Gainesville is an incredible place to live and work. Our city’s startup community in particular has experienced supersonic growth over the past 15 years and is now gaining serious traction as companies like our own Digital Brands become profitable and share ideas and talent across multiple companies.
Below, I hope to provide a first-hand point of view of what I personally believe to be the good, the bad and the ugly of the startup scene in Gainesville.
Gainesville has come a very long way in a brief amount of time. I believe that says something about the people who live here, the community people want to be a part of and the talent of individuals and groups that live in our town.
Community of Open Communication
Gainesville is on a path of rapid growth in the tech industry. With more companies sprouting around town and those of us who have been lucky enough to be successful striving to improve the cities companies, wealth and knowledge base, it seems Gainesville will soon be a powerhouse in the southeast.
In speaking with Josh Greenberg of Grooveshark, you hear the excitement and attitude that can be found all around town: “The number of creative entrepreneur types in the area has grown tremendously over the past few years, and with the city putting effort into amplifying that growth, the next decade will be the biggest ever for Gainesville’s start-up ecosystem.
Many startups, including Grooveshark, invest heavily in training and development initiatives that help create more high-tech jobs for the region. We do this because our start-up ecosystem is so interconnected — a rockstar employee hired by another local company means Gainesville has just gotten that much better, which benefits all regional startups in the long run.”
An important aspect of this growth has been the “all in” attitude of the city and its residents to openly communicate with what we have learned while also trading ideas and expertise on various subjects. Whether it is hardware, software, online marketing or game design, there is a company in town that has excelled at it.
More often than not, I have found these companies are willing to openly talk to other companies about how they can improve in various aspects of their day-to-day operations.
The Culture of a Positive Workplace
Startups in Gainesville are constantly striving to provide the best possible workplace and culture for their employees. Gone are the days of cubicles, boring work and the tiered structure of management. Startups rely on every individual in the company to provide his or her best possible work, and owners have come to know a great company workplace can be the spark of an individual’s buy-in.
At Digital Brands, we focus on hiring the right combination of passion and personality, and we give our hires a world-class work environment that includes open collaboration, democratic processes, profit sharing and, yes, even free meals and play time thrown in. We’ve made our culture all about cultivating the passion of our employees while making them feel appreciated and rewarded for the hard work they put in.
While Digital Brands and others have had success early in their business models, I believe there are a couple areas where Gainesville currently lags in its attempts to bolster the needs of startups.
Seed Funding and Venture Capital
The first is the issue of funding. When push comes to shove, there are very few sources for seed funding in Gainesville. While GAIN, the Cade Museum and various individuals have consistently put money in the hands of startups, it can be difficult for companies to find the $100,000 or more they really need to give their idea the best shot at success.
Over time, I think for this to drastically change there will need to be a highly successful company that has a large portion of its workforce having equity in the company. Much like how Redmond has “Microsoft Millionaires,” Gainesville needs folks who have had success and are willing to put a portion of it toward funding future startups. Similar to how successful alumni give money back to their universities, it should be the duty of successful entrepreneurs and employees to give something back to the community that strived to get them there.
Along the same lines is the lack of venture capital interest in Gainesville. I do not believe for a second that Gainesville does not have the ideas and personnel to attract VC funding. I believe the issue stems from the fact that Gainesville is still in its early phases of startup growth and the seed funding hasn’t provided enough of a base for the companies to grow big enough to attract larger funding. If the issue of seed funding is solved, then Gainesville will attract the eyes of top VC funds over time.
The Five-Year Experience Problem
Any growing company finds it soon needs employees to fill certain roles. Whether it be a developer, marketer, designer or anything else, it is important for companies to seek out and find talented individuals. One barrier to growth in Gainesville is finding experienced and expert talent.
There is a wealth of talented students to be had from local colleges and universities, but there is no substitute for work experience on large-scale projects.
For Gainesville companies to grow, there needs to be local experienced talent. In the next few years, this talent will begin to emerge as employees inevitably change jobs or startups fail. Within three to five years, there will be a nice talent base of tech-experienced workers ready to fill the needs of local companies.
This doesn’t really help the Gainesville startups of today. One solution I would love to see the city toss around is providing funds to companies that hire experienced talent from around the country. Sure, a company could offer more than $80,000 for mid- to senior-level developers, but how much more attractive would it be if the city could put some of its financial weight behind such offers and match the companies funds with 25 to 50 percent for a few years? The investment is well worth it as the area would earn another high-earning citizen and bring in the expertise to grow a company faster. In addition, the city would have a company and individual paying higher or at least more taxes to recoup some of their investment. While I haven’t put together the numbers or done research on other cities that have done this, I feel like it should at least be explored.
I have gone back and forth on how much I wanted to add to the ugly section. For me, the most important idea I can pass on to entrepreneurs is that if you are going to go into business, it is of the utmost importance that you and your company find an experienced lawyer to represent the company AND you should have your own personal lawyer oversee every single line in the company’s operating agreement. Make sure every word in the agreement is what you mean and there is no “intention” left in any gray area. I can’t stress how important this is.
All in all, the good of the Gainesville startup scene vastly outweighs the bad and the ugly. I know this community is on the right path to being one of the greatest start-up and tech-friendly cities there is, and hopefully, I have been able to shine light on some of the issues facing us in the coming years. If we continue to win battles against these issues, there will be nothing standing in our way of having the companies, the experiences and the successes we all dream of.