Home to the Magic, Disney World, and the second greatest number of hotels in America, the city of Orlando is generally associated with holiday, theme parks, and entertainment. But behind the glitz and the Mickey Mouses is a burgeoning startup ecosystem forging the foundations for innovation and economic growth.
After taking a heavy hit from the housing market crash, Orlando is back on track to becoming one of the nation’s fastest growing cities. In 2014, it was ranked the fastest growing city for job growth by Forbes.
A stroll through Downtown Orlando’s avenues says it all. The new lavish high-rises house developers from Full Sail University, MBAs from Rollins, and a growing breed of self-starters. In the evenings, this young crowd mingles at one of the many bustling bars, coffee shops, or tech meet-ups. There’s a growing awareness in Orlando, and nationwide, that technological innovation will drive growth in decades to come. Although still in its infancy, the Orlando ecosystem has already produced companies such as EA Games and Code School.
On Friday December 5, some of the best and brightest entrepreneurial minds met at the Digital Orlando event to discuss the future of the Orlando ecosystem. Among the speakers were Chris Valentine, founder of South By Southwest, Gregg Pollack, founder of Code School, and PJ Leimgruber, my co-founder and COO at NeoReach.
Having bases in both Orlando and Silicon Valley, we at NeoReach are often asked why we haven’t moved our team to the Startup Mecca after raising our seed round. On the panel, PJ explained the decision to stay in Orlando with three reasons:
1 – People are scrappy
— Paul Brinkmann (@PaulBrinkmann) December 5, 2014
The people of Orlando share one ambition: to build a thriving economic and entrepreneurial machine. Many are willing to make deep sacrifices to reach this goal. As a result, people go out of their way to help each other and put in the work necessary to build something out of nothing.
2 – Dollars stretch further
One of the first rules of building a company is to never run out of money. The people you employ are relying on you to soberly invest the company funds to result in continuous growth. Unfortunately, this rule is often broken, and most startups fail. A big reason for this are the soaring startup burn rates that Marc Andreessen and other tech leaders are fretting about. It’s not surprising that startups are leaking so much cash when the average real estate price in San Francisco is more than three times the national average.
Having a base in Orlando helps us keep our burn rate low. We can focus our spending on what will actually contribute to our business’ success: employee and user growth.
3 – Deep talent pool, little competition
There’s only one thing that’s harder than hiring a talented developer in the Silicon Valley – that’s retaining him or her. The omni-presence of the Googles and the Facebooks makes building a stellar dev team at a startup insanely hard and costly. It’s not uncommon for a startup to regularly lose its best employees to bigger, faster growing companies, putting a strain on productivity and team culture.
But what’s most inspiring is the ruthless passion and dedication emanating from every one of our team members. Here’s a picture of Milos Bejda, our CTO, cranking out code on a Sunday afternoon.
Orlando Is Not, And Will Never Be, Silicon Valley
It’s important to state the obvious: despite the advantages of Orlando, it will never replace Silicon Valley. In his keynote speech, Chris Valentine, founder of SXSW revealed that more than $31.5 billion have been invested in Silicon Valley startups in more than 3,308 VC deals. Venture capital was born in Silicon Valley, and it’s most likely that SV will remain the startup mecca for years to come, at least in the US.
Silicon Valley’s greatest asset is not the money, it’s the people. From mentors, to fellow entrepreneurs, to exceptional developers, I know of no other place on earth with an equal density of talent. One of the main reasons that we’ve come this far in just over a year is because of the advice and support of our awesome mentors including Ravi Belani, Director of the Alchemist Accelerator, and Gary Swart, the former CEO of oDesk and partner at Polaris Ventures.
So instead of trying to reproduce Silicon Valley and live in its shadow, Chris Valentine encouraged Orlando to leverage its competitive advantages. Namely it’s ties to the entertainment, health, and armament industries and it’s proximity to South America.
The Pioneers of Digital Orlando
While everyone at Digital Orlando was excited to be part of a fast-growing city, we all knew that we’re just at the very beginning of the Orlando startup ecosystem. When asked what Orlando needed most to grow, Dan McGaw, a renowned growth hacker and the founder of Fuelzee, answered that people need to be taught the “building blocks for building great companies”.
Orlando needs more progressive entrepreneurial leaders like him and Gregg Pollack, founder of Code School, who dropped my favorite line from the event.