MIAMI ENTREPRENEURSHIP: HYPE OR REALITY?

Miami wants to be taken seriously as a startup hub. Should it be?

Hearing that Miami wants to become an entrepreneurial hub is a bit like learning that party girl you know, the one who likes body glitter and five-inch heels, is going back to school to study accounting.

You wish her well, but you’re not planning on an invite to the graduation anytime soon.

We’re talking Miami after all, the land of Crockett and Tubbs, of South Beach, the place that inspired these Will Smith lyrics: “Every day like a Mardi Gras/everybody party all day/no work, all play, OK?” Miami is where you go to get away from business, not to start one.

Well, things are changing.

First of all, what the public thinks of as Miami is actually Miami Beach, a whole different city, where elderly retirees and Russian oligarchs mingle with tourists from Spain and Schenectady and no one objects to $24 cocktails as long as they come in three-foot-tall plastic souvenir glasses.

The real Miami is across the causeway from Miami Beach and, while it will never be mistaken for Boston, it is a more serious place. The Brickell neighborhood is home to the second-largest concentration of international banks in the country and Miami has recently invested heavily in the arts and culture in an effort to become a place where people want to live for reasons other than the weather.

The recent campaign to make Miami an entrepreneurial center springs from a desire to add another leg to the city’s economic stool which balances, often precariously, on the boom-or-bust industries of tourism, banking and real estate.

Whether a substantial tech entrepreneurial culture can take hold in Miami remains to be seen. The city is deficient in many of the areas that traditionally foster startup communities.

  • Money — There is plenty of it in Miami, but most of it is in real estate and investing in startups can be a tough sell.
  • Magnet companies — Miami doesn’t have many large tech companies that attract talent to the region and spin off new companies and technologies.
  • Universities — The University of Miami and Florida International University are devoting more resources to entrepreneurship, but they’re not yet the entrepreneurial engines they could be.
  • Talent — Not enough of it and too much of it leaves for elsewhere.
  • Legacy industries — There is growing entrepreneurial activity around entertainment, tourism and real estate, but these face challenges of scale and Miami doesn’t have core tech industries it can innovate around.

But that doesn’t mean Miami can’t realize its aspirations. It’s improving in many of the areas above and it has one thing in abundance that no other U.S. city can match: location. Miami is ideally positioned to benefit from the entrepreneurial rise of an entire continent.

The rest of the world, particularly Latin America, does not regard Miami the same way Americans do.

In his excellent book, Miami: Mistress of the Americas, Jan Nijman, former director of the Urban Studies program at the University of Miami, writes that the city is unique in the United States in that it’s more important globally than it is domestically.

In the U.S., Miami is viewed, for business purposes, at least, as a second- or third-tier city, lagging Atlanta and Charlotte in the South. But in Latin America, Miami is The Capital — financially, culturally and aspirationally. Even though it’s in North America, Miami is the most important city in South America. And that makes Miami crucial to Europeans as well, not just as a place to buy a vacation condo, but as an entry point for the Latin American market.

Miami benefits because it offers the political and economic stability its Latin American neighbors do not, along with a welcoming and familiar culture.

So while Miami might be an afterthought in Silicon Valley, it’s very much on the minds of European and Latin American entrepreneurs — and the potential of that is amazing. Miami is one of the most transient cities in the country, domestically and internationally. The steady influx of ideas and entrepreneurs gives the city its energy, but it needs to hang on to the best and the brightest to create a self-perpetuating entrepreneurial culture.

Cohealo, a promising medical startup launched by a University of Miami MBA student, this year moved from Boca Raton to Boston for better access to money and talent. News like that only reinforces the perception that startups have to leave South Florida to grow.

But there are other startups here, like Kairos, which relocated from the West Coast for the lifestyle and relative affordability. And people like Wifredo Fernandez, a native who returned to launch a co-working space and who is now running a new incubator at Miami Dade College.

And the Knight Foundation is spending millions to seed entrepreneurship in the city, bringing in global accelerator Endeavor and funding such grassroots necessities as co-working spaces, tech conferences and coding schools. Knight is doing necessary spadework, but it’s telling that these things have sprung up more organically in other cities. It’s too soon to know how Knight’s efforts will succeed, but the foundation appears committed to the long haul.

The city also has a determined core of entrepreneurs like Manny Medina, Susan Amat, Jesus Rodriguez and Maurice Ferré, people who will not rest until Miami is transformed.

However big Miami’s entrepreneurial scene becomes and whatever shape it finally takes, it’s unlikely to resemble any other in the country. The city’s unique vibe and Latin American connections will see to that.

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