When the Miami Beach mayor made controversial remarks that his city wasn’t the place for a tech hub, he may not have been aware that right off Lincoln Road is a technology portfolio company that works with entrepreneurs to launch their products to market. Mayor Philip Levine, meet Rokk3r Labs.
Launched in March 2012, Rokk3r Labs has about 45 employees in its Miami Beach and Bogotá offices who build mobile applications and other types of software products for 30 portfolio companies, including Good World Games, AdMobilize and Fitting Room Social. Rokk3r owns 3 percent to 45 percent of most companies in its portfolio and 100 percent of some.
“Growing Rokk3r Labs has been one of our primary focuses over the last 12 months,” said Germán Montoya, co-founder and managing director of Rokk3r. To find and retain talent, the company has cultivated relationships with universities locally and internationally, including Harvard, MIT and the University of Waterloo in Canada, and is known for its culture that includes spirited soccer games and yoga sessions. “We have tapped into a vein of creative and technical resources that want to be a part of building a product and a company here in Miami as opposed to going to work for a large company out west [and] working on a feature of a product that may never see the light of day.”
In addition to Montoya, the other founding partners are Nabyl Charania, CEO and co-managing director, Juan Montoya, general manager, Brian Sanchez, chief engineer, and Charles Irizarry, chief product architect.
In the past few months, the company has focused on growing its offices in Bogotá, which houses about 25 of the the 45 employees. Right now the team in Bogotá is the development arm for Rokk3r’s portfolio companies. At some point soon, Rokk3r hopes to begin accepting portfolio companies from Colombia as well.
Rokk3r is eyeing expansion to other areas of South America, Europe and Africa. “We want to replicate our model. Good ideas are everywhere, if the model works here, it should work in other places,” said Montoya, an economist with an entrepreneurial and advertising background. “Like Miami, we are looking for cities that are at the right moment for us to come in.”
By that he means the right moment in ecosystem development. The Rokk3r model would not have worked five or 10 years ago, he said.
Montoya also said the 2-year-old company — a startup itself — has been looking inward, tweaking its business mode. “Our customer is the entrepreneur,” said Montoya, “As we continue to understand what our customrer needs, we continue to cater to those needs.”
The Miami Herald met with Rokk3r’s management team last fall and followed up with email questions to Montoya about Rokk3r’s business model, its portfolio companies and the technology ecosystem.
Q. You invited Miami Beach Mayor Levine to visit Rokk3r Labs. What do you hope he learns from the visit?
A. Like every startup, we are constantly evangelizing our company and telling our story. We want everyone to know that we are growing at record pace and helping to shape a new economy in South Florida. Our hope is to be able to share our growth, our passion and our desire to grow in Miami with the mayor.
Q. Do you agree or disagree with the mayor’s comments, and why?
A. Rokk3r is full of builders, not politicians. Meaning, we don’t scrutinize based on public comments. We really hope to have a valuable conversation with the mayor and a strong working relationship to make Miami stronger than it is today.
Q. How do you capitalize on your SoBe location and recruit and retain talent?
A. We are so fortunate that many of the greatest young developers are in cold-weather climates and are forced to suffer through miserable winters.
Our talent strategy is huge for Rokk3r. We have developed unique partnerships with Waterloo and Harvard that enables us to recruit talent. These students come to Rokk3r for four months at a time, get a small stipend and live cost-free in apartments on the beach. Picture an episode of the real-world with very smart, capable students who actually make it to work on time.
Q. What do you look for in a portfolio company?
A. We have a saying inside Rokk3r that it always comes down to “People and Product.” We have started carving out a niche — unintentionally and not exclusively — where the majority of entrepreneurs we are working with are seasoned professionals who have a real expertise in their field and who have discovered a void they believe they can solve.
As far as product, we conduct a three- to four-week “Think Phase” that allows us to vet each and every idea and learn about the market, the team, and the potential of the idea as a business. Ideally, we build companies that plan to disrupt an existing market with a recognizable customer base… rather than building companies that are attempting to create a user base.
Q. I understand you’ve also launched a couple of homegrown companies? Tell me about one of those?
A. S3nse is a product that we are very excited about and one that continues to grown. S3nse is a real-time analytics dashboard that is customized to the needs of the client. The purpose is to allow executives to make decisions in real-time rather than relying on data that is weeks or months old.
To date, we have launched S3nse in over 25 countries for a large array of corporate clients in association with DDB (a top-tier creative agency) including McDonald’s, Tobacco Free Florida, and others.
Q. How will you ultimately measure success for Rokk3r, the business?
A. Our success is all about the success of our portfolio companies. It is critical for us to launch new companies on a more regular basis and to help those companies grow to the next level.
We also believe that success for Rokk3r will come through the creation of a sustainable ecosystem in Miami. We planted a flag in Miami early and for a reason and we want to be among the early pioneers of making Miami a strong Tech Hub of the Americas.
Q. Speaking broadly, what are the biggest challenges of your portfolio companies?
A. Resources and distribution. All startups are in need of resources but what we are really starting to focus on is distribution methods for the new world. Entrepreneurs in the digital space can’t rely on shelf space and traditional retail so we are spending a lot of time focusing on a new approach for growth strategies. We believe this is the next great marketing challenge, and we have now brought a growth marketing division on-board to help our companies grow.
Q. Have you tweaked your business model at all? How?
A. We have been in business for two years and we are currently looking at our history and the lessons learned. We are definitively tweaking, optimizing and changing thing around but we are getting ready to expand services and change focus in a way that will improve Rokk3r Labs’ value proposition … Stay tuned.
Q. What's been the biggest challenge for Rokk3r?
A. Explaining and positioning a new business model for entrepreneurship has been a challenge. We have been challenged to go beyond the naysayers to actually propose a new and better way to build companies.
Q. What's one pro and one con of growing a tech business in South Florida?
A. Pro: We are seeing Miami grow right before our eyes and Rokk3r came in on the ground floor. We have a huge opportunity to grow with Miami and throughout the Americas.
Con: The infrastructure that has been established in Silicon Valley is tremendous and it will take time for that to develop in Miami. When you travel to San Francisco there is no explanations necessary and no difficulties finding capital to sustain your company. This will change over time.
Q. In your view, how is the tech hub movement in greater Miami progressing and what role does Rokk3r play?
A. Every week we are seeing the results of a mass movement to make Miami a tech hub. From eMerge Americas to Endeavor to Venture Hive and The Lab, we see fresh ideas, strong deal flow and creative entrepreneurs.
Q. If you could add one more ingredient to the tech ecosystem immediately, what would it be?
A. We need real competition among investors. The few investors that are active feel little urgency to close deals, slowing down the ecosystem.
I believe that eMerge is going to bring huge value to Miami in the near and long-term resulting in additional deal flow, capital and outside experts and resources that all of us need.
Q. What's one thing people may not know about Rokk3r?
A. That we have moved four times in the same building.
Q. Entrepreneurs — are they born or made?
A. Entrepreneurs are made through a very unique set of circumstances where passion, confusion and stress result in a strong pattern of creativity. It’s the passion and stress that give us great ideas and the confusion that allows us to change course at a moment’s notice.
Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg