is that their unified voice?

        This is an interesting topic, and as an outsider looking into San Diego, it’s known as “Sunny San Diego”. But, I assume you are wanting the unified voice to say more than that? I just wonder if you’re aiming for a unified voice of San Diego’s current most predominant culture, or it’s emerging culture of business/tech/whatever it may be here.

        Sunny San Diego definitely describes the beauty of SD, but how do you incorporate that into defining the city more so than just the weather.

        Maybe the sunny beautiful weather is what inspires the culture here. Maybe it inspires innovation too. Maybe the sun is what gives beauty to all forms of life here in SD (the people, the culture, the innovation, the collaborations). After all, Vitamin D is the key nutrient necessary for health and beauty, and no other city offers it better than San Diego.

  4. Excellent column Steven – thanks for reminding us that it starts with attitude, and then focused action (like the 1 hour per week that you are pledging). I would say that our unified voice as a startup community is that we are MOBILE, not only for the obvious industry leaders like Qualcomm, drone and action sports clusters, as well as the active lifestyles that our amazing weather affords, but for the many, inclusive, high-quality community events and individual neighborhoods that make up our exciting region. Every week I see amazing startups as I move around from Carlsbad to Downtown, La Jolla to Tijuana, Convoy to Coronado to Carmel Mountain to Chula Vista. It is all very exciting :)

  5. Chris J Snook says:

    Great thoughts Steven and Im proud of the shift that is finally burgeoning in San Diego