Grok Interactive Stays Small to Build Apps For Startups Everywhere

San Antonio — Jason Straughan and Jason Ellis, who co-founded San Antonio, TX-based Web and mobile app development company Grok Interactive in April 2013, faced a unique problem when they were ready to grow their small business and hire new software developers: they couldn’t find many, at least locally.

Only a few months later, Straughan and two other local San Antonio entrepreneurs created the city’s first coding boot camp, Codeup. Since then, some 200 students have graduated from Codeup, some of whom have been hired by Straughan and Ellis at Grok Interactive. Today, Grok has 12 software developers on staff and is planning to hire a 13th soon, Straughan says.

“This company is about enjoyment and being able to go to work and be happy, be challenged as a developer, do things that we really want to do, solve hard problems, and do it in a way in which everyone enjoys it,” he says. “I know it sounds cheesy, but that was one of the main mantras behind starting Grok: happy developers, happy clients. If we can do those two things, we are going to want to go to work every day.”

Grok is in an odd spot in the tech industry, operating more like a small business than your typical startup. For an hourly rate, the company’s software writers build Web and mobile applications for startups nationally who may not have the manpower, or the hefty amount of capital needed to hire the staff, to do so on their own.

The company is in part benefiting from a rebirth of the tech industry in San Antonio, where historically there have been only a few tech businesses, such as Rackspace. Now, with local entrepreneurship programs in the city’s universities, a Techstars accelerator, and other local initiatives, new tech startups are springing up, and Grok is helping some of them get off the ground.

“Oftentimes, we help a client build out that minimum viable product so they can then go raise that Series A and essentially replace us with talent when they have the money to do so,” Straughan says. “We think of ourselves as a small business that assists startups and helps them get to market faster.”

Grok has made products for companies such as MassVenture, a San Antonio startup that lets both accredited and non-accredited people invest in small businesses, real estate, and other deals, as well as Soloshot, a startup with technology meant to help photographers at sporting events, which relocated to San Antonio from California. Grok also developed the app that Choose San Antonio used when it was promoting the city at South by Southwest.

While Grok may be Straughan’s main focus, he has other side projects too, including Codeup, which he co-founded with Michael Girdley and Chris Turner. Xconomy spoke to Girdley in February about his work as the CEO of Codeup and as a seed-stage investor with the Geekdom Fund.

Straughan is also the technical co-founder of Part Thyme, an app that connects restaurants with on-demand staffers such as dishwashers or servers who are looking for freelance or part-time jobs. Part Thyme is led by Ryan Salts, who works for San Antonio entrepreneurial resource center Café Commerce and co-founded a culinary business accelerator there. Part Thyme was one of five companies selected to compete for as much as $30,000 in cash through the Tech Fuel competition.

Grok, a term from a Robert Heinlein science fiction novel that means, among other things, to understand something thoroughly and intuitively, remains Straughan’s primary work. He is happy keeping the business small, however, allowing his team to keep focus on projects they particularly like.

“When I was working at other companies and I was miserable, I wrote miserable code. When I was happy and challenged, and felt like I believed in the mission, I wrote some really good code,” Straughan says. “The biggest thing we can do to stay on top of our game is to do whatever we can to challenge our developers and keep everyone on the team happy. I don’t know if I could do that if we were a 500-person company. But I think it’s very achievable when you’re a small, tight-knit team.”

David Holley is Xconomy's national correspondent based in Austin, TX. You can reach him at dholley@xconomy.com Follow @xconholley

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