Erik Trautman logo crest shield seal

Erik Trautman

“Everything you can imagine is real.”
-- Pablo Picasso

Houston: It’s Not Me, It’s You

Why am I leaving Houston? The easiest explanation is that I’ve got “happy feet” and I’m allergic to staying in one place for too long before getting the urge to dance away. It’s a bit more subtle, though. I’ve got personal reasons and professional reasons for moving on.

Houston is the third or fourth (depending who you ask) largest city in the US but it feels a lot like a small town. I’d even call it the “largest small town in America”. Perhaps that’s a result of its complete lack of zoning laws and aggressive expansion of city limits or the fact that tumbleweeds could be blowing across downtown Main Street after 5pm on a Friday and no one would be there to see them. It’s a city without a strong sense of its own culture ““ it tends to attract young professionals who are at a middle point in their lives and looking to eventually move on. It’s a big small town in the middle of hundreds of miles of flat, featureless countryside.

Houston also suffers a bit from “Sun Belt Syndrome” where everyone is friendlier and more open but also generally more content, given the opportunity, to maximize their current happiness. There’s definitely something to be said about how the general sense of misery in the Northeast is also highly productive. Don’t get me wrong, a lot gets done here. When I first arrived at BP after Bank of America, I wondered how anyone could get anything done in less than a 14 hour work day. After just a few months, I was wondering why New York bothered with the pressure cooker “Face-Time Face-off” culture when you can get just as much done in fewer hours and with less pressure in a more relaxed environment.

Over time, I’ve come to realize that the A players will always perform despite their environment but it’s the B players who can be pulled up by a culture that forces them to be better or slack off in a culture that affords them that opportunity. When you surround people with opportunities to make themselves fat, drunk or financially comfortable, on average they tend to be drawn in that direction.

I was at first refreshed by the change of pace when I moved to the Gulf Coast but now I find myself missing the intellectual feeding frenzy and dog-eat-dog drive of the East. What I’m really seeking is a place where the culture appropriately supports both sides ““ the ability to be friendly, comfortable and relaxed with the ability to really kick into high gear and get shit done when it’s Go Time. The presence of a general ambition to fix the world’s problems goes a long way too.

Many of Houston’s issues are related to Energy. It’s like many cities that have developed around a single core industry”¦ that industry tends to pull in the available talent and lock them into comfortable, relatively high-paying jobs without a lot of risk. Sound familiar, New York? The problem is that a promising young engineer who might have otherwise been interested in starting a tech company is doing oilfield services instead. The money that may have been funneled into exciting new ideas is instead pushed towards enabling the expansion of shale gas drilling infrastructure in Barnett or Eagleford or Haynesville. I don’t have a fundamental problem with these decisions because they represent human and financial capital seeking the right risk-adjusted path to return. They just don’t fit in well with the idea of founding a tech startup.

I’ve spoken with a variety of entrepreneurs who are active within the local community here. That community is small but tightly knit. Two of the biggest problems that they have are the lack of interest from potential talent due to more attractive alternatives in other fields and a lack of investor education in how to handle tech investment. Again, that’s a byproduct of capital seeking return but it’s frustrating if the easy option ends up causing people to exclude consideration of other potentially more rewarding options.

If my goal is to create a tech company and I am a mobile, free individual, it only makes sense that I seek out the location where my access to capital and talent is hampered by the fewest obstacles. My decision making process regarding the Final Destination will be covered a bit more in future posts but, while I’ll miss a lot of aspects of life here and certainly the friends I’ve made, it was fairly apparent early on that the destination would not be Houston.