(Photo by Flickr user Robert Thomson, used under a Creative Commons license)
In the background, the record snowfall in Baltimore dripped off my roof as I spoke with Brian Breslin, who was in Miami. The founder and director of Refresh Miami, an organization that fosters the entrepreneurial and tech community in South Florida, lamented the wet and “chilly” 72 degrees.
Due to my snow blindness, I expected these interviews to go like this: “The Miami tech scene is great! We have sun, Python developers and actual pythons.” However, except for Breslin’s short lament, no one mentioned the weather (or pythons) as why Miami was a desirable up-and-coming tech hub.
“[Miami’s tech scene] is like the Wild West a little bit, but that’s a lot of fun,” said Rebeka Monson, VP of Product at The New Tropic. She goes on to clarify, “I think we are in the big growth moment, and we are still trying to hammer out an identity.”
Hashing out that identity is a major objective of the Tomorrow Tour, a 6-city event series brought to you by Technical.ly and Comcast NBCUniversal. The Miami stop takes place March 2.
While some say Miami’s tech scene started before the Great Recession, the current moment was born in the recession’s wake. This means the rules are not set, and there is a lot of space to experiment in Florida’s business-friendly environment (read: no personal income tax and loose regulations).
While there is plenty of optimism about Miami’s tech future, Faquiry Diaz Cala, President and CEO of Tres Mares Group, an investment group, takes a hard-nosed view. Cala thinks that “hype” is obscuring the Miami scene. In the alternative, he wants to see “results,” such as exits, increased investment and retention of new businesses, as how Miami tech defines itself.
German Montoya, the Chief Strategy and Creative Officer at Rokk3r Labs, a company co-builder, feels the hype-vs.-reality dichotomy is too simplistic. “This statement is very binary,” said Montoya. “We are on our way, and there are a lot of things happening.”
Montoya points to increased investment and interest. Magic Leap, a South Florida company making a “cinematic reality” device, just closed a $793.5 million Series C funding round. Led by ecommerce giant Alibaba, this is more than double C rounds completed by juggernauts like Uber, Airbnb and Facebook. Another local success story was .CO with its exit for $109 million to Neustar.
Beyond increased monetary investments, local interest is growing too. Refresh Miami’s membership in 2006 was five, today it is about 9,000. Montoya says that a few years ago there were only a couple of tech events a month, now there is something every day. The New Tropic publishes Startup.Miami, which is a resource connecting this growing community.
The common thread among the interviewees’ outlook is that Miami is in the early, dynamic throws of its tech evolution.
As for Miami’s strengths:
In an industry under justified scrutiny for its overly white and male demographics, Miami’s tech scene is decidedly diverse. According to the 2010 Census, Miami is 70 percent Hispanic or Latino and 19 percent black, not to mention Miami is a hub for immigrants from all over Latin America and Europe. Founders and employees reflect Miami’s makeup.
“You have diverse people, from diverse backgrounds working on diverse issues,” said Monson.
Not only have 30 years of studies shown that diverse work environments improve company output and problem solving, it also bolsters Miami-based companies’ competitive edge abroad.
2. Global reach
There’s a reason that Citibank, American Airlines and Oracle, among dozens of others, have located their Latin America headquarters in Miami. “It’s a great connector,” said Ricardo Mesquita, CEO at The LAB Miami, a coworking space. Originally from Portugal, Mesquita lived and worked on four continents and decided to pick Miami as his home partially on account of its convenient, global reach.
“Tech companies in Miami that focus on Latin America have an edge,” said Cala. He points to Open English and Yellow Pepper, a company his firm has invested in, as two examples of how Miami’s advantage helps a startup break into Latin markets. This includes a reciprocal relationship with Cuba as the U.S. thaws relations. Cala, a Cuban that came to Miami in his teens, says that “Miami can benefit from Cuban engineers and tech talent” while Miami businesses can serve a more open Cuban market.
3. Freedom to create
As Mesquita puts it, Miami is becoming “very experimental.” Monson echoed that sentiment, “There’s space to do whatever you want. There’s space to experiment. It’s not hard to start a thing.” However, she adds the caveat that in Miami, “It’s harder to grow a thing.”
The sentiment from many seemed to be that the hustle, and not the pedigree, of the individual mattered most in Miami. An entrepreneurial city by nature, the Kauffman Foundation listed South Florida, including Miami, as the area with the second most startup activity in the country, right behind Austin, Texas. This ranking included the rate of new entrepreneurs, startup density and opportunity share of new entrepreneurs.
To put it another way, according to Breslin, “Miami is what you want to make of it.”