San Antonio’s Girdley Finds Spark in Startup Seed Investments

San Antonio—Michael Girdley is an investor in early stage technology companies who, most recently, was the CEO of his family’s San Antonio fireworks business, Alamo Fireworks. There must be some kind of joke there, right?

“Explosive returns?” Girdley suggests.

Puns aside, Girdley is one of the founding members of the Geekdom Fund, a venture capital operation that has roots in a San Antonio co-working space that goes by the same name, Geekdom, though the two are not related. Girdley and three others founded Geekdom Fund in late 2014 by raising almost $3.5 million from local angel investors: doctors, lawyers, and other wealthy individuals.

During the last year, Geekdom Fund has invested most of that capital in 27 deals, mostly in San Antonio and Austin IT companies. Its seed investments, which can be as large as $300,000, have included San Antonio-based HelpSocial, which offers software meant to help customer service centers use social media networks, and Austin-based Bitfusion, which has built software to enhance applications.

“You have to check all the boxes: have a great team, be in a great market, and have the right solution to dominate that market,” Girdley says about Geekdom Fund’s investment strategy. “It all comes down to team quality. It’s what we always start with.”

For Girdley, Geekdom Fund is not the first foray into the tech world. He has a second full-time job as the CEO of a coding school, Codeup. And even before he returned to San Antonio 15 years ago, he worked as a programmer in the Bay Area after earning a computer science degree. He’s also written a couple of books on the subject.

Yet Girdley decided to leave that behind and come home to run his family business in San Antonio, a decision he says was easy if only because of the warmer Central Texas weather. “I think it’s just my nature. I don’t feel the need to hang on to stuff—that part of my life, that chapter is over,” he says about his return.

At Alamo Fireworks, technology played a small role compared to the life he had as a developer in San Francisco.

“It was 1999 and we were still faxing everything. When we started to use ‘the e-mail,’ it was kind of a big deal,” Girdley says. “There’s a real temptation if you’re a technologist to go into an environment like that and say technology will solve all your problems. Reality is a lot more complex.”

Even if he enjoyed a vacation from the world of high-tech, it seems Girdley could only stay away for so long. Around 2012, he began removing himself from the daily operations of Alamo Fireworks (he remains the chairman and his brother is the CEO). Girdley started making angel investments on his own, and spent his off days researching investing at Geekdom, the co-working space that opened in 2011.

The co-working space proved foundational to Girdley’s next steps. In early 2013, he became a board member for a new early stage investment fund that was being formed at Geekdom by executives from Rackspace (NYSE RAX). The board of that fund, which was then known as the Geekdom Fund, made $25,000 investments into local startups until the board had deployed all the capital in 2014.

After that funding dried up, Girdley and three other interested investors—Don Douglas, Mike Troy, and the legacy fund’s manager, Cole Wollak— wanted to continue funneling money into startups. The group asked the now-defunct Geekdom Fund if they could license its name. Of the $3.5 million they raised, 10 percent of it was their own money, Girdley says.

The name may not stick, however, because people frequently believe that the newly formed fund, Geekdom Fund I LP, is a part of the co-working space, Geekdom. Girdley’s fund is also often mistaken for the former fund for which Girdley held a board seat. The only association between the two funds is in the name, Girdley says.

“There’s still a lot of confusion,” Girdley says. “Our fund kind of has a branding problem. We’re talking about trying to figure out a more appropriate name going forward.”

Girdley began his coding boot camp, Codeup, after he noticed that local IT companies were frequently complaining about the lack of potential tech employees. By April 2014, Girdley, Jason Straughan, and Chris Turner had developed Codeup’s program, a 12-week course that, for just under $10,000, teaches people how to become a programmer.

“We actually underpriced it,” Girdley says. “We didn’t realize how expensive running one of these programs is.”

Codeup now charges about $16,000 for its full 16-week program. Since its founding, more than 200 people have graduated and the program is about to start its 11th class, Girdley says.

Girdley’s development as an entrepreneur in some ways parallels San Antonio’s recent growth as a tech hub. The community was small enough when Girdley first began immersing himself that he could make it to every tech-related event in any given week, and knew everyone by name, he says. Pretty soon, there were too many events to go to.

When Techstars offered the first Cloud program in San Antonio in 2012—Girdley is a mentor to this program, and others in town—not one of the companies had any interest in staying in the Alamo City after the three-month program ended. In the 2016 class of 11 companies, which held a demo day earlier this month, about half of the startups are considering calling San Antonio home, he says.

“One of them was an Austin company,” Girdley says. “Really? That’s pretty cool.”

David Holley is Xconomy's national correspondent based in Austin, TX. You can reach him at [email protected] Follow @xconholley

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