Brian Breslin started Refresh Miami, the largest tech entrepreneur organization in South Florida, with just five people meeting at a Starbucks in 2006. Today, Refresh’s membership has sported a hockey stick growth curve that any startup would envy. The group has grown to 8,500 members and routinely attracts 300 to 500 people to every monthly event, giving countless entrepreneurs a platform to connect with others and learn about the community.
Breslin and Peter Martinez, co-directors of Refresh Miami, received Knight Foundation funding last year to help continue high-quality programming, such as the ability to fly in a speaker from Silicon Valley, and add features like a job board and revamped events calendar.
The group has steadily grown and produced about 100 monthly events. Recent events have included themes like lean management, Bitcoin basics, founder matchmaking and fashion tech. Indeed, one of the recent challenges has been to find venues big enough to host Refresh Miami.
Breslin, 31, may be best known in the tech and entrepreneurship community for his leadership of Refresh Miami — and for being a Miami evangelist and one of a few go-to people for help navigating the growing community. Breslin has been one of the pioneers of the community’s latest efforts to build a tech hub; indeed, he was honored as a Miami Herald 20 Under 40 in 2010. We talked to Breslin about his entrepreneurial roots, his businesses and his views on the community’s development.
Q. What was the first business you ever started?
A. When I was 9 years old I started selling candy at school that my parents would buy for me from Costco. This business funded my early comic book habit.
Q. How and when did you know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
A. I think I knew in high school that I was always going to be an entrepreneur. I ran a network of blogs with writers around the world and sold advertising on them. At that point is when I knew that I probably couldn’t work a conventional job.
Q. Have you ever worked for someone else? If so, what was that like and how long did it last?
A. I had several internships during college, and one job immediately after working in a cubicle here in Miami. That job lasted less than a month, I was bored to tears. I don’t think I was built to sit in a boring desk job working on things that don’t interest me.
Q. You are well-known in the tech community as the founder of Refresh Miami, but you’ve also had a long-running Miami business of your own. What is that?
A. My main business, Infinimedia.com, is a software development shop. We’re a nine-person team spread out around the U.S. and Latin America. We tend to focus on the shipping and cargo industry, creating Web-based tools for them to take their business processes online. I’ve been running this same company since high school, but in its current form for the last 10 years.
Q. And you have some new startups in development? What can you tell us about those?
A. I am working on a couple of different projects. My next one that will be launching this spring is Lavado.co, a laundry logistics service to coordinate home pickup and delivery for laundry and dry cleaning. This solves a problem that a number of my peers have, which is hating doing laundry.
Q. Lately you’ve been blogging about your progress on your latest startup. What prompted that?
A. I think the fact that we have so little insight into a living/breathing startup is sad. I understand the lack of time or desire to share an ongoing business, but that information is incredibly valuable to people still learning how business works. Very rarely do we see real-time progress on how a business is going. Hopefully I can share my learning experiences and help other startup founders build better companies.
Q. More than 100 events for Refresh — congratulations. How do you keep Refresh fresh?
A. Well, it isn’t always easy. We’ve suffered from some growing pains, finding venues capable of holding 300-plus people on a monthly basis, that are free or cheap is tough. Also getting enough high-caliber speakers locally has been a challenge, so we’ve been flying in more speakers in order to share their wisdom with our community.
Q. What plans do you and Peter have for the next year? Any changes underfoot?
A. We see Refresh as offering a few more resources to the community. We already have a public events calendar, and job board for the startup community, but we want to add more educational content to the site as well. We’re looking at ways to expand our reach to better connect the large swath of South Florida tech, which still hasn’t made it to an event of ours.
Q. In your view, what was the single most memorable event Refresh has put on?
A. I think the demo night we did at the Tiger Direct Expo last May was our most impactful one. We announced our Knight Foundation funding that day, and broke 500 attendees. It announced to the community that we are a serious organization and we had bigger ambitions for the community as a whole.
Q. You have some interesting views on mentorship. What do you think could help foster a mentorship culture in South Florida?
A. I think we have a huge giving back gap here. Very few people are mentoring younger startups here, and that is a shame. I understand people are busy, but we really just need the veterans to dedicate 1-2 hours a week to helping young entrepreneurs. One hour of a veteran’s time could save a junior entrepreneur hundreds of hours of trial and error and costly mistakes.
Q. I liked a comment you made in social media recently about how impactful it could be if everybody who attends tech and entrepreneurship events would also volunteer just one hour a week mentoring students or helping community-building organizations. What sparked this comment?
A. Part of it comes down to Peter and I put in easily 100-plus hours a month doing Refresh and helping the community, be it through mentoring, meeting people or putting on the events. We need more people getting involved, through event organization or participation. There should be a strong mobile meet-up group, lean startup group and more. Those three groups (iPhone, Android, lean) were run by two people, Davide Di Cillo and Andrej Kostresevic, both of whom are either permanently on the West Coast or out west 70 percent of their time now.
Q. You’ve been at this awhile now and no doubt it must be hard to balance it all; Do you see new leaders emerging?
A. The team from The LAB Miami has been making great strides and the LAB’s contributions to the community have been immense. Ernie [Hsiung] and Rebekah [Monson] from Code for America have been doing great things as well. We also have a tiny group of other individuals who have been promoting niche groups, but we need more. Since there is no formal structure for helping, we might not be getting as many volunteers as some other groups (non-tech) get, like Junior League or Kiwanis of Miami.
Q. I know you are a cook. If you could add one ingredient to the South Florida ecosystem right now, what would it be?
A. Money. There is a lack of money at the seed stage (sub $50K), and then again at the $1M-$3M range.
Q. OK, now you can have one more ingredient.
A. Education. We need more curriculums for ongoing entrepreneurial education that anyone can join and learn from.
Q. You are an anti-brain-drain statistic — you grew up here and returned after college, instead of going elsewhere as so many have after college. What prompted you to return and stay? Do you still see brain drain as a continuing problem or do you see improvement?
A. When I graduated from the University of Virginia, I explored the idea of working in New York, D.C. and San Francisco. At the time, there weren’t many jobs for someone fresh out of college that had my level of experience (I had started building websites eight years prior) and were enticing to me. So I came back to Miami to start my own company. I had a theory that I could effect more change here in Miami than in any of the other established hubs. I thought I could become a bigger fish in a small pond rather than a small fish in a huge pond. I would like to think I’ve made a positive impact on our community in the last 10 years.
Q. There is a lot of talk here about whether a South Florida tech hub should have particular specializations as differentiators. If you think that, what should the Miami brand be known for?
A. I think Miami should play to its strengths and increase its advantages in certain verticals (tourism, banking/finance, logistics, LatAm, entertainment, real estate), but it has to make sure not to alienate people in other verticals. We have to embrace everyone who wants to build innovative stuff in our backyard.
Q. And how are we doing developing a brand?
A. Honestly we’re doing an awful job. There is no cohesive brand or message being sent out to the outside world. Where is the Miami Is Magical campaign for our city? This should be something the Beacon Council and other economic development groups should be tackling. They have the budgets to do this. We need to emphasize the facts that make Miami a viable place to build a business (lower costs, weather, access to the world, etc.).
Q. Do you think South Florida has a tech talent shortage? And if so, is it in particular areas? What are some strategies to attack this?
A. Yes and no. Our strongest asset is the fact tens of thousands of engineers from South America, Europe and the rest of the world would LOVE to move to Miami. We should embrace that and bring these people in. We’re a city of immigrants, let’s embrace that.
Q. Entrepreneurs: Are they born or made?
A. Born. My grandfather was a serial entrepreneur, and I’m fairly certain I inherited that gene. Though I do think lots of the skills required to be an entrepreneur can be learned.
Q. What is the best way for someone who wants to get involved with tech/startups to get into the community in Miami?
A. It is kinda shameless self promotion, but here goes: The best way to get involved is to start at RefreshMiami.com, join the mailing list, find an event you think is interesting, and show up.