This past Wednesday I had the opportunity to attend Start-up City: Miami sponsored by The Atlantic and The Atlantic Cities at Miami Beach’s New World Center. For me, this event came at just the right time. I’ve grown frustrated because I keep hearing the same lament from friends around our great city. Talented, driven individuals are faced with the choice of either leaving Miami to get the job they want, or making professional sacrifices in order to stay here in the city they love. Why do people in Miami feel like they have to make this choice? And could a burgeoning start-up scene in Miami provide another option?
After spending the day listening to a wide variety of speakers including celebrity CEO Tony Hsieh of Zappos, local success story Manny Medina, founder of Terremark, and Susan Amat, founder of Miami’s celebrated Launch Pad Tech, I left the conference hoping that a new technology age might be dawning here on the shores of Biscayne Bay. But it’s far too early to declare victory. Sure, having a conference like this take place in Miami feels like a massive endorsement of our city and the potential we have. And while that is great, Miami desperately needs a success story. We need a Zappos like Las Vegas, a Groupon like Chicago, a massive win that brings jobs, venture dollars and, perhaps most importantly, belief. And to the credit of the speakers, this was a theme that was repeated throughout the day.
It seems that Miami’s biggest problem in the start-up world is retaining growing companies. While there are many good ideas that get hatched here in Miami, once they reach the point where they need venture money they are moved to the Bay Area or New York by their investors. And I’m not sure how we reverse this trend without having an established funding source located here in Miami. I did hear the claim that we should expect at least one of the top-tier venture capital firms to be opening an office here in Miami sometime in 2013, and I believe that would be truly groundbreaking. By serving Latin America out of our fair city, It would mark the beginning of a shift in regional focus from Sao Paulo to Miami, and entrepreneurs in South Florida as a whole would accrue many benefits in the process. The biggest would undoubtedly be the opportunity to grow their company while staying home in the Magic City.
The other request I heard from the panelists was for entrepreneurs in Miami to dream bigger. We have an enormous number of entrepreneurs, just relatively few who are working on world-changing ideas. In Palo Alto, every entrepreneur thinks they are going to change the world. Its hard-wired into the culture. To attract the focus of the venture funds, we need to start thinking about ideas that will do more than just make us our own bosses. We need to think about what the world needs, and how we can take advantage of our blessed location at the nexus of North America, South America and Europe to provide it. And I think that plea needs to be made even more emphatically to local government. It escaped no one’s attention that there was not a single current elected office holder from Miami Beach, Miami-Dade or the City of Miami in attendance. I believe we need more than that from our local government.
In the wake of such an outpouring of entrepreneurial enthusiasm, we’re left to wonder what comes next. Will it be the arrival of a Sand Hill Road VC? Will it be a new public-private partnership to create Miami’s equivalent of Las Vegas’ Downtown Project? Ultimately, I don’t think there is any magic that is going to immediately change the course of Miami. It’s going to need to be done the old-fashioned way with people taking a chance on a big idea and busting their butts to make it happen.
Susan Amat made a commitment to the audience that I heard said in different ways by many speakers during the day, “Start a business and I will amplify you!” It’s time for Miamians to take up that challenge and give Susan, and others, the chance to make good on that promise.