It takes a village: Raising a successful startup community in Miami

communities / Article

On May 1, 2019, Knight announced more than $1 million in new funding for nine projects to forge greater connections between Miami startup founders and open new pathways for talent and capital. See the press release for the announcement here

As someone with an almost 2-year-old, I can’t help but notice that building an entrepreneurial ecosystem and raising a child have a lot in common. There’s no instruction manual; each has its own unique needs, strengths and weaknesses; you love watching it grow, but its unpredictability can drive you crazy.

I’d argue the Miami startup community is a teenager: coming into its own, full of promise, and trying to figure out what it wants to be. At Knight, our goal has been and continues to be working collaboratively to nurture this burgeoning community into a self-sustaining, world-class innovation economy—a productive, independent adult, if you will. 

Since 2012, Knight Foundation has invested more than $30 million in advancing Miami’s startup community by connecting innovators, attracting investment and growing the city’s talent base. This support has helped drive Miami’s transformation: evolving from a city where you just want to plan a vacation (though that still holds true) to a city where many are growing world-class companies. 

Our early bets have helped connect a once fragmented ecosystem. Co-working and innovation hubs including the LAB Miami and the Idea Center, and events such as Black Tech Week and eMerge Americas, have given our community the physical space to come together. We were also able to bring new mentorship and funding opportunities to the city with the local launches of Endeavor Miami, 500 Startups, Miami Angels, and Babson College’s Women Innovating Now

Examples of Miami’s growth and success are easy to spot: Earlier this year, South Florida tech company Ultimate Software was acquired for $11 billion; younger companies such as Nearpod and CareCloud are thriving; and the city continues to attract the attention of new investors and innovators alike. The potential is palpable.

"Building an entrepreneurial ecosystem and raising a child have a lot in common. There’s no instruction manual; each has its own unique needs, strengths and weaknesses; you love watching it grow, but its unpredictability can drive you crazy."

At the same time, we recognize the need to target some of our earlier efforts, translating the momentum and activity we are now seeing into intentional impact that will sustain Miami’s growth as an innovation hub into the future. With our startup community reaching adolescence, it’s time to take stock of Miami’s progress — the successes, the struggles and, most importantly, where we go from here. 

As part of this process, we spent the last several months actively listening. We picked the brains of more than 200 entrepreneurs, investors and community stakeholders on the ground in Miami’s startup scene. We also consulted research, learning from the insights and experiences of those who have gone before us in building successful startup communities. 

We learned a lot, including that a virtuous venture cycle appears to be taking hold (e.g. the former Mako Surgical team founding Magic Leap, Neocis and DermaSensor). We found amazing local teams building world-class companies and attracting high-level investors (see the recent exits of Farelogix and eBuilder). And, we saw that some of the largest, most established companies (think Visa, Lennar, Carnival and Watsco) are building impressive innovation and venture teams right here in our city.

But one finding stood out among the rest, a challenge — or, in our view, an opportunity — that will play a pivotal role in the development of our city’s startup community: We learned that the most fruitful startup communities are those where founders, investors and high-potential talent are strongly connected to each other and are also uplifted by the community at-large. In Miami, we have room to grow on both fronts, and the success of the ecosystem depends on our response.

Almost universally, the founders we met with in South Florida were eager to build peer-learning and mentorship relationships with other founders but didn’t know how to connect with them in a meaningful way. Similarly, people want more direct avenues to connect with talent and investors, and vice-versa, that cut through unnecessary noise.

This requires attention: Research* shows there is a high degree of correlation between a startup community’s success and how the people in those communities connect to and support one another. The inverse is also true.

"The most fruitful startup communities are those where founders, investors and high-potential talent are strongly connected to each other and are also uplifted by the community at-large."

Since the start, Knight has always taken its cues from community. It’s from the community, after all, that our startup ecosystem was born. And we plan to do the same now. Keeping Knight’s core values of inclusion and participation in mind, we are exploring efforts to foster the growth of Miami’s startup community around three key areas:

  • Strengthening connections between the local network of founders, investors and high-potential talent to support learning, growth and community. 
  • Creating avenues for new talent — from longtime Miami residents to newcomers — to discover and participate in the city’s growing startup community, connecting interest with opportunity.
  • Growing Miami’s venture funding capacity by developing new investors; introducing outside capital to the region; and building funding networks that are known and accessible to local entrepreneurs. 

As goes with raising a child, priorities, needs and tactics will surely evolve as our ecosystem matures. We have been and will continue to be responsive to the demands of the moment, informed by those in the community who know it best. It truly takes a village to raise a successful startup community. I’m confident Miami can secure its spot as a world-class entrepreneurial hub if we continue to work and adapt together. 

Raul Moas is Miami program director at Knight Foundation. You can reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @rmoas.


*In his book, Startup Communities, entrepreneur, author, and venture capitalist Brad Feld emphasizes what he believes it takes to create a thriving community of entrepreneurs: “Leaders of startup communities have to be entrepreneurs. Everyone else is a feeder into the startup community. Both leaders and feeders are important, but their roles are different.”

Similarly, in a comparison of several venture ecosystems around the world, Startup Genome found that “local relationships among founders, and the help that is offered between founders, are key determinants of success for both individual companies and the overall ecosystem.”

A recent report by Endeavor Insight sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation arrived at a similar conclusion: “Founders of the fastest-growing companies are much more likely to have received experience, support and investment from leaders of companies that reached scale.”


Image (top): Illustration by Saskia Rasink, titled "Compass real estate agents Miami illustration," found on Behance; copyright: attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0), no manipulations.

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