Failure is an Option in Dallas

The local entrepreneurial climate encourages you to try—and to learn, so you can try again.

Wildcatters made Dallas wealthy. they were a rambunctious lot, tough as cowhide, inventive in invective, usually drunker than their drillers, and broke even more often than they were sober. Even during the headiest days of the Texas oil boom, 19 out of 20 holes turned up dry. The only option was to raise more money, try again, and hope that a gusher would pay back the bank.

They were a motley and varied bunch: college graduates, illiterates, former cotton brokers, farmers, and card sharks. The one thing they had in common was that failure never embarrassed them. Failure was their tutor, and they relied on it to teach them.

Dallas became a city of entrepreneurs because of them. Their ethos, like their money, soaked into the ground of this place, and from it grew empires in real estate, insurance, finance, food, and technology. I could run down a list of names—Hunt, Perot, Crow, and so many more—and in every personal story, the common ingredients are risk, failure, picking up the pieces, trying again, risk, and success.

Dallas is a place where failure is not an embarrassment. Anybody in this city who has achieved something has failed at something else. Some have been multiple failures. A few only got started because they were fired, and nobody else would hire them. Many have gone bankrupt or seen their businesses taken away from them.  Of course, there is always the magical and tiny minority who became rich on one roll of the dice. Bless their hearts, it usually ruins them.

I bring up this history because the culture of cities does not change. New York will always be New York—a port city, a polyglot, an exchange. San Francisco will always be San Francisco, Omaha will be Omaha, New Orleans will be New Orleans. Dallas is permeated with an entrepreneurial culture that will attract people who are willing to risk, who are so passionate about an idea that they are willing to throw themselves life and soul into making it a reality.

That’s why technology has thrived here.

It began, as you might expect, with geology. Those wildcatters got tired of drilling dry holes. Reducing the risk of exploration was, in a sense, our founding industry. The technology that developed out of geological science was as important as the technology that later developed out of NASA. It led to the invention of the microchip at Texas Instruments (which began in 1930 as Geophysical Service).

Dallas became the nation’s telecom center because a stubborn entrepreneur, Tom Carter, wanted to hook his new invention—the Carterphone—into the nation’s telephone network. In 1968, the courts overruled the Federal Communications Commission and allowed Carter his chance. Dallas became a magnet for inventors and, when the old Ma Bell monopoly was broken, it became the center of innovation in telephony.

How many times had Carter failed? His first telephone invention—and battle with Ma Bell—was in 1954. Because of Tom Carter, and the wave of innovation he inspired, wireless is now one of Dallas’ biggest industries.

Small companies are the petri dishes of innovation. In Dallas, startups like Woot and Newtoy, service companies like Credera, and venture funds like Covera are where ideas are incubated, modified, thrown out, brought back in, revised, and finally shoved out with a hope and a prayer into the wider world. Sometimes there is a big payday. But most days are occupied with obstacles, the minor failures, and big dry holes.

Those dry holes are not a surprise to us. They are part of the Dallas DNA. We learn from them. We pick ourselves up. We try again. It is why this city thrives.

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