Five years ago, then-Santa Cruz mayor Hilary Bryant knew that there was a healthy tech start-up culture really starting to bloom in Santa Cruz, but she didn’t feel she knew as much about it as she should have.
As a part of the city’s business retention efforts, Bryant remembers visiting the offices of Looker, the data-analytics company that today is one of Santa Cruz’s most prominent homegrown businesses.
“It was probably six or seven people in the small office in the back of the Cruzio building,” she says “I kept thinking, ‘I know you guys are doing something cool, but I have no idea exactly what you’re doing.’”
At the time, the tech industry in Santa Cruz was growing largely outside of notice, so much so that the city’s mayor had to rely on rumor and scuttlebutt to figure out who was doing what.
The timing could not have been better for Sara Isenberg, and her idea to provide centralized coverage of Santa Cruz’s tech sector at a new website she called Santa Cruz Tech Beat. Isenberg showed up at the mayor’s office with exactly the solution to her problem.
“Sara and I had a great conversation,” says Bryant. “I told her that as an elected official, I wanted to be able to tell this story and to understand this story. But I didn’t know how to tap into that community without going to a whole lot of events. And I didn’t even have the understanding to know which events to attend. And when she showed up, I was like, ‘Yes, please, how can I help you do this?’”
Bryant became one of Tech Beat’s earliest subscribers.
This summer, Santa Cruz Tech Beat is celebrating its fifth anniversary of providing a window into the world of Santa Cruz’s busy tech sector. From the beginning, Isenberg has claimed no standing as a journalist. Instead, she comes from tech herself, having graduated from UCSC with a degree in computer science and working in the computer industry since the early 1980s, most notably at Santa Cruz Operations (SCO) throughout the 1990s.
“I’m a tech person who just happened to be here and happened to pick up something I thought would be fun when my son was headed off to college,” says.
Isenberg credits her friend and fellow techie Margaret Rosas—who later introduced her to the mayor—for inspiring Tech Beat in July 2013. “The conception at the time wasn’t a grand thing,” says Isenberg. “It was just a newsletter. The people at the city were too busy with other things to know what was going on in tech, and unless if you were spending all day at NextSpace, you didn’t know what was going on.”
An ecosystem emerges
Santa Cruz Tech Beat first began collecting press releases from the entrepreneurs in town and quickly expanded to include interviews, events and job listings. It was the job postings that really attracted eyeballs to the site, and after a couple of years, Isenberg moved from a tech consultant who publishes a newsletter on the side to a publisher who does consulting on the side.
“The news on the site is a selection of curated news that’s written elsewhere, press releases, guest articles,” she says.
Santa Cruz Tech Beat soon expanded its purview and began covering the tech sector not only throughout Santa Cruz County but in Monterey and San Benito counties as well. Since then, the site has brought into sharper focus the nature of tech around the Monterey Bay, chronicling the rise of several hubs of activity—genomics, stemming from the Genomics Institute at UCSC; adventure sports and gaming; and agricultural tech. With companies such as Plantronics and Fullpower Technologies, Santa Cruz has a stake in wearable tech. Overall, it’s a thriving community that ties together the biggest players in Santa Cruz’s tech economy, from UCSC to Cruzio to ProductOps and Looker to Santa Cruz New Tech Meet Up.
Doug Erickson of New Tech MeetUp says that Isenberg and Tech Beat provide a valuable bridge in the town’s tech ecosystem. He points to studies that list critical components like institutions of higher learning, municipal support, angel investors, mentor businesspeople and incubator businesses. “You have to have all those components for a tech ecosystem to thrive,” he says, “and Tech Beat connects all those components together.”
New Tech MeetUp began 10 years ago, long before Tech Beat. And the absence of a site like Tech Beat made Erickson’s job difficult. “It was very difficult,” he says, “to find out who would be interested, what’s the history, whether anyone has tried to do this before. It was really hard to find out any of that stuff. Now, with Tech Beat, we have a record of everything that’s been going on, and that’s a very valuable thing to have.”
The tech industry’s relationship with the public has always included a degree of hype, but Isenberg makes the point to say that she is not inclined to hyperbole. “I’m just not a hyperbolic person,” she says. “I’m not a salesperson. I’m really just an introverted, geeky kind of person. When I publish, the focus I want to give is not that these companies have sexy products necessarily. It’s more that they make these kinds of products, and they were started by so-and-so. And what I’ve learned is that even though you think that tech people would value Tech Beat, it’s really the people who are around tech but not in it that are more interested. City and county leaders, university people, attorneys, commercial real-estate people, all the people who have an interest in the infrastructure around tech.
Santa Cruz Tech Beat is largely supported by the institutions and companies that it covers, allowing Isenberg to generate some income and spend her time populating the site. “It generates an income,” she says. “Not a Silicon Valley high-tech income. It’s not like having a salary. But I’m my own boss, and I can do what I want.”
Tech Beat also keeps the breathless “Silicon Beach” rhetoric that the local tech industry has had problems living up to in check.
“We are what we are,” says Isenberg of Santa Cruz County’s tech community, downplaying any notion that Santa Cruz might become some Next Big Thing in tech. “It’s up to individuals to start companies. I don’t think all of a sudden something big is going to happen locally. We have an ecosystem here.”