Startup City You Haven't Heard About: Building Community in the Hills of Tallahassee
Starting With What Comes Next
It's hard to hear in the room by the railroad. There's 100 or so people staggered about, talking in tight circles between sips of local beer (I'm told it is a saison brewed with malted rye). We're tagged with white rectangles humanized by the Sharpie script of hand-written names. My first-name/last-name combo is terribly out of square with the name tag, which I can't blame on the malted rye since the name tag happened first. Luckily there are far more interesting things to look at than my crooked name tag, things like a 3D printer spitting out models that I'm suspicious are actually just being warped in from the future.
One of the tallest guys in the room stands up on a chair and calls for everyone's attention. He probably doesn't need the chair because he's confident and tall, but in a room that echoes with chatter, where ideas bounce off the unfinished concrete floor and boomerang back and forth from bare walls, the chair helps him cut through the noise. "Good evening," he says, "thanks to everyone for coming out. My name is Micah Widen, and my partners and I are Domi Ventures."
Crazy Town, USA
There are some cities that give you everything you need and others that make you work for it. When you step outside the hyped streets of America's elite metros—cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles—you find a whole slew of places where, miraculously, people still live. A great number of people too, as it turns out. In fact, only some 35 million total people live in America's 25 largest cities. That leaves almost 89% of us to fend for ourselves in the wilderness of mid-sized metros, suburban edge cities, and beyond.
With over 180,000 people (125th on the list of U.S. cities), Tallahassee, Florida is a statewide player by virtue of housing the capitol and a regional force thanks to its otherwise secluded location. It's no bustling metropolis, but, to illustrate that everything's relative, a Florida State University urban planning professor once relayed to my city theory class that there are residents in Florida's largely rural panhandle who've affectionately dubbed Tallahassee "crazy town." They avoid it like the plague. Too urban. Too much traffic. Too downright, well, crazy.
When people back home ask I tell them that Tallahassee's big enough to have at least two of everything you need and one of anything you'd want. There's all the usual big-box suspects—Wal-Mart, Target, BestBuy, two shopping malls with parking moats—and a surging wave of new names all arriving in the last year: Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Bass Pro Shops, Dick's Sporting Goods, Buffalo Wild Wings, and the list, dominated largely by national chains, goes on.
But it also has two universities, one community college, thriving local businesses, and more entrepreneurial momentum than you might expect. Like many cities these days, Tallahassee has a growing collection of co-working spaces and incubators spread throughout town, offering collaborative space for startups and rogue agents to lay down roots, grab some wifi, and stake out their place in the market. There's also a quiet history of local companies finding considerable success, including names like Learn Something, F4 Tech, Brandt, Mainline, Municode, Bing Energy, and more.
Measuring the state of Tallahassee's tech sector is no easy task, but there are a handful of ways to make at least an informed guess. Using an adapted version of an estimation method developed by economist Dr. Michael Mandel, Tallahassee's number of high tech sector jobs topped out at 6.1% of the city's 89,580 total private jobs in 2011. The same data revealed a slow economic recovery in Tallahassee tech, with only a slight increase in high tech sector jobs from 5,356 in 2007 to 5,458 in 2011.
The good news is that the area has seen steady growth in tech startup formation over the long haul, and a recent paper details that the maturation of startup communities is supported by multiple decades of laying down "deep roots." According to a study published by the Kauffman Foundation, Tallahassee metro's high-tech startup density increased by 80% from 1990 to 2010. The study approximated startup density by using location quotient techniques to analyze the concentration of tech firms in a region relative to their concentration across the entire United States. And while the most recent figures place the Tallahassee metro area just below the nation's average (a score of 1.0 would put an area on par with the nationwide average while .5 would put a metro at half), it's only taken two decades to catch up. Information and communication technology startup density increased at twice the rate of the broader high-tech startup density category, growing by 166% from 1990 to 2010.
The numbers might not meet every economist's definition of a boomtown, but again everything's relative. Armed with any kind of momentum, Tallahassee's budding network of local entrepreneurs might just be crazy enough to take up the challenge of home-grown innovation.
An Ecosystem for Startups
For good reason, large metros and brand name powerhouses like Silicon Valley dominate the startup conversation. Economists like Ed Glaeser and Enrico Moretti have long written about the innovation benefits of co-location and strong startup density. In his book The New Geography of Jobs, Moretti writes about the emergent and even self-reinforcing effects of entrepreneurial clustering: "In innovation, a company's success depends on more than just the quality of its workers—it also depends on the entire ecosystem that surrounds it," he says. "By clustering near each other, innovators foster each other's creative spirit and become more successful."
The catch is how to make this happen in a place where it's not yet happening or it's happening on a smaller scale. Because if local officials and driven entrepreneurs can find a way to fertilize the soil and plant the seeds of a startup community, there are certainly benefits to be reaped for local economies.
"For each new high-tech job in a city," writes Moretti. "Five additional jobs are ultimately created outside of the high-tech sector in that city, both in skilled occupations (lawyers, teachers, nurses) and in unskilled ones (waiters, hairdressers, carpenters)."
According to Brad Feld, the Boulder-based startup guru, breathing life into the startup ecosystem takes vision and long-term commitment from local entrepreneurs, support from a variety of community institutions, and a culture of collaboration. Feld is quick to draw a distinction between what he calls the Leaders and the Feeders. In his bestseller Startup Communities, Feld writes, "the leaders of a startup community must be the entrepreneurs." Loosely organized with a hierarchy that's more horizontal than vertical, a community's entrepreneurs must piece together an environment that inspires creation, encourages risk taking, and supports experiential learning.
"Leaders set an example," Feld says. "By taking action, they provide authority for others to become leaders."
I wouldn't fault you for worrying that Feld might be preoccupied with the role of entrepreneurs simply because he is one (I worried the same thing, after all). But his message keeps coming up: let empowered entrepreneurs lead the way. It even appears in a few academic articles. Feldman, Francis, and Bercovitz studied startup community formation in the Washington D.C. region and concluded that "systems of innovation are not due to predictable linear processes but rely on the adaptive, self-organizing behavior of entrepreneurs, who in turn rely on support from their local environment." There you have it, Leaders and Feeders, just packaged with fancier language.
And so, understanding the importance of the fabled entrepreneur, I set out to get to know a handful of locals engaged in startup activity, to ask questions, and ultimately to try and figure out why it is that they do what they do, what it will take to make it happen in the hills of Tallahassee, and how that matters for other cities engaged in startup activity.
The Entrepreneur as Community Builder
Micah Widen will tell you that Domi means 'home.' He and his partners at Domi Ventures are in the business of building business, and they believe that if the right resources are in place entrepreneurs will choose to make a home out of Tallahassee.
"Entrepreneurs can learn and plan here," Widen tells me over email. "They can start and develop their businesses here. They can thrive and grow here."
Talk like this is powerful, but it begs the question: why set up shop here? For Micah, there's three reasons that jump out: Florida State University, Florida A&M University, and Tallahassee Community College. He tells me that Domi's goal is to "connect the human and intellectual capital from FSU, FAMU, and TCC with the national startup ecosystem." Domi's is a nested approach that understands the value of collaboration at all scales, from the local to the regional, national, and international.
The idea of pulling in resources from outside the community is important. It grabs energy spun from other places and puts it to work in a city like Tallahassee. Domi has direct connections to larger venture capital firms like Mosley Ventures of Atlanta, making it an attractive pitch for would-be founders and wannabe CEOs.
When I ask Micah how you jumpstart startup culture, he doesn't exactly beat around the bush. He says, "The startup ecosystem doesn't exist, so we have to help build it. Silos throughout the community exist and need to be broken down."
I'm struck by the parallel between building business and building community. It's a point Micah drives home a lot: building a home for startups will take everyone, whether they know it yet or not. "This is not about any one person or company," Micah says. "It takes a collection of people and resources. We jumpstart this by creating public-private partnerships and bringing together a community of people interested in owning it."
For many young entrepreneurs, the startup community might be their first opportunity for networking outside of the classroom and for connecting with the city that just so happens to contain their campus. Certainly for most, the collaborative startup environment will be their first foray into some form of community development, and that seems reason enough to give it a go.
It's 4:00pm EST on a Tuesday when I meet with Vincent Hunt at a non-profit coffee shop in Tallahassee's midtown district. They sell cold brewed ice coffee and donate their profits to a variety of worthy causes, so the hipster in me couldn't be any more comfortable. Vincent is the Founder and CEO of Massive Corp., a design and innovation firm that consults, creates, and partners with early stage concepts. His most recent partnership is a Tallahassee based startup called Stadium Runner. The idea is simple: bring mobile access and data analytics to the event concessions industry.
The execution, of course, is what matters. And since it takes more than a great idea to build a great company, I ask him how you choose. When there's potential for so many different ideas to takeoff, how do you pick an idea? He tells me that you have to look at the people involved. "Who is going to pull it off," he says, running through the kinds of questions his team asks. "Is the team grounded in truth and ready to do real life work to make it happen?"
He mentions Mark Zuckerberg's Sorkin-soaked character in The Social Network. "That movie was one of the worst things to happen for entrepreneurship. Building a business isn't just coding, wearing hoodies, and eating Ramen noodles. Building a business is hard work and dedication."
"And all the hard work to build Facebook occurs off screen?" I ask.
"Exactly," he says. "It's more than just raising capital and getting cash. You have to ask are these startups looking for just cash or are they looking for insight? Are they looking for mentorship, and, beyond just getting money, getting armed with information about when and where to deploy that money?"
Domi Ventures hosts the public to see the room by the railroad before it transforms into an incubator and co-working space.
What it means to be an entrepreneur at the micro level is engaging, but ultimately my aim is to talk macro, so I try to take things another direction: what does it take to build a startup ecosystem across the community?
Vincent takes the long view. He says it's not a flash in the pan thing. It takes a lot of work and a lot of time. You have to play the long game, and make decisions in the present that invest in the future. For Vincent this means a lot of things, but he shares with me a plan to work with school kids, a plan to teach experiential curriculum that encourages students to explore the fundamentals of running a business, from concept to customer. Focusing solely on turning adults into entrepreneurs is like "picking corn without planting seeds," he says.
By the end of our meeting, more than a couple people have swung by our table to catch up and shake hands with Vincent. It's not that Tallahassee is the smallest of towns—it's just he's got a big enough smile that he's hard to miss. I'm starting to notice a trend: there's a certain magnetism to all these entrepreneurs, an infectious air of intention and potential.
Vincent isn't naïve, though. He knows there's no guarantees in this business. Intention and potential are all well and good, but outcome and performance pay the bills. As we close up shop on the interview, he says something that sticks with me: Success for Tallahassee's startup community is going to happen in a granular way, but at the end of the day we need a success story because without it everything happening is just noise.
I walk back to the parking lot, start my car, and I sit there, unsettled. I'm struck by Vincent's confidence in the vision. I've looked at enough numbers to know they're mixed, and I've read enough to appreciate how difficult it is to unpack the complexity of startup formation and economic development. I ask myself how anybody really knows that this is going to happen, here, in Tallahassee.
Then it hits me: you don't know, and maybe that's the point.
The Road from Scarcity to Abundance
When it comes to innovation and entrepreneurship, place matters, but dense economic geography alone does explain the formation and success of one startup community over another. Feld draws on the work of Dr. AnnaLee Sanxenian to make the point that "a culture of openness and information exchange" spurs cross-pollination and sustains growth in emerging communities. In short, collaboration comes first.
Before I sat with Vincent Hunt in the coffee shop, we met over the phone, and I tried my best to drive and interview (mostly I sat in traffic and listened). We discussed Hunt's vision at a high level and what it is that Massive wants to achieve in Tallahassee. He told me one of Massive's goals was to take collaboration to the next level and to move away from a mentality of scarcity. Local leaders need to work together towards goals that build momentum for everyone.
They don't all do it, but this wasn't the first time I'd heard business leaders talk creatively about blurring the line between collaboration and competition. Once-upon-a-time there was a duo of developers in Phoenix I worked for who referred to this sort of positive, win-win thinking as an abundance mentality. It's the 'ol rising tide raises all boats philosophy. And if anything is going to get off the ground, it is clear that Tallahassee will need it in spades.
The room by the railroad is a big win for local entrepreneurs, and it speaks volumes about the power of collaboration. Once used to support Amtrak passenger rail, the space embodies the entrepreneurial ethos of thinking about old things in new ways and disrupting the expected.
The property sat in county hands for a while, collecting dust and serving as a surplus storage facility. But this fall Leon County Commissioners voted to enter into a lease agreement with Domi for the space to be used as a startup incubator. The county has made the property available with funds in tow to partner on basic improvements, and Domi will take it the rest of the way with a combination of sponsorships, private money, and an IndieGoGo campaign.
Domi plans to admit a small cohort of promising startups into a structured mentorship and accelerator program. The incubator will also be open to the public as a co-working venue and an events facility for entrepreneurs to mix and mingle. Born of a public-private partnership, the room by the railroad will pay homage to its legacy of collaboration by serving as a space for future business leaders to learn the ropes side by side.
You Win With Performance and Lose With Potential
Ask someone about startups and it won't be long before they bring up universities, the bastions of dorm room innovation. In Startup Communities, Feld talks about universities as important feeders into the local ecosystem. He writes, "Universities have five resources relevant to entrepreneurship: students, professors, research labs, entrepreneurship programs, and technology transfer offices." They infuse startup communities with an atmosphere of knowledge creation and provide a yearly crop of new energy, new ideas, and new possibilities.
To its credit, Tallahassee is awash in higher education. There are over 70,000 students spread across FSU, FAMU, and TCC. Ryan Kopinsky has been one of those 70,000 students for a few years now. First an undergraduate at Florida A&M, he's now a PhD student in robotics just up the road at Florida State.
Ryan has black framed glasses and a way of looking through them that looks through you. When you talk ideas with him, there's this feeling he sees right to their core. What's actually happening is no small feat: he's planning and thinking through next steps. This is because Ryan Kopinsky is an entrepreneur. He is a doer. He responds to emails in ten minutes flat, and the responses, unlike so many things in your inbox, are substantive and action oriented.
Startup communities need doers to take the lead and make things happen, and Tallahassee benefits from the foundation that's laid by local visionaries like Ryan. One part student and another part innovator, he has insight into the unique role of the university in startup formation as well as the best ways to challenge convention in higher education from the inside out.
Ryan tells me that "in addition to the liberal arts and core science courses students should be encouraged to develop their soft skills, like leadership, innovation, and creative thinking." The great part is, coming from Ryan, this is more than just talk. He saw the need go unmet and did as any pure-blooded entrepreneur would—he stopped worrying, started working, and founded TechNOLEgy, a Florida State student organization that makes computer programming social and encourages interdisciplinary thinking. TechNOLEgy members teach each other to code, attend hackathons, share business resources, and engage in entrepreneurship events throughout the region.
Ryan sees entrepreneurial spirit as something that once cultivated can take hold community-wide, but he is clear that it will take more than just students to reinforce growth. Mirroring the place matters paradigm advanced by urban thinkers like Richard Florida, he thinks Tallahassee needs to give recent graduates more reasons to stick around and invest their career in the area.
"Instead of exporting all the talent to other cities we should keep the talent local and build our unique startup ecosystem," he says.
Retaining graduates and injecting them back into the local economy is a head scratcher of a problem for many university driven towns. The same tough numbers play out in Tallahassee, where 18-24 year-olds accounted for more than 31% of the city's population in 2011. Meanwhile young and midcareer professionals, aged 25-44, made up only some 25% of citywide residents in the same year.
At first glance the numbers aren't exactly the stuff of economic development dreams, but a look at trends over the course of the Recession shows, when it comes to growing its share of young professionals, Tallahassee has momentum in the right direction, with the 25-34 year-old, young professional cohort growing since 2009. The indicators are just mixed enough to tempt you to hedge your bets, but if you spend time with enough entrepreneurs you become pretty risk tolerant in a hurry.
Because he sees the importance of entrepreneurship community-wide, Ryan's activity doesn't begin and end with TechNOLEgy. He recently took the lead on an effort to support local startup culture called Coalesk. Things will need to fall into place at more than just the university level, and you can bet Ryan will be there at each of them, toiling away, turning the odds in Tallahassee's favor.
Ending With What Came Before
At Domi's incubator open house, in the room by the railroad, I make my first misstep. I'm huddled up with Ryan and another entrepreneur, Dominick Ard'is (Founder and CEO of The Town, a civic tech startup we've profiled before). Dominick points out a man standing across the room and says, "I swear that guy looks just like Jack Dorsey."
We laugh at the absurdity of it, and I seize the opportunity to make awkwardly obvious the otherwise unstated: "Yeah, I'm sure Jack made a billion dollars with the IPO and then decided to fly to Tallahassee."
The laughter sputters to a stop.
Ryan looks at me and lays it out. "That's really the problem though, isn't it? That's what we have to work to change, that perception, the fact that we can make that joke."
The space we're all gathered in is a humble start, but it's all the start anybody needs and it's more than many others have. Someday it will be a gathering place with walls painted up as chalkboards and whiteboards and storyboards with bubbles and arrows, bold words and even bolder visions. But for now it's not much more than unfinished concrete floors and old storage lockers where the County hid extra brooms and mops.
Back at the coffee shop, Vincent Hunt had told me there was a time when he felt being here was a total accident. It's the kind of story you hear a lot outside powerhouse cities and in towns like Tallahassee. "I was convinced I would be here all of a year and get out," he said.
I dangled a phrase, trying to hook his next thought. "But then…"
He gladly took the bait. "But then I started listening, and now I'm still here because we are on the cusp of a renaissance of creative culture. We're primed to become a major player."
In the room by the railroad, Micah Widen stands up on his chair, head and shoulders (and waist and torso) above anybody else. He says, "My name is Micah Widen," and the conversation settles. I look around the room. I see Ryan. I see Vincent. And I see dozens more I haven't yet met.
It's pretty clear that nobody is here by accident. Everyone is right where they need to be, and if they work together they might do more than just build businesses—they might help change the way we talk about an entire community. They might make sure this is all more than just noise.
This article's cover photo was provided courtesy of Mallory Brooks, a Tallahassee-based artist and photographer.
Lucas Lindsey is Co-Editor of This Big City on Tumblr. You can reach him on Twitter at @urbnist.