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Michael Girdley, Investor, Entrepreneur and SA Business Advocate
Episode 4518th February 2022 • The Alamo Hour • Justin Hill
00:00:00 01:03:56

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Michael Girdley has become a well-known advisor, commentator, investor, and authority on all things San Antonio business related. He has a huge Twitter following and has a lot to say about our city and what we need to keep progressing.


Justin Hill: Hello and bienvenidos, San Antonio. Welcome to The Alamo Hour, discussing the people, places and passion that make our city. My name is Justin Hill, a local attorney, a proud San Antonian, and keeper of chickens and bees. On The Alamo Hour, you'll get to hear from the people that make San Antonio great and unique in the best-kept secret in Texas. We're glad that you're here.

Michael Girdley: How long do we go?

Justin: One hour. Welcome to The Alamo Hour. Today's guest is Michael Girdley. He's kind of all things. I'm going to hit some of the points from his website. His bio, he's currently Chairman and Co-founder of Dura Software. He's a partner at Geekdom Fund. He's been involved in co-founding and leading multiple different ventures in San Antonio and around Texas.

He was Man of the Year with San Antonio Business Journal and Geek of the Year with Geekdom, right, in 2016. He's passionate about San Antonio's future. If you follow him on Twitter, you know how much San Antonio and the future of our city matters to him. He's a perfect kind of guest to have on here, so thanks for being here.

Michael: Yes, excited. Thanks for having me.

Justin: You've listened to a few of my really compelling episodes, so I appreciate it.

Michael: Yes, four actually. [unintelligible 00:01:10]

Justin: That's more than most people. I start a lot with just some general questions about San Antonio I wanted to ask you about.

Michael: Yes.

Justin: All right. Do you have any pets?

Michael: We have two cats.

Justin: Okay. What kind of cats?

Michael: Four-legged ones, simple.

Justin: Like alley cats?

Michael: Ones we got at The Humane Society.

Justin: Okay. Some people are into like Persians or these bald cats.

Michael: Yes, we're not.

Justin: None of that?

Michael: We're not fancy.

Justin: All right. Favorite hidden gems in San Antonio?

Michael: Oh man. I definitely like just the normal taquerias that are like all over the place.

Justin: Do you have a favorite?

Michael: Man, I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings. They're all my favorites.

Justin: I had a judge on here who wouldn't give me a single restaurant she liked because she didn't want to endorse them.

Michael: I love that we have Tex-Mex. To be totally frank with you, I don't enjoy eating it that much. When my wife and I have options to go out or we go out for dinners like we're ended up at Bliss or Cured or those types of places. We lived in California for a while and we still brought that taste back with us. We want to eat that kind of food and have that kind of dining experience.

Justin: Bliss and Cured do it for you.

Michael: They're definitely fancy. We love going to the Pearl Food Hall as well. I will be unabashedly snobby about where I like to go.

Justin: I like the Food Hall now that you can just sit at your table and order on the QR code and it comes out. I appreciate that, especially during the pandemic. Do you have any odd hobbies other than your Twitter?

Michael: Twitter is definitely one. I've really gotten to pasture into plane tracking. Yes, it's a really interesting hobby.

Justin: What's the goal of this?

Michael: What do you mean what's the goal?

Justin: I mean other than just see where planes are going.

Michael: How could it not be obvious that plane-- we live in the flight path underneath San Antonio International. The runways are aligned in a way to orient towards the natural flow of air, which is either coming off the Gulf or going towards the Gulf. We get lots of planes taking off and landing all the time. Every plane that flies, whether it's general aviation, so like private planes or the commercial ones, they emit a repeater signal with their ID and location, speed and all that kind of stuff.

Justin: Sure.

Michael: That's not encrypted, you can actually see that however you want. Probably last year, I got really big into it, but a couple years ago I set up an antenna over our house. I could see planes going from Mexico City to Frankfurt in the middle of the night and that sort of thing. We have a whole setup that [crosstalk]

Justin: Just curiosity.

Michael: It's just fun.

Justin: Do you look up the tale numbers and see like, is this a business plane or a personal plane?

Michael: Yes. It's cool. Yes, and it's fun you can actually see like-- you'll look up certain names or certain private planes fly over and you can go look, okay, what address is this registered to? Then you can figure out who that fancy San Antonian was that flew over my house. I've never been on a private plane. I'd like to do it someday, but I can see the fancy people go over.

The other fun thing is when you can see some of the corporations in town will hold their national conventions here. You're like, "Why are there 40 private jets in San Antonio International." You can figure what they're all here for. There's actually even more fun stuff when like the Final Four is here and you see all the private jets like taken off one after another right after the game ends. It's pretty nerdy.

The other weird ones that are super cool is there will be ones that fly over my house that are not registering. They're not sending a signal. They don't show up-

Justin: Is that military?

Michael: -because they're military. A lot of times, you can tell when some really big wig is going over because two fighter jets will take off first, then you'll see a plane go, and then two fighter jets will go.

Justin: Okay, this sounds more fun than originally.

Michael: Yes, it's cool. It's super cool.

Justin: My first boss had a private plane and the first time I rode on that, I just remember that, as we were taking off, he played Flight of the Valkyries as loud as it would play and that just-- memories seared into my head. That plane was nothing but a flying cooler, is what it really was. It was just tons of Miller Lite, not the pilot. He wasn't flying himself. I'm going to tell you some other stories about those experience.

Michael: You have enough money for a plane and all you get is Miller Lite?

Justin: He was a Diet Coke Miller Lite guy.

Michael: Well, okay.

Justin: He knew what he liked.

Michael: Whatever makes you happy.

Justin: Yes. We'll talk about it in a second, but you have a history as a CEO of Alamo Fireworks.

Michael: Yes.

Justin: I too, as a very young 7-year-old, 8-year-old to 12-year-old boy worked at a firework stand. Did you have a favorite firework?

Michael: Yes, whichever one was the easiest to sell. Actually, my favorite as a business person is there's these assortments that are already assembled.

Justin: Sure.

Michael: Somebody walks up, they give you their money. You say, "Here's your assortment." They walk away happy, you walk away with their money. You move on to the next customer. I grew up running those firework stands. That's how I learned a lot about business, a lot about people.

Justin: Sure.

Michael: Running a firework stand, you do it as a partnership with the company. The people that run those aren't actually our employees, they're independent contractors. They get paid on commission. They have an investment in running those things.

Justin: That's for like Alamo Fireworks, right?

Michael: For Alamo. Yes. For our company. It's a great way, when I was 18, 19 years old, to learn the fundamentals. You have to learn how to staff your thing. You have to learn how to merchandise it. You have to deal with personality issues on customers and employees.

Justin: You have to stay there overnight, right?

Michael: You have to sleep there. You have to develop resources. You have to develop grit to do that because nobody sets up the firework seasons during the nice time of the year. You're either-

Justin: Hot as hell.

Michael: -freezing your butt off around New Year's or cooking in a camper at around the 4th of July [crosstalk]

Justin: You didn't get one of the big air-conditioned steel buildings?

Michael: We did not-- they were not legal at the time when I was running stands.

Justin: They couldn't be permanent, right?

Michael: Yes. Those came around only in the late '90s, early 2000s. By then, I had already moved on.

Justin: Was this still 10 days the whole time you were there? 10 days before both holidays?

Michael: Yes, yes. 10-12 days.

Justin: The one I worked at was independently owned and he had to order himself. We had to write down what to order. I just remember it was like a 10 times markup or something on all the stuff.

Michael: Yes, it's not quite that good. People talk about, "Well, these fireworks are so expensive," or whatever. First of all, in the past couple years, all the Chinese and supply chain problems have hit the fireworks industry huge.

Justin: Okay. Last time I went, it seemed barren, and I didn't know if that was just a crappy firework stand or what.

Michael: It may depend on who you went to or which companies you went to or when you went, because they're designed to run out of fireworks on the big days because we don't get to sell anything again for six months after. Also, a lot of the competitors had supply chain problems over the past few years. We did a pretty good job of navigating that, but some people didn't.

Justin: Right. You're out of it entirely now?

Michael: I don't work in the business, but I work on it a lot. We have a great team running the business. My brother and I are very much involved in it.

Justin: I couldn't tell, it was a family thing?

Michael: Yes. It's started by my great-grandfather.

Justin: Cool.

Michael: Incorporated formally in 1962. My dad worked in it for 35 years or so.

Justin: Wow.

Michael: We've been in San Antonio area forever since [crosstalk]--

Justin: Just Bexar County?

Michael: No, we're all over the state, so a couple hundred locations. We just passed our 32nd, 33rd indoor store. We have a location in Nevada, one in New Mexico, and then we go as far west as El Paso, as far north as Amarillo, and then down in the valley [unintelligible 00:08:31].

Justin: What do you do with the big buildings in the off times? The other 345 days a year.

Michael: They mostly sit dormant.

Justin: Is that right? They're not used for storage or something.

Michael: Yes. Yes. They just mostly sit dormant. You might leave leftover merchandise there for the next time. The way those locations are set up, where they are, there's really no other businesses that make sense to be in there. We did Halloween for a while. Amazon destroyed that business.

Justin: Hell, yes.

Michael: I don't know if you've tracked that, but 15 years ago, there were tons of pop-up Halloween stores. Except for Spirit, they've pretty much all gone by the wayside.

Justin: Now, JV with Spirit. I mean because y'all are not really in the city though with those locations?

Michael: Correct. Though that's changing, this city keeps growing. We had Spirit at one of our locations this past year, and I think it went well.

Justin: If city annex is where one of those permanent buildings is, are y'all no longer allowed to sell fireworks there?

Michael: It used to be different, but there's a law now where, if you're annexed, if you have a building there, you get 20 more years before [unintelligible 00:09:33].

Justin: Oh, nice. Okay. All right. Well, that helps.

Michael: Yes. There's been a good migration of pro-fireworks legislation the past decade or so. Thank you.

Justin: [chuckles] What's the state with the least rules on fireworks? It used to be like Oklahoma, you could go get cherry bombs and stuff.

Michael: Yes. Nationally, there's been just a recognition across everywhere that you're better off just regulating fireworks than [unintelligible 00:09:53] them. Almost every state has gotten more permissive except for New York, Massachusetts and California. Florida, Alabama, Florida used to be closed, that opened up. Michigan. All these different states have become more permissive over time. Wyoming, New Mexico, it's getting friendlier nationally for the fireworks business.

Justin: You said you moved to San Antonio from California. When did you move here?

Michael: I grew up here, left for college when I was 18. I was like, "I'm never coming back to this place." That worked. [laughs] See how that turned out. Then moved out to California because I wanted to be in the tech business, and so got out there in '97 when I graduated from college and stayed out there until 2004 and moved back here with my wife.

Justin: All right. Moved back, did Alamo?

Michael: Yes. That was the draw to bring us back to San Antonio, and I was CEO there for going on eight years.

Justin: Then we're going to talk a little bit about-- your Twitter's very business advice. Do you have favorite business books that you recommend people to read?

Michael: Yes, I got a whole ton of them.

Justin: Yes, about top three.

Michael: Usually, when people ask that question, I ask what they're trying to solve for because people will typically have a specific thing that they're [crosstalk]

Justin: What about a small business law firm owner like myself?

Michael: What is your biggest problem right now?

Justin: Ooh, I think things are pretty good. I don't really want to grow. I'm pretty happy with the size and all that.

Michael: Are you making as much money as you'd like?

Justin: Yes.

Michael: Then maybe you don't need to read any books. You need a plane with a Bud Light in it.

Justin: Oh, it was Miller Lite.

Michael: Oh, I thought it was a classy plane.


Justin: It wasn't Miller High Life though because that would be real good.

Michael: Oh, yes.

Justin: Generally, what are some of the go-to books you think-

Michael: Yes, for sure.

Justin: -really do a good job for small businesses?

Michael: For small businesses, for sure, a huge fan of a book called Traction. It's about the entrepreneurial operating system. It's business paint by numbers for running your business. Number two is, there's an interview methodology I really like called Top Grading. It's what I use for all team building on that sort of things. There's a third one and I'm totally blanking on it, but it is basically a recipe for how to be a first-time manager. I'll tweet whatever it is when I can remember, but I could see the cover but I can't [crosstalk]

Justin: Have you read The E Myth?

Michael: Yes, E Myth is good.

Justin: I'm reading it right now. It's really good. It makes a lot of sense to me.

Michael: It's nice, it's how do you create systems and get out of your own way in terms of making your business repeatable.

Justin: Yes. Just because you're good at being a lawyer, don't think you're good at running a law firm.

Michael: Where a lot of books and almost all those books fall apart is it's very easy for them to be theoretical. You look at most of those books and they'll give you theory and principles. Then when it's like, okay, what do I do with this in terms of my-- what do I do today? What do I do this month or this quarter? I've gravitated totally towards loving these books that just give you recipes, so you can follow those systems out of the book.

EOS for example has exactly that kind of stuff. How do you document your core processes? How do you systematize them? How do you make them? Instead of you having to figure out, "Okay, I know this principle and how do I put this into practice," it's like, "Oh, here's this worksheet I just fill out." You can go back to figuring out how to be an amazing lawyer as opposed to figuring out how to be an amazing creator of some business system that some expert already created, so just use that.

Justin: I think professional services are so different as opposed to somebody that's making and selling a product too.

Michael: I'm a big believer all business tastes like chicken.

Justin: Okay. Well, you talk about processes and I'm like, "I don't even know what our processes are here."

Michael: There are the stuff you got to get right to really be a successful business. It's pretty much the same stuff. I think you look at my career and what I do now,...