While economic development groups wring their hands over how to boost job creation on the Gulf Coast, informal groups of entrepreneurs are already incubating companies that will drive the new wave of growth.
“We're not sitting around waiting for the government,” says Yuliya Goldenberg, a New York City advertising executive who relocated to Naples to be closer to her family.
Goldenberg and several business partners launched Idea Farm South in Bonita Springs (ideafarmsouth.com), a loose-knit group of entrepreneurs who want to create a cooperative business environment for startups.
Partners include Rich Galvano, CEO of Galvano Development and the Innovation Hub at Florida Gulf Coast University; Brian Vail, the former vice president of logistics for Source Interlink and now CEO of VailCo.; and Farouk Al-Shorafa, an executive with computer services giant CA Technologies who lives part-time in Naples for lifestyle reasons.
Similar ventures are appearing up and down the Gulf Coast, sometimes called “co-working space” or incubators, which promise open office space and interaction among lone startups in exchange for little or no rent. Corporate downsizing and stress are two factors driving that trend.
“We don't have a roadmap,” says Vail. “We want it to evolve.”
This is the antithesis of most economic development organizations in the region, which have formal programs, paid staffs and rely on government subsidies for support. “We're not taking any salaries,” says Vail.
Startup entrepreneurs can pop into the offices of Idea Farm South in Bonita Springs and start working in the open conference room and kitchen, which serves coffee and offers free Wi-Fi Internet. “Right now, we're doing it for free,” says Vail. “We need them to come.”
This informal economic gardening could grow into something more structured, depending on what entrepreneurs need. “We think there's an opportunity her to get this area excited about underground technology,” Vail says.
For example, Idea Farm plans to lease space at the Innovation Hub, a research park Galvano is developing. The first building is scheduled to be completed next year.
In addition, Idea Farm plans to establish a funding and mentoring program to help startups. For example, mentor investors might be willing to invest $15,000 to $30,000 in a new venture and help it grow. The Naples and Fort Myers areas are full of retired entrepreneurs who have this kind of “roll-of-the-dice” money and are looking for entrepreneurial opportunities, Vail and Goldenberg say.
Also, there are plans for “demo days.” These are popular gatherings in tech capitals such as Palo Alto, Calif., where entrepreneurs and investors congregate to strike deals.
While there are a few technology companies in Southwest Florida, Vail and Goldenberg are hoping to cultivate more. “People leave the area after they reach a certain point,” Vail says.
But many technology companies are reluctant to join any networking groups for their industry. That's because good technology workers are hard to find, and they jealously guard their employees, worried they might get hired away.
So Vail and Goldenberg are targeting lone technology entrepreneurs, many who work from their homes. “A lot of them are used to working in social environments,” Goldenberg says.