Palto Alto on the James

Gesticulating clusters of people gathered and dispersed, gathered and dispersed, moving from one group to another in the back room of Balliceaux on a Wednesday evening during the ruthless winter that never seemed to end.

“Let me tell you why that won’t work,” said a woman buried deep in a coding conversation, her explanation interrupted by an intense young man wanting to hear what would work. They disagreed, laughed, and had another beer.

A tall, shaggy web developer went through intricate details of Tridion—an enterprise-level content management system— as two people sipping their second Smithfield and Wesson looked as confused as dogs in an algebra class.

This story began a few months ago when I left my longtime job to start a technology company, an act that spawned a lot of fear and confidence packed side-by-side into just about every minute of every day and night. Then I started another company. People said I was crazy. I read on Facebook that I had retired. I think that’s code for leaving a normal job for an abnormal opportunity. But you have to be a little crazy to do a startup in the first place. You have to be worse than that to do two at the same time.

Startuppers are building their own business culture for Richmond that goes far beyond the corporate world of office buildings. You’ll find startuppers in garages and bedrooms, coffeehouses, craft breweries, and restaurants. Panera Bread is particularly popular with the table-camper crowd sucking free Wi-Fi while hunkering over laptops and spreadsheets, treating the place like a free office. I speak from experience. Now and then I feel compelled to buy coffee and a bagel so I don’t get the stink-eye from the manager.

When I had a job (and I loved my job), I juggled uncertainty most days. Now I juggle ambiguity every minute (and I love that more). While I’m not an adrenaline junkie snorting the next line of risk off the borrowed desk, I do feel a need to “build some shit” as a developer friend of mine is fond of saying. “Screw the meetings. Let’s stop talking about it and build some shit.” That’s his mantra. And I agree with it.

“It’s pressure,” said a woman in Can Can (another popular morning startup meeting place), who refused to tell me what she was working on. “Beautiful pressure. Not the kind I felt when I had a job. This is like breathing gasoline. But I love it.”

I’m not using names here, by the way, because I talk to a lot of people off the record. And actually, I suck at remembering names. Okay, that’s the real reason. May as well just say it.

“You should be working on your startup instead of asking me questions about my startup,” said a young man chewing a big triangle of Mellow Mushroom pizza and looking sleep deprived. “You should be building shit. I worked until 4 a.m., slept a little; worked some more; now I need carbs, the breakfast of entrepreneurs.”

It was 1 p.m.

“Yeah. Breakfast.”

“I’m not doing a startup,” said an older woman nursing her baby idea through the first few weeks. “I’m doing a startover. This is my life, not just my business. I had a job for 20 years. Now I have a mission.”

Startuppers fit no mold, not even the preconceived image of a startupper. And patience, while needed, is not an easy trait to foster when last night’s brilliant solution turns into this morning’s splattered disaster.

“Everything blew up this morning,” said a young man with a beard that looks as if it was born and he grew to it. “It’ll take two weeks to fix. That’s patience, I guess.”

“Hey, write this down. There is one rule in startups,” he said emphatically poking the screen of his iPhone with a stiff finger. “Don’t steal other people’s ideas. If you do, you’ll be taken to a place out in the woods—like maybe Goochland or somewhere —and beaten like a dirty rug.” He smiled sweetly.

“We are generally open. We share,” said a young man talking about Bluetooth low energy. “Sometimes we probably share too much.”

On a recent Saturday morning, people mill about the aisles of a Short Pump store, looking at coffeemakers and dog food, camping equipment and toothpaste. The young man walks around explaining how BLE works.

“You could put a sensor up there,” he said, pointing to the ceiling. “Based on the customer’s location in the store, the retailer could push content about products near them, deals, whatever, to their Smartphone through an app. The physical retailer gets analytics usually only available to online retailers so they can build a better in-store experience.”

He squatted next to shelves and walked off distances using his size 13 shoes. “This could work in a restaurant or on a cruise ship too. Pretty much anywhere inside where normal geo location is unreliable. This is granular. This is the future.

You hear a lot about the future when you talk with entrepreneurs. They blend it with hyperbole, hard facts, and a lot of passion. One guy reached into his jacket pocket and produced an Arduino board talking in clipped language about a motion detection idea he was working on. It was for airports I think. He never really told me. His phone rang, he darted off, and that was it.

Whatever these people have invented, whatever their company makes or sells or means, it will likely solve just about any problem you can imagine, from Smartphone payments to local food distribution to new social channels to body odor.

You will hear talk of 804RVA and groups that congregate in the backs of local restaurants and bars. Larkin Garbee’s name comes up a lot. She’s the chief imagination officer at 804RVA. Look her up.

“Richmond is a Zuckerbergian clusterf*#k of amazing thinking these days,” said a man in line at Urban Farmhouse in Shockoe Slip.

“I think our national restaurant reputation is sort of a product of our startup mentality mixed with the vibrant explosion of VCU,” said a woman perched on a stool at Globehopper. “Havoc has spread to business.”

VCU’s nationally renowned Brand Center could be a new type of startup incubator providing the mental muscle not unlike MIT in Boston or Stanford in Silicon Valley.

“Everyone my age is trying to find a job,” said a recently graduated startupper. “I’m trying to be one.”

While it’s an easy cliché, not every startupper in the RVA is a Millennial.

“I grew up poor, made a few bucks, got laid off, and now I’m building a company,” said a 40-something man standing, oddly enough, at the riverview edge of Hollywood Cemetery.

“Palto Alto on the James.”

He laughs, sips his coffee, then quickly adds, “I’m not kidding.”


CategoriesGeneral, Startups, WorkTagged

Terry Taylor is a celebrated storyteller, entrepreneur, and award-winning creative director. He has worked as director of ideas at Big River, creative director at Arnold Worldwide, creative director at Ogilvy & Mather, creative director at Earle Palmer Brown, creative director at Chiat/Day, and more.