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Florida Struggles With Tech Success

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INVESTING

Florida received a few blows to the proverbial gut recently as two technology companies announced their stunning growth... followed by a rapid departure. I spoke to one Silicon Valley expatriate to try to shed some light on why tech is struggling in the Sunshine State.

With a new governor that pledged to create seven hundred thousand jobs over the next seven years, Florida residents are eagerly waiting to see the results of his efforts. So far things have been a bit discouraging as government jobs were trimmed, the high speed rail stimulus funds were rejected (which some experts believe would have created over twenty thousand jobs) and the highly anticipated Jackson Labs move to Sarasota County (est. two thousand jobs) has been put on the budget back burner according to inside sources.

Two Florida tech companies, Connexions and Infinity Box, rubbed salt in Florida's economic wounds as they announced that they are opening a new facility in Charlotte and moving to Palo Alto, respectively. Infinity Box, the developers of the Wufoo application, downplayed the move as simply part of the terms of its acquisition by SurveyMonkey. Connexions CEO Steven Auerbach, on the other hand, stated candidly that his decision to move the 1,200 jobs was due to a "high-quality work force" in Charlotte.

As America struggles to compete with a global technology workforce and several states continue to compete with each other to attract technology companies, the question of the hour becomes, "What works to grow tech jobs?"

Serial entrepreneur and Silicon Valley veteran Rob Campbell is the CEO of Voalte, a Sarasota-based company that specializes in point-of-care communication. To many it would appear that Voalte has hit the Trifecta -- they are growing, their software is compatible with smart phones and their focus is on the booming health care industry. Even so, Campbell admits that both fostering and managing growth can be challenging. He offered five specific items that should be on every emerging state's tech To Do List.

1. Create an infrastructure that is tech-friendly.
When Rob Campbell relocated to Florida in the 90's, he noticed something about the technology infrastructure -- it was non-existent. Aside from a presence by IBM in the Boca area, no large names had a large workforce in the state. Landlords typically would not rent space to companies with less than five years of business history (leaving out the start-ups) and banks were not eager to lend capital to firms without large amounts of collateral.

Over time and in cooperation with other companies in the state, Campbell noticed a positive shift, but there is still a long way to go. Local networking organizations, business media and mentorship groups still tend to focus on companies that have large in-house employees as opposed to leaner, high-impact teams that are today's trend. Venture capital companies are still by and large zeroed in on the real estate market. Additionally, when people think of Florida's industries, agriculture and tourism are still what spring to mind.

The key to both attracting and retaining tech jobs is to ensure that they can operate and grow without feeling as if they are perpetually battling the business landscape.

2. Engage the University systems.
Though it is certainly not necessary to have a college degree in order to succeed in this field, Campbell notes that students tend to be both knowledgeable about the subject and entrepreneurial in spirit. Their enthusiasm tends to attract other, like-minded individuals and a sort of "collision" of bright people is then formed.

Harvesting that talent is the key for states that wish to keep their best and brightest working within their borders. Many of the larger states, and Florida in particular, face inherent geographical challenges with their university system. Unlike a city such as Boston that has a number of campuses close together, the schools are sprawled and a collaborative project between the universities -- as well as mass recruiting -- becomes more challenging.

3. Consider the logistics.
Whether it is a distribution channel, the likely travel of an investment partner from another state, or service fulfillment the logistics have to be considered when a company begins to grow. Location, flight schedules and public transportation suddenly become more relevant when calculating the time and money that will be required for all involved.

4. Help Economic Development Centers to get creative.
Campbell relayed a story of how one EDC in particular approached the logistical hurdle. When Austin was looking to attract some key employers in the tech field -- namely Apple and Intel -- then one issue raised was the difficult travel from California to Texas. In short, the flights offered were inconvenient and a potential deal breaker.

The EDC worked with the airlines to temporarily subsidize more flights to key cities at convenient times and the result was an entire tech center springing up in a city that had been struggling economically. Those types of focused solutions not only tend to be less expensive than general incentive packages, but they let companies know that their concerns were genuinely heard and addressed.

5. Build a sense of community.
As Voalte continues to recruit high-caliber talent they continue to run into the same road block time and time again. Engineers and programmers are hesitant to move to a place that feels isolated and in a slow-growth (or no-growth) phase. The old adage that "nobody likes being the odd man out" applies in the tech community in spades. When coupled with a concern about the job opportunities for a spouse then the situation is difficult to overcome.

It is not enough simply to have bright people living in the area of an emerging company. Networking organizations, chambers and economic development councils should work to ensure that these valuable employees are recognized in the community and connected to one another. Additional marketing and public relations efforts may also be needed to truly rebrand a city or county that was formerly known for a different industry such as manufacturing or agriculture.

With decades of experience and a company that is growing despite regional economic challenges, I asked Campbell what advice he has given to public officials that are looking to create jobs. After chuckling to himself he said, "So far, no state officials have contacted me."

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