Until about five months ago, Rob Strandberg was a bored semi-retired tech executive living in Central Florida, and his golf game wasn’t improving either. His three kids were off on their own and the public companies he had been a director of had been sold. “I realized I wanted to get back into the business of helping tech companies,” he said.
That’s why the job at the helm of the nonprofit Enterprise Development Corporation of South Florida was appealing to this former CEO of several tech companies. EDC’s mission: to dramatically improve the chance for success of science and technology start-ups in Palm Beach, Broward and Dade counties by offering a wide range of valuable services.
“I have learned the hard way what does and doesn’t work and I hope to provide the type of advice and assistance I wish I had received early in my career,” said Strandberg, who started as president and CEO of the EDC in May.
The Miami Herald met with Strandberg at the C. Scott Ellington Technology Business Incubator in Boca Raton, which the EDC manages, and followed up with questions by email.
Q. What are your top goals for the EDC?
A. Our primary goal is creating successful enterprises, and in doing so, create high value jobs. To do this, we are quickly expanding the services we offer and, most importantly, the quality of these services — whether it is providing advice from strong, experienced mentors to providing broader access to business services such as legal, financial/accounting, marketing/sales, go-to-market strategies and, most importantly, provide actual assistance in fund-raising.
Q. More broadly, why does South Florida need an EDC?
A. My first answer is an easy one: In this current economic climate, any successful efforts by the EDC are more important than ever. A consequence of this prolonged recession is that there has been a creation of a whole wave of experienced technology entrepreneurs. And this avalanche of talent thankfully has occurred more or less simultaneously with the emergence of numerous exciting technologies that promise to change our lives in many extraordinary ways. The endless opportunities created by social media, mobile/wireless technologies, accelerating medical breakthroughs, big data apps, cloud computing, web enabled commerce, etc., etc., etc, is occurring exactly when our economy could really use the economic jolt from start-ups — This is why EDC is needed. We know we can help many, many entrepreneurs succeed and grow despite these challenging times; full stop.
Q. What are the key benefits for the entrepreneur who is accepted into the Technology Business Incubator?
A. First, we try to help all entrepreneurs, whether they are a tenant in one of our locations or what we call a “virtual tenant” — those that still work from their own location. We are certainly building our core capabilities but believe we are well on our way in offering the quality of broad, customized assistance that many entrepreneurs would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. I could go on about all the typical benefits of incubators, but the one that I have found most important has been the networking we can provide. We may not be able to always give the specific advice or help an entrepreneur may exactly need, but we can sure make some great introductions with people who can.
Q. What key attributes do you look for in an entrepreneur applying to an incubator?
A. We look for the obvious characteristics that are necessary for start-up success: Entrepreneurs need to have a creative, strong passion to succeed; an openness to accept advice — therefore be coach-able and accept constructive criticism; and ideally, a willingness to take the necessary risks without giving up. I once heard a definition of an entrepreneur as someone who jumps out of a plane and, on the way down, tries to figure out how to construct a parachute. In some sense, EDC helps them make a parachute that will open; but the best entrepreneurs must first be committed to taking that initial leap.
Additionally, entrepreneurs need to able to accept failure, learn from it and try again. Most of the best entrepreneurs I have known have failed, often multiple times, before succeeding or, alternatively, succeed initially and then fail and fail again before their next success. I think this dynamic truly defines the best entrepreneurs but is poorly understood. Our culture likes to trumpet the successes of entrepreneurs but we are often quick to criticize their failures. Personally, I like to see a history of some hard-won lessons, as such tough experiences often ultimately create the most capable entrepreneurs. I once received a letter asking for assistance from a friend who was fired with little notice from his position running a West Coast tech company. Before I could provide any help, he was hired as Yahoo’s first CEO.
Q. EDC has always been a partner in Incubate Miami. Tell me about a few plans.
A. We are establishing a larger, more active day-to-day presence in Miami and are currently working with about a dozen very promising Miami start-ups. With our Incubate Miami partner, Marc Billings, we feel we already have a successful start as Marc has been a strong contributor to the Miami tech community for years. Marc has asked us to consider taking a larger role in the day-to-day operations of Incubate Miami, so you might see our Miami visibility rising a bit. Currently, Marc is in the middle of an accelerator class at the incubator and, based upon meetings I have had with his group, I have little doubt that some number of these start-ups will succeed and make Miami proud.
Q. What does EDC do for the entrepreneurial community outside of the incubators?
A. We try to do anything and everything we can to support the entrepreneurial community. We try to be a commercialization partner to our universities, we try to sponsor start-up weekends, tech meet-ups, hack-a-thons, topical business themed mini events, speakers, classes, etc.
Q. Do you have any additional efforts in the works?
A. We are currently building relationships with other incubators throughout the state. We are working with Broward College on an incubator and are separately moving discussions along at a few additional locations (stay tuned) and we are in discussions in expanding our efforts in Miami-Dade as I have already mentioned. However, the one thing we want to make sure to avoid is spreading ourselves too thin and becoming just another low-value-add incubator group. We want our start-up clients to receive extraordinarily valuable support from the EDC.
Q. How is EDC helping to provide a “soft landing” for foreign entrepreneurs and why is that important?
A. We currently have one foreign client that we are assisting in successfully establishing themselves in the US. We are also exploring a more structured offering for both foreign start-ups as well as more mature companies. We see these activities as a natural leveraging of the international assets South Florida has. Needless to say, I believe this sort of sponsoring could be an enormous economic engine for our region.
Q. Are you planning another Emerging Technology Business Showcase this year?
A. Yes, and the date is Nov. 30. We have a growing list of some great start-ups, some of which are already raising significant capital. And our focus of panel discussions and speakers will be hearing from entrepreneurs who have had successful raises — what works, what doesn’t.
Q. Any other changes or plans at EDC you would like to mention?
A. We have a close relationship with New World Angels and have additional plans of expanding our network of other individual investors. Every month, New World takes a close look at a large number of very high quality deals and we are assisting them as they expand their membership and enhance their process. Separately, we see an enormous number of early through later stage start-ups that I believe could be very attractive to a broader angel/VC network as we build a number of strong relationships within the investment communities both in and out of the state.
Q. What does the tech ecosystem in South Florida most need to grow?
A. If I had to focus one item, it would be far more collaboration between all of the players so that we can create a far larger critical mass of high quality assistance to entrepreneurs, resulting in a larger number of investable start-ups that will, in turn, result in a far higher interest from investors. In my opinion, South Florida has a lot of support entities down here going it alone and in some instances, simply not providing valuable assistance. Our total ecosystem needs to better pull together collectively and not view collaboration as a zero sum exercise. If we could assemble individuals from all of our elements — academic institutions, corporate partners, experienced tech execs/mentors and credible members of the investment community — we could better pool and focus our resources so our start-ups would have far better chances for success.
Q. What is the region’s biggest challenge right now in growing a thriving and sustainable tech ecosystem?
A. I would highlight three items: 1. Efficient access to quality, relevant business advisors. 2. Access to start-up and later stage capital. And 3. Having been a CEO and director of tech companies throughout the US and knowing Boston, New York and California tech communities quite well, we need to do a far better job of attracting corporations. I believe that we must attract many more corporations to South Florida by highlighting our world-class assets - quality of life, great educational institutions, international culture, easy access to the emerging economies of Latin America, etc. Corporations are unquestionably the best source of entrepreneurs - they provide engineers and key functional talent – the necessary raw materials for a tech ecosystem. Also, a large corporate community offers entrepreneurs career “safety nets”, should their start-up plans derail.
Q. If you could ask for any kind of assistance for the EDC, what would it be?
A. First, EDC is fortunate to have some of the most generous and highly experienced Board members I have ever worked with – great lawyers, accountants, commercial and investment bankers, other service providers as well as members from the academic community and, perhaps most importantly, private enterprise executives. So, firstly, if there is anyone that has a passion to help entrepreneurs and would like to join the EDC Board team, we would love to invite them on. Secondly, we are constantly looking for highly experienced mentors, particularly those who have deep experiences in relevant functional and/or technology areas. Finally, we are always looking to expand our network of accredited investors as we have an increasing number of high potential start-ups that are definitely worth taking a look at. We are developing quite a database of exciting South Florida start-ups that angels and VCs can anonymously review and, if there is interest, the EDC can make introductions, facilitate meetings, provide more detailed info, etc.