Miami’s tech start-up scene is heating up
Article by Jefferson Graham
MIAMI – In a sunny, roomy office overlooking a vibrant bustling Miami Avenue below, Freddie Laker is putting the finishing touches on a potentially groundbreaking app that turns written text into video.
He’s not shepherding his Gui.de in Silicon Valley, or even in one of the top start-up cities like New York, Boston or the Denver/Boulder area, but way far away at the extreme southeastern part of the country.
Miami? Home to hot temps, leggy South Beach models, a bustling Latin American scene and thousands of retirees?
“There’s more talent here than people give us credit for,” says Laker, son of the late British airline mogul of the same name. “Because it’s Miami, people assume everyone will be by the pool. They forget that nerds are nerds and they’re happy to be inside anywhere.”
Great weather, cheaper real estate and labor and being the gateway to Latin America doesn’t hurt either.
“You’re lucky if you can carve out a corner for yourself in San Francisco or New York, but in Miami it’s wide open,” says Daniel Lafuente, co-founder of The LAB Miami, a tech-geared shared workspace in the Wynwood area.
The Lab this year expanded from its original 700 square foot location to a 10,000 square foot facility, due to demand for space.
On a recent visit, Wynwood was bustling with colorful factories awash in purples, greens and yellows. Just a few miles away from pricey South Beach, Wynwood is known for the hosting the well-attended Art Basel event in December and frequent weekend art walks.
Why settle in Miami? “You might enjoy its gorgeous winters, warm oceans, Latin American edge, world-class cultural happenings, art scene, Eastern time zone, pace, more manageable cost of living,” says David Notik, who runs the MiamiTech.org website. “There are lots of great places to start, grow or invest in a company. Miami’s one of them, and it might be right for you.”
What Miami has yet to produce is a big success story. The San Francisco area is known for Google and Apple, while New York has Kickstarter and AOL, and Boston has TripAdvisor. The biggest tech names to come from Miami so far are gaming PC manufacturer Alienware – a unit of Dell – and Open English, a website that teaches English in tutorial videos.
But things are brewing. The company .CO (go.co) is based here. It sells domain names to companies that want to use .co in their URL. Twitter’s Vine app, which offer six second video clips, uses .co, as does Brit Moran’s Brit.co household tips help site.
LiveNinja, which offers online expert tutorials, raised $500,000 in seed funding and is working on its second round of capital.
Miami hasn’t attracted the big-pocketed venture capitalists who pour millions into start-ups out west and elsewhere. But LiveNinja CEO Will Weinraub says Latin American money is a welcome alternative. About half of his investment has come from Latin American investors.
Weinraub says Miami needs to see a “PayPal Mafia” of sorts “to graduate and start investing in others.” The term refers to PayPal founders and early employees who are serial entrepreneurs and investors. They include Elon Musk, who went on to found the Tesla electric car, and Peter Thiel, an early investor in Facebook.
Refresh Miami, a local tech advocacy group, organizes many tech meetups. The Knight Foundation is a big financial supporter of the Miami tech scene, investing in the Lab and helping fund other projects. The organization – an outgrowth of the newspapers once owned by the Knight brothers, including the Miami Herald – has invested over $4 million locally this year. The goal is to keep talented young people in Miami. “If you look at 25- to 40-year-olds with college degrees, they want to go to San Francisco, Boston, Washington D.C., the research triangle in North Carolina or Austin,” says Matt Haggman, Knight’s Miami program director. “We want to be on that list.”
The bottom line: Miami’s a great place to live and work, and now, with a tech scene that’s organized and united, the future can only hold promise.
“Our community is just now starting to see the growth and support it needed,” says Michael McCord, CEO of LearnerNation, a video e-learning site. “It needed someone to turn around and say we’re more than just hotels and coconuts. We’re a community where there’s actually business being done.”
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