Two entrepreneurs seek to turn one Gulf Coast town into a technology hotspot — heavy on the optimism.
Rich Swier, Jr. and Matt Orr, a pair of Sarasota-based technology infused entrepreneurs, have long thought their adopted hometown relied too much on dirt and sunshine to prosper.
But Swier and Orr decided to do something about it, rather than just vent to each other about the economic issues that have arisen from an over-reliance on real estate and tourism. The duo's answer is the HuB, a mix of a technology business incubator, event-planning firm and social media-tutoring center. The HuB opened last summer.
“We wanted a location for entrepreneurs and creative people to share ideas,” says Swier. “We believe there is a lot of young entrepreneurial talent around here.”
Adds Orr: “We will hopefully be a beacon of change.”
The Hub is a for-profit enterprise, although Swier and Orr say the overall goal of the venture isn't necessarily to grow internal revenues. Swier estimates he and Orr have spent about $75,000 so far in the startup phase of the operation, some of which the pair hopes to get back when the incubated companies are profitable.
In the meantime, the HuB has a donate button on its Website, where interested people can invest in the enterprise. The hope is that other like-minded folks in town will see the value of what Swier and Orr are doing. “We aren't looking at the HuB as a way to make money,” says Swier. “The companies that we have here are the ones we want to make money.”
The HuB operates out of loft-like office space in the Rosemary District, just north of downtown Sarasota. Swier and Orr work there, alongside founders of several other startup companies.
Swier previously co-founded Startup Florida, a separate technology company incubator. He has since founded VentureCast, an online database that matches entrepreneurs with venture capital fund managers and angel investors. In addition to VentureCast, Swier offers the HuB startups advice about products and growth.
Orr, a onetime local real estate agent, works primarily with the new companies at the HuB on how to implement a social media strategy. He also led some of the HuB's recent events, such as the popular first annual Vinyl Music Festival held last summer and the “I (heart) downtown Sarasota” campaign, which promoted local businesses.
While festivals draw attention to the HuB, its founders say the primary focus is still to build companies that grow and then stay in Sarasota. Swier says the biggest challenge toward that goal is to gain notoriety, no small task in a slow-to-change town such as Sarasota.
“We have to be more proactive than most incubators and venture capital firms,” says Swier. “We need to be aggressive in the community.”
One of the first companies to come out of the HuB is InboxAlarm. The company provides a personal or work e-mail protection service. When a hacker or a technological intruder opens a booby-trapped e-mail, InboxAlarm detects the breach and sends a text message to the account holder.
The founders were initially going to launch the company in San Francisco. But after InboxAlarm co-founder and Sarasota native Janis Krums met with Orr and Swier, he decided the HuB could duplicate whatever the company could get from being in Silcon Valley.
— Mark Gordon