Tech boom

Houston's innovation ecosystem channels the wildcatter's spirit — but with one major difference

Is Texas still full of wildcatters — but for tech and innovation? Some say yes, but with one caveat. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Historically, Texas has been a land of opportunity, and that might ring true now more than ever since the state's oil boom. As Houston's innovation ecosystem grows and develops, are these entrepreneurs reminiscent of the wildcatter days of the early 1900s? Well, sort of.

"Wildcatting is supposed to be really wild. You're supposed to go out in the field and drill some holes and hope that you find something," says Marc Nathan, vice president of strategy at Egan Nelson in Austin. "Truth is, we're a lot more deliberate than that these days."

Wildcatting and deliberate innovation development were the topics of discussion at a panel in Austin during SXSW. The panel, which was hosted by Rice Business and Texas Monthly, was comprised of three panelists with Houston ties: Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston, Lawson Gow, CEO and founder of Houston-based The Cannon, and Nathan, who, though based in Austin now, was born and raised in Houston and has done business in town too.

Wildcatting new industries
All three panelists agreed that the entrepreneurial nature of the wildcatters is alive and well within Texas entrepreneurs, just now spread apart multiple industries. Among all of the major Texas cities — or DASH, as Nathan calls it, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and Houston — each has its specialty. Austin tends to specialize in consumer-facing technology, Dallas has a hold on B-to-B and transportation, and San Antonio has the military.

For Houston, which is most known for its energy, life sciences, and space technology, has some new territories it's growing in, says Rowe, from cybersecurity to sports technology. And all of these different industries seem to work together, which is encouraging to see for Rowe.

"That's the secret sauce that Houston has in many ways," Rowe says.

This ability to specialize is also what's also special about Houston. Rather than trying to compete with Austin and its consumer technology — Gow gave an example of a startup focusing on a doggy dating app — Houston is doing its own thing.

"What I love about Houston is we're trying to solve big problems," Gow, who is the son of InnovationMap's parent company's CEO, says. "We're not going to be the consumer software capital of the world and, for the most part, we're not going to mess around with doggy dating apps."

Houston's problems to overcome
One of the challenges Houston faces as an innovation ecosystem is access to funds. According to Nathan, putting money into tech is just not Houston investors are used to doing.

"Houstonians invest in the ground, with oil and gas, and on the ground, with real estate, but not in the cloud," Nathan says.

The reason being, Gow says, is investors tend to put money into industries they know, and there's a need for educating these investors in new industries.

"To compare to Austin, more people in Austin have tech startups that have been successful and they turn around and invest in what they know, which is tech startups," Gow says. "There's a generational effect."

Another challenge Houston faces is competition — but not with other Texas cities or the rest of the country. Competition between startups and accelerators for resources has the potential to hinder the city's growth as an ecosystem.

"We are fighting for very scarce resources — and it's not just money," Nathan says. "It's also talent."

Texas Monthly's chief innovation officer, Tim Taliaferro, moderated the panel. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

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Building Houston

 
 

SeekerPitch exists to update the job hiring process in a way that benefits both the job seekers and recruiters. Photo via Getty Images

Companies across the country have been requiring resumes and cover letters from their new hire hopefuls since the World War II era, and it's about time that changed. A startup founded in Houston has risen to the occasion.

Houstonian Samantha Hepler had the idea for SeekerPitch when she was looking for her next move. She felt like she had developed a formidable career in digital transformation and had worked with big name clients from Chevron to Gucci. However, she couldn't even get an interview for a role she felt she would be a shoe-in for.

"I knew if I could just get through the door, a company would see the value in me," Hepler tells InnovationMap. "I wasn't being seen, and I wasn't being heard. I didn't know a way to do that."

And she wasn't alone in this frustration. Hepler says she discovered she was one of the 76 percent of job candidates who get filtered out based on former job titles and keywords. At the same time, Hepler says she discovered that 80 percent of companies reported difficulty finding talent.

Samantha Hepler had the idea for SeekerPitch based on her own ill-fated job hunt experience. Photo courtesy of SeekerPitch

"I was just a symptom of a larger problem companies were facing," Hepler says. "Companies were using algorithms to dilute their talent pool, and then the hires they were making weren't quality because they were looking for people based on what they've done. They weren't looking at people for what they could do."

SeekerPitch, which is in the current cohort of gBETA Houston, allows job seekers to create an account and tell their story — not just their job history. The platform prioritizes video content and quick interviews so that potential hires can get face-to-face with hiring managers.

"We empower companies to hear the candidates' stories," Hepler says. "We're bringing candidates streaming to computer screens. We are the Netflix of recruiting."

Hepler gives an example of a first-generation college graduate who's got "administrative assistant" and "hostess" on her resume — but who has accomplished so much more than that. She put herself through school with no debt and in three years instead of four. SeekerPitch allows for these types of life accomplishments and soft skills into the recruiting process.

SeekerPitch profiles allow job seekers to tell their story — not just their past job experience. Photo courtesy of SeekerPitch

Over the past few years, a trend in hiring has been in equity and diversity, and Hepler says that people have been trying to address this with blurring out people's names and photos.

"Our belief is that connection is the antidote to bias," Hepler says, mentioning a hypothetical job candidate who worked at Walmart because they couldn't afford to take multiple unpaid internships. "They can't come alive on a resume and they won't stand a chance next to another person."

SeekerPitch is always free for job seekers, and, through the end of the year, it's also free for companies posting job positions. Beginning in January 2022, it will cost $10 per day to list a job opening. Also next year — Hepler says she'll be opening a round of pre-seed funding in order to grow her team. So far, the company has been bootstrapped, thanks to re-appropriated funding from Hepler's canceled wedding. (She opted for a cheaper ceremony instead.)

Right now, SeekerPitch sees an opportunity to support growing startups that need to make key hires — and quickly. The company has an ongoing pilot partnership with a Houston startup that is looking to hiring over a dozen positions in a month.

"As a startup, your key hires are going to make or break your company — but you have to hire quickly," Hepler says. "That's the ultimate challenge for startups. ... But if you don't hire well it can cost your company a lot of money or be the demise of your company. It's people who make a company great."

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