Or what about focusing on being a gateway to Latin America? That sparked a literal debate in downtown Miami two weeks ago between Cappello and Auston Bunsen, a young entrepreneur behind SuperConf, an annual conference he began producing in 2010.
Cappello believes the area should play to its strengths, and Latin America’s gateway is a natural one.
“My view is you grab the niche where you are strongest, and you use that to get on the map,” says Cappello. Once that ecosystem gets going, it spreads far beyond the Latin American focus, he says.
“My goal is that Endeavor [a global entrepreneurship nonprofit with a venture capital initiative], Start-up Chile, its counterpart in Colombia, 500 Startups, NXTP [an accelerator in Argentina] — they will all have offices here,” adds Cappello. “As soon as we accomplish that, we are off to the races because we have the entrepreneurs, the talent, we’re very livable. Once we can get this going, the sky’s the limit.”
Bunsen believes the area doesn’t need the gateway brand to succeed and that the region should focus its efforts at home. Even more specifically, it should hone in on a small geographic area — one to five square miles — that can serve as a hub. “There are too many pockets, which leads to disparate communities,” he says. “We will be better served if everything was centralized.”
The importance of “entrepreneurial density” is shared by some of the leading lights in the early-stage venture funding community, including Brad Feld of Boulder, the co-founder of TechStars and Foundry Group whose book, Startup Communities, just published, and others.
“One of the challenges of Miami-Dade is it is a very large diverse region, this [concept] puts the focus on where people will have collisions. Serendipity will occur because people will bump into each other,” says Ted Zoller, a senior scholar at the Kauffman Foundation, an entrepreneurship research organization based in Kansas City. “Place does matter.”
SPREADING THE SPIRIT
If you follow the recent activity around entrepreneurship, most of it is already clustering in the Brickell-to-Wynwood corridor in Miami. Some make the case that an area the size of South Florida can support more than one, and there is also a strong pocket of activity in the northern Broward/South Palm Beach corridor, where the IBM PC was born. But as far as start-up companies go, they are spread all over.
Numbers of start-ups in South Florida are hard to come by. The Knight Foundation has begun an effort to map South Florida’s start-up scene. So far it has marked 155 start-ups, from Palm Beach Gardens to Goulds. A week ago, a local nonprofit initiative called MapYourStartup.com launched — nearly 100 companies have already entered their information.
But growing an ecosystem takes time, entrepreneurs and community leaders point out, and an important piece will be shining a light on success stories spawned from the ecosystem, entrepreneurs, investors and community leaders say.
“When you have a good pocket of start-ups doing well, the service providers follow and an ecosystem starts building. You have to have the stamina, motivation and desire to create a snowball of things,” says Rapin-Smith. “The concentration in Miami is a great idea. This could really be a center.”
Wherever the tech community bases itself, it needs to come together, Rapin-Smith and others say. “There is a need for leadership that has the motivation, stamina and selflessness to invest in the community in the long run,” he says.
For now, there are encouraging signs that efforts are taking root.
While the area still battles its brain drain, Breslin says it’s inspiring to see students packing events for Refresh Miami, which now has 2,500 people on its mailing list, as well as other events around South Florida. Marketing to the students has been strategic: UM hosts all of Refresh’s free monthly events, and for other events with charges, students are often offered free or discounted tickets, he says. “If we get kids involved, they will stay in Miami,” Breslin says.
And even more, South Florida is starting to sprout examples of the ecosystem in action.
Albert Santalo, founder and CEO of the fast-growing healthcare tech start-up Carecloud, recently announced a satellite office expansion in Boston, but the bulk of his team — now at 135 — will always be in Miami, he says. He sees the company as an incubator of sorts itself, spawning other healthcare technology companies as it grows.
A few start-ups, such as Flomio, which enables developers to build and deploy apps around NFC and other RFiD technologies, and 71lbs, which helps companies save money on shipping costs, have gone through accelerators elsewhere and come back to South Florida to grow their companies.
Brian Brackeen moved to Miami four years ago, and “loved it from day one.” He recently launched a new company, Kairos, which makes facial recognition software used for employer timekeeping. The Kairos team recently graduated from a Google-backed accelerator in San Francisco called NewMe and closed a seed round of $500,000.
He and his co-founder considered basing their 19-employee company in Silicon Valley for the tech talent, Austin for its tax climate and tech savvy, and Miami for its lower cost of living and operating a business. “The concern we had was that there were not enough technical people in Miami to support our business,” he says.
“What we have recently learned is that Miami has a rapidly growing tech scene. It also boasts a multilingual workforce that can help us with our aggressive international expansion planned for next year,” Brackeen says. “It’s an exciting time in Miami. We look forward to growing with it.”
Coming Tuesday: A look at one of the biggest challenges in building a tech ecosystem: funding. Also watch the Starting Gate blog for more informational and updates on these programs and initiatives. Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter, @ndahlberg