It’s been just over a month since we’ve moved to Baltimore and I wanted to share some of my observations so far as they relate to the startup community. First of all, the people have been exceptionally nice and welcoming. I’ve found that the community here is very sophisticated in relation to their understanding of the contemporary startup landscape – many participants know and understand concepts like MVP, UI/UX and Lean principles without any prompting or explanation. This includes the ‘business people’ and service providers which make for more meaningful conversations that feel like a breath of fresh air to me. The business landscape here is centered around a few native industries – financial services, shipping and logistics (this is still a very big Port city), government / cybersecurity and real estate. They have a few big startups that call Baltimore home, Under Armor being the most visible and a few tech startups as well, including a huge recent $2.7b exit to Cisco for a security software firm called Sourcefire.
I’ve had the chance to attend four TechBreakfasts, a combination of Houston Technology Center’s Tech Champs breakfast and START Houston’s Demo Day where five hand-selected tech companies demo their product or services, with an audience Q&A session after each five minute pitch. I really like this format because the companies are strongly discouraged from giving an investor style powerpoint pitch and just show off the work. It also eliminates the dreaded ‘Investor Judging Panel’ which I typically find to be either patronizing or negative to the point of absurdity. The standing room only audience (at least 150 each time) has generally asked intelligent and probing questions to the presenters.
Baltimore also has a vibrant coworking scene, anchored by www.betamore.com. They hold events and a four-part ‘academy’ for training upcoming coders, designers and marketers. I was able to attend a RefreshBaltimore event there with the lead designer for Twitter who gave a great talk on how to build design teams. The only issue I had was parking – it was during a Baltimore Ravens pre-season game and it was just a few blocks from the stadium. You’ve never seen a n ocean of purple like to you do on a game day here in Baltimore – everyone, and I mean everyone is an over-the-top rabid fan of this year’s Superbowl champ Ravens and they all wear Ravens jerseys. I’m looking forward to wearing my Battle Red #99 JJ Watt jersey when the Texans play here in September.
The real difference between Houston and Baltimore is the density of startups. A recent study commissioned by the Abell Foundation showed an incredible amount of startups (345!) and numerous support organizations. Johns Hopkins and University of Maryland have a number of new startup accelerator initiatives and there are a few formal organizations like the Emerging Technology Center and Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship. Baltimore also enjoys several VC and angel funding sources including a state-wide fund called TEDCO that write significant checks to startups. Houston has a lot of companies that qualify as startups, but they are so spread out, that they rarely run into each other and share ideas. I have been very impressed with the fact that Baltimore has so many different Tech Meetups, that they help a ‘Super Meetup of Tech Meetups’ at the Under Armor campus. The event was an extreme success with many different people with similar interests meeting one another and growing each others meetups. I’m also really looking forward to the Baltimore Innovation Week organized by the equivalent of StartupHouston, Technical.ly Baltimore that is happening in the last week of September. It features many independent events – from a kickoff breakfast featuring the Mayor to TEDxBaltimore to several robotics and 3D sessions, coding for Girls events, to even a startup Poker tournament. For a community-minded guy like me, this couldn’t be more exciting. I would hope that TechStreet Houston could evolve into this in the future.
A few other personal observations: many more people than is absolutely necessary wear Bluetooth headsets regularly – is everyone a surgeon on call? Probably not. I’ve also seen a lot of bald-headed women (by choice, they’re not patients) and long dreadlocks on men. As a life-long Texan, I find it strange that the Maryland flag (by far the most complicated of the 50 States) is flow below the American Flag – we Texas get to fly ours at the same height due to our independent country roots. The radio stations are much better than in Houston – they don’t play Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber and One Direction on a three song loop constantly. The biggest shocks to me coming from Houston are food related. Everything is more expensive here – a $100 trip to the grocery store there is a $150 – $200 trip here. Even commodity, non-organic items costs a dollar more, eggs, milk, bread etc. They also don’t sell alcohol at grocery stores or gas stations – only at small liquor stores that dot each and every strip mall. The closest beer I can get from Texas is Shiner Bock – that means no Saint Arnold’s, Karbach or my beloved Gingerbread Stout from everyone’s favorite, Buffalo Bayou Brewing Co. (who coincidently hosted my going away party – Thanks again, Rassul!). A regular lunch sandwich/hamburger – basically what you would get at Subway or Fuddruckers starts at eight dollars and I just had a sixteen dollar salmon salad that would have been nine bucks at Ruggles Green. The other shock is that while almost everyone is super friendly in person, the idea of service with a smile specifically at restaurants is non-existent. Waiters and order takers are either completely disinterested or outright hostile – you have to fight to get water and they’ll ignore you for thirty minutes at time. This has happened more than once and it was a real surprise, until I noticed that many restaurants automatically add an 18% tip. The crabs are really good and smothered in ubiquitous Old Bay seasoning, even though they ironically come from Texas and Louisiana in the summer time. We can find a good Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurant all, but the Barbecue is surprisingly decent. Most people here ask me if the humidity is bad in Houston – they think that we have a ‘dry’ heat. I usually tell them that the humidity is great – we get almost 100% every day.
I’m definitely not looking forward to the snow, most everyone tells me that people here drive like maniacs once the first flakes fall – kind of like Houstonians in the rain. Houston will always be home to me, but I’m starting to settle in to Baltimore and I can tell already that I’m going to like it a lot. I’ll be back during Thanksgiving and I’d love to see how everyone is doing and share a (Houston) beer or local coffee if you’re around.