A cyber-success in South Florida tech: from 4-man startup to $232.5M sale to BAE

By Nancy Dahlberg / ndahlberg@miamiherald.com

Success stories in South Florida entrepreneurship don’t always follow the classic script of dream, launch, grow, sell and start all over again. Sometimes the founder starts out as an “accidental entrepreneur,” stays with the acquiring company and grows the team into a successful division, providing jobs that power the local economy.

RD Face PhotoThat’s Richard Dobrow’s story. In 2000, the young accountant started Guarded Networks Inc. or GNI, with three other colleagues, all just a couple of years out of school. After a couple of sales and name changes along the way, that venture with roots in South Florida became SilverSky, which sold on Friday to London-based defense giant BAE Systems for $232.5 million. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

After earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting at Florida International University in the late ‘90s, Dobrow was working at Arthur Anderson in an area that was just beginning to get really hot: technology risk management. With Arthur Anderson in turmoil at the time, and futures uncertain, he and colleagues Sajid Khan, also an FIU alumnus, Thomas Neclerio and Brian Otte, decided to split off and start a company in this new area of expertise they had been building up – information security.

At the time, Dobrow really didn’t see it as a long-tem play. “We thought we’d go do this for a couple of years and then be back in the industry.”

But Guarded Networks grew to be a leading player as what’s known as an MSSP, a managed security service provider, for financial institutions. GNI established its “Bordershield” software platform as a market leading compliance product used by hundreds of banking and medical organizations to help meet their growing information security requirements. By 2004, it had grown to about 35 employees and was serving more than 300 banks and credit unions and more than 1,000 corporate customers, said Dobrow, who was GNI's CEO. That’s when it merged with Perimeter E-Security of Connecticut in a transaction valued at more than $25 million.

Dobrow said two of the original founders exited along the way – Khan is with Lockheed Martin and Otte is with ProfitStars – but Dobrow and Neclerio stayed on. An investment group led by Goldman Sachs purchased a chunk of Perimeter in 2007, and Perimeter rebranded under the name SilverSky in early 2013. Most recently, Dobrow was SilverSky’s president, Asia-Pacific region, and chief compliance officer – yes, the job involved a lot of travel – and Neclerio was senior vice president of consulting services.

Dobrow, named to FIU’s Entrepreneur Hall of Fame in 2002, could have exited in 2004 and 2007. But each time he was offered intrapreneurial leadership roles with “interesting opportunities” and decided to stay, always based in South Florida. And a local employee base of about three dozen stayed, too.

SilverSky, a commercial cyber-services and compliance provider with operations in the United States and Asia, employed about 400 people and had more than 5,000 customers at the time of the BAE acquisition. SilverSky’s sales, marketing and engineering workforce and management team joined BAE’s global Applied Intelligence division, focused on cyber-security with about 3,200 employees worldwide.

“SilverSky’s cloud-based email and network security solutions complement our existing portfolio and increase our presence in the United States, a very significant market for IT security,” said Ian King, CEO of the 80,000-employee BAE, in a statement on Friday announcing the closing of the acquisition.

Dobrow plans to stay on with BAE as chief compliance officer as the company goes through a post-acquisition reorganization. As before, he will see where this goes. “My understanding is that the 36 people in South Florida will remain in South Florida and there will be an expansion of the Security Operation Center in Fort Lauderdale,” Dobrow said, adding that BAE didn't have a significant cyber-security business presence in the U.S. until now with the acquisition, so there is no overlap and the plan is to grow, not cut.

Mike Tomás also stayed with the team through it all in another role – investor and advisor. Tomás got to know Dobrow and his team early on as a mentor and also became an investor. He joined Guarded Networks’ board, staying on with SilverSky until last week’s BAE acquisition. Tomás, CEO of Bioheart, is also chair of FIU’s Pino Global Entrepreneurship Center and on the board of Miami Dade College’s Idea Center.

“South Florida has been a hub of technology entrepreneurship for years and with recent efforts like eMerge Americas, Endeavor, Venture Hive and the Idea Center will only help to create more company successes like SilverSky,” said Tomás. “Richard Dobrow is a brilliant technology pioneer and his company was born and raised in South Florida.”

Guarded Networks

EARLY DAYS OF GNI: In a 2001 photo, Guarded Networks co-founders Thomas Neclerio, left, and Brian Otte, center, along with the company’s CFO, Eric Lambert, hold firewalls used in their engineering security solutions. Photo by Water Michot/Miami Herald archives.

Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg.



RealConnex raises $3.5 million in Series A funding

 RealConnex, a B2B real estate deal-making platform, announced  the completion of its $3.5 million Series A financing round led by Star Capital, a U.S.-based investment group. The funding will be used to accelerate the domestic rollout, drive the company’s global expansion and hire top talent, said RealConnex CEO Roy Abrams, who is based in Miami.

RealConnex's platform links investors, lenders, developers, advisors and other service providers to capital, services, opportunities and each other, providing a technology-driven alternative to the traditional real estate deal-making process that relies on pre-formed relationships and personal connections, the company said in its news release. The company is headquartered in New York with operations in Miami.

"RealConnex is led by an experienced team with a deep understanding of both real estate and technology. It’s a unique combination that works and they have created a platform with the potential to materially change the real estate industry,“ said Star Capital Principal Managing Partner David Rozinov.

Posted Dec. 18, 2004

Entrepreneur, Wantrepreneur: Big difference

By @MarioCruz

MariocruzThis month’s phenomenal Sime MIA has allowed us to meet like-minded entrepreneurs and champions for the Miami tech scene, while getting great content and inspiration from an amazing lineup brought together by Demian Bellumio. During one of the talks, Susan Amat, a friend and respected Entrepreneur in our community, had this to say, "You don't build a company by going to events or just networking; you build it by sitting down and working ridiculous hours."

Lately, in Miami's tech scene, I've noticed lots of Wantrepreneurs, people who like the idea of successful entrepreneurship but do not exactly have the right mindset, perspective, discipline or direction to pursue it. These Wantrepreneurs do not want to risk their cushy jobs but want in on the growing Miami startup economy. They want to be a broker of ideas and network with all the past successful entrepreneurs, but they do not understand that ideas and networking are not what makes a real entrepreneur.

Successful entrepreneurs require mental toughness with the combination of a creative idea and a superior capacity for execution. In the process of execution, they are taking risk and offering a product customers love. They are also setting quantifiable goals about the product idea, measuring the results from the ideas and feedback from customers, and then they “Rinse and Repeat.” Today, product marketing, sales, pounding the pavement and other non-technical risks are actually causing more failures than technical risks.  

 The question that plagues these Wantrepreneurs is "job lock." Each one of them wants a sustainable income with benefits and time to build the perfect product – a product for which there may not be a market. Wantrepreneurs fear validating their ideas with paying customers and are afraid of approaching potential clients who may not be willing to pay for the product. An even greater fear is that the customers might find the product or idea to be a failure before any funding any is received.

 The primary benefit in building a minimum viable product (MVP) is entrepreneurs do not have to quit their jobs to have paying customers tell them exactly what problems are being experienced. Savvy entrepreneurs are able to start building out ideas and solutions to those problems, allowing validation of the idea before spending excessive time networking or looking for cash to quit their jobs.

After validation of an idea, even successful entrepreneurs can find it extremely difficult to be passionate about it, convincing investors and teammates to join, while simultaneously remaining skeptical enough to test and continuously validate the idea. But by going down this path successful entrepreneurs don’t just take risks, they manage them.

Miami is now a real viable tech market, and I believe Wantrepreneurs are actually a byproduct of our success. They just need to move beyond being imitators by making strides towards becoming innovators, and not continually wasting time and resources by hustling vague ideas like “It’s an Uber for Slack with AirBnB functionality.”

Real Miami entrepreneurs are creatives who are continuing to bring innovation to market in education, security, mobile payments, the unbanked, beacons, rewards programs, music tech and marketing as well as other new ideas, strategies and products. These risk takers have fresh ideas that can continue to transform the Miami tech scene by creating new jobs and opportunities in Miami.  In a year where Miami has seen its best year yet with over a billion dollars raised or in acquisitions, we are ripe for an even bigger 2015, but only if the Wantrepreneurs stop just networking and start working their tail off, chasing ideas and the American dream of being a Real Entrepreneur.

Mario Cruz is CTO of Wynwood-based Choose Digital, owned by Viggle.


Addressing the tech-talent gap, LaunchCode expands to Miami

The innovative job-placement nonprofit founded by Square co-founder Jim McKelvey received $1.25 million in funding from the Knight Foundation. LaunchCode is already signing on companies and partners and will open early next year. 

By Nancy Dahlberg / ndahlberg@MiamiHerald.com 

Jim McKelvey, the co-founder of the mobile payment company Square, believes you don’t need a computer science degree or be a 20-something male to get a good job in technology.

Jim mckelveyAt the same time, a tech-talent shortage is one of the oft-cited challenges facing Miami and other cities and the job market just doesn’t work efficiently, McKelvey said. So he started a job-placement nonprofit, LaunchCode, to address the talent gap by opening the field of motivated and qualified applicants in an innovative way.

LaunchCode, based in St. Louis, matches aspiring technologists with local companies through paid apprenticeships that lead to long-term careers. On Wednesday, the organization announced it will expand to Miami, with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

To be sure, the talent gap is also a national challenge. According to projections by the U.S. Department of Labor, 1 million U.S. programming jobs will go unfilled by 2020. "The mission of LaunchCode is to take the entire economy and change it from one of scarcity of technical talent to at least neutrality if not abundance," said McKelvey, adding that a Silicon Valley study showed that every tech job brings four other jobs to an area.

The Knight Foundation is investing $1.25 million, over three years, to support LaunchCode’s Miami opening early next year. LaunchCode launched in St. Louis in 2013 and this will be its first expansion.

“What we really like about LaunchCode is how it provides the opportunity to reach into all the communities across Miami, particularly the underserved communities, and provide people a way to get the skills to then move into really compelling jobs in tech,” said Matt Haggman, Miami program director of the Knight Foundation.

LaunchCode has hired a coordinator to lead the local expansion effort and has partnered with Miami Dade College’s new entrepreneurship hub, its Idea Center. LaunchCode has already signed on some companies that will hire apprentices and is actively looking for more, said McKelvey, who bought a vacation home in Miami area in 2010 and made South Florida his family’s permanent home this summer.

In an interview at The LAB Miami on Tuesday, McKelvey explained that a typical job seeker coming to LaunchCode would already have some programming skills. LaunchCode would do a skills assessment, and if needed, would connect the seeker with additional education. For this, LaunchCode has partnered with Wyncode and Ironhack, in addition to Miami Dade College, and online training programs such as EdX.

But the key to the model is making the good match, considering not just the skills fit but the candidate's desires and company culture, too. And so far it’s working: Since launching in St. Louis a year ago, 90 percent of LaunchCode’s 130 placements have quickly led to full-time positions with companies such as MasterCard, Enterprise and Anheuser-Busch. Nearly half of the people LaunchCode placed were unemployed before joining the program, and 42 percent did not have a college degree, McKelvey said. LaunchCode has placed people from ages 15 to 59; about 30 percent of its placements were women — that’s a high percentage for tech jobs.

“We were surprised how quickly people can acquire employable skills,” said McKelvey, about his experience in St. Louis. “We had people with no relevant programming skills get to full-time employment in under six months, and these aren’t rare cases. We were also surprised how receptive the companies were.”

Indeed, building the large network of companies willing to take on the apprentices, rather than always opting for the conservative route of selecting people with experience, is the key to success in the LaunchCode model, McKelvey said: “We need to sign up every company in Miami that hires programmers or IT people. The good news is, no company has ever said no.”

Companies commit to considering LaunchCode applicants for low-paying apprenticeships. But these temporary apprenticeships typically last no more than a couple of weeks or months, at which time companies hopefully hire the applicants full time. No long-term apprenticeships: "There needs to be incentives on both sides to get married of date someone else," McKelvey said. "We are not a charity ... Our mission is to place not hundreds but thousands of people."

RegoLeading LaunchCode’s aggressive expansion effort in Miami will be Mariana Rego, a University of Miami industrial engineering graduate who worked for several  years at UBS in New York, and recently co-founded Design Thinking Miami, a nonprofit that hosts social and educational events to foster design thinking.

Rego, who joined LaunchPad because she wanted to "make a difference," will focus on the first phase of the organization’s development — forming partnerships with Miami area companies. Rego said that in the past two weeks, she has signed on 10 to 15 companies, and she expects to meet with Miami’s biggest employers after the new year.

For instance, Rego said, LaunchCode has already signed up advertising and digital agency República, Univision and its television network Fusion, and tech companies Senzari, YellowPepper and Kairos. “LaunchCode is a unique organization that’s going to have a tremendous impact on South Florida’s tech labor market. República is proud to be one of LaunchCode’s very first committed companies,” said Jorge A. Plasencia, República’s CEO.

Matt_haggman_2014_preferred.jpg.200x0_q85Haggman said LaunchCode is an important piece of Knight’s strategy to grow the entrepreneurial ecosystem, and that together with MDC’s Idea Center, Venture for America and Enstitute – other recent Knight investments – LaunchCode will help lower barriers in order to match up job seekers with employers. “Our bet is that the talent is here,” Haggman said. “We just have to make it easier to connect employers with the talent.”

Leandro Finol, executive director of Idea Center, said the center plans to model a program after a popular course at Harvard, CS50, an introduction to programming, and once the students prove their skills they will be able to get good jobs through LaunchCode. “We are the perfect partner for LaunchCode. Because we are so massive with many campuses, we are very convenient to all the different companies,” he said.

Companies that want to be a part of LaunchCode should email mariana@launchcode.org. The sign-up process takes less than 10 minutes. Learn more at Launchcode.org.

When LaunchCode is ready for job seekers, there will be an open call, McKelvey said. “We need the next couple of months to work with the companies and identify the jobs and skills so we can do our job and make good matches.”

Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg.

Posted Dec. 17, 2014


Startup Spotlight: SuperFuzion




Headquarters: Miami

Concept: SuperFuzion products are an “Outrageous Fusion of SuperFoods.”

Story: SuperFuzion is a Miami-based natural health food products company that aims to infuse the daily diets of people everywhere with an outrageous fusion of superfoods. Each product contains a variety of premium nuts, seeds, and super fruits thus creating the optimal nutritional combination of antioxidants, omega fatty acids, protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

The seed for SuperFuzion was planted in founder Jacqueline Gadala-Maria as a child growing up with her father who believed passionately in the power of healthy eating to transform lives. She began pursuing her dream when she decided to build a healthy “superfoods” company with fellow dreamer and close friend Alyssa Fernandez-Isla (pair are pictured above). Inspired by a “super fusion” of family, friendship, and food, SuperFuzion was born.

Gadala-Maria handles product development and Fernandez-Isla handles operations. Gadala-Maria used to make the mix for herself and brought it to a dinner. Everyone loved it and persuaded her to start the company. With Fernandez-Isla’s help, she perfected the recipe and the team developed the labels and branding – they chose lime green and purple to make sure the labels stood out on the shelves. “We would put our products on the shelves at Whole Foods to see how the labels looked,” Gadala-Maria said. And they pursued Whole Foods hard. “We kept going until someone called us.”

Their efforts paid off as the product is now in five local Whole Foods stores, and will soon be in the new Brickell store, as well as other shops in South Florida. The company plans to expand outside the region, as well as grow its product line.

Launched: SuperFuzion products launched in local, independant stores and markets in Miami in early 2014.

Management team: Jacqueline Gadala-Maria and Alyssa Fernandez-Isla, co-founders.

Website: SuperFuzion.com.

Financing: Self-financed.

Recent milestones: Gained acceptance into Whole Foods Florida region to launch at six Miami-Dade County stores. Partnered with the Seed Food & Wine Festival, the first plant-based food festival in the country, Oct 15-19 in Miami. The product is also sold in Norman Brothers in Kendall, Wayside Market in Pinecrest, The Beehive on Bird Road, the Original Daily Bread on Miami and Key To Health on Key Biscayne, among other stores.

Biggest startup challenge: Curating the best suppliers, designers, facilities and professional service providers.

Next step: Make the Whole Foods launch as successful as possible so that SuperFuzion will be a solid platform for product development and geographic expansion.

Strategy for next step: Demos. “At the end of the day, our first priority is allowing consumers to taste our delicious superfood fusions and educating them about their myriad health benefits and applications. This is why we invest heavily in in-store and event demos, where we provide complimentary tastings of our products. People buy SuperFuzion because not only is it healthy, it’s tasty too,” said Fernandez-Isla.

Mentor’s view: “SuperFuzion is a great example of local motivated entrepreneurs with a great venture idea but in need of assistance to operate on solid legal footing,” said lawyer Ashley A. Juchawski, who directs the Venture Law Project for Dade Legal Aid. The Venture Law Project, founded to help startups, has provided SuperFuzion with pro bono legal assistance, filing close to a dozen trademarks for Superfuzion to protect its name, branding and logo. “Superfuzion has also been diligently working with some of our best pro bono patent attorneys to protect all of the secret formulas you know and love,” said Juchawski.

Nancy Dahlberg


Posted Dec. 16, 2014; Photos by Marsha Halper / Miami Herald Staff 

eMerge Americas receives $1.5M in Knight funding

By Nancy Dahlberg / ndahlberg@miamiherald.com

Manny Medina 1691 jpgeMerge Americas, the multiday homegrown Miami tech conference started by Manny Medina and his Technology Foundation of the Americas, will receive $1.5 million in new support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The main event will take place May 4-5 at Miami Beach Convention Center and will bring together entrepreneurs, business leaders and technologists from around the world. The mission: “We are committed to establishing South Florida as a key hub in the global tech community,” said Medina, who also heads Medina Capital and founded and ran Terremark Worldwide.

The first eMerge Americas conference, hosted in May 2014, attracted 6,000 participants, 400 participating companies, more than 150 speakers and 115 startups from Miami and across the globe. Knight, Miami-Dade County, Greenberg Traurig and Medina Capital were founding sponsors of the effort.

Matt_haggman_2014_preferred.jpg.200x0_q85“Year One was a big success and now we want to build on that success,” said Matt Haggman, Knight Foundation’s Miami program director, in announcing the funding. “eMerge is an important convening that focuses attention and changes perceptions in a meaningful way. We’ve seen this in Austin with South By Southwest, and the bet is that eMerge will do the same for Miami.”

Speakers announced so far for the 2015 eMerge Americas include Deepak Chopra, physician and best-selling author, and Jim McKelvey, founder of mobile payment company Square and the nonprofit LaunchCode, who will share insights into the latest innovations disrupting industries and changing the way people live, work and play.

Daan Roosegaarde, creative director of the social design lab Studio Roosegaarde, will also keynote and be an important speaker in eMerge’s Smart Cities track, said Xavier Gonzalez, executive director of eMerge Americas. With studios in Rotterdam and Shanghai, Roosegaarde develops innovative, interactive landscapes that are accomplished through the objective of pulling technology “out of the screen” and integrating it into the real world.

The conference for the first time will feature a Women Innovation & Technology Summit on May 4, with 12 speakers announced so far, including Yoani Sanchez, executive director of 14ymedio, and Monique Manso, publisher of People en Español. It will also feature a Government Innovation Summit withi government officials from the U.S., Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean. Gonzalez also said there will be 10 to 20 country pavilions next year.

Like last year, there will also be an eMerge Startup Showcase (startups can apply here) and an eMerge Hackathon. A hiring fair will help connect top talent with more than 50 companies.

Gonzalez said South Florida’s universities are stepping up their participation next year. “The university community is really behind this. They are interested in using eMerge as a platform to showcase the innovation they are generating and also target opportunities for their students. ... Florida International University, Nova Southeastern and Florida Atlantic University are already signed up, and we expect University of Miami and Miami Dade College to come on board soon,” he said.

The $1.5 million in new Knight funding is a three-year grant, which adds to the $250,000 seed funding Knight provided last year, Haggman said. Support for eMerge Americas is part of Knight Foundation’s efforts to invest in building Miami’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Over the past two years, Knight has invested more than $12 million in more than 90 investments in entrepreneurship in South Florida, including large investments in the new Miami Dade College Idea Center and Endeavor Miami. 

Follow @ndahlberg on Twitter.

Posted Dec. 16, 2014



Q&A with Maria Escorcia of Ashoka: Boosting entrepreneurship for social change


Photos by John Durr / Miami Herald Staff

By Nancy Dahlberg / ndahlberg@miamiherald.com

Changemakers can come from anywhere, including the corporate world. Just look at Maria Escorcia, director of the South Florida chapter of Ashoka, a nonprofit that supports a network of 3,000 social entrepreneurs around the world.

Escorcia spent six years managing a corporate social responsibility program for a large Colombian multinational corporation. During her first three years, she was based in Bogotá and was responsible for the company’s community relations and implementing social impact projects where the company operated. She designed and led a project that aimed to eradicate child labor in rural mining areas, for instance. As a result, she was invited to participate as one of the first private sector representatives in the government-led Colombian Forum of Child Labor Eradication.

During the company’s expansion in Latin America, she was offered the opportunity to create a corporate foundation in the newly acquired plant in Cabaret, Haiti. “I arrived to the island in January 2009 and stayed until late 2011, which gave me a glimpse of the country before, during and after the 2010 earthquake. The foundation I established in early 2009 played an active role in the relief and reconstruction efforts after the earthquake,” she said.

After that, Escorcia learned about Ashoka while working on her master’s degree in international development at the University of Pittsburgh. Ashoka’s founder and CEO, Bill Drayton, was receiving an award and gave a keynote speech.

“Up to that point, most of my professional experience had been managing corporate social responsibility programs for large private companies, and Ashoka’s model of supporting social entrepreneurs seemed like a great next step for advancing my efforts of creating social change,” Escorcia said. “I felt inspired when I learned about an organization whose mission is to build a world where we all have the freedom, confidence and support to solve problems and make a contribution to the common good.”

She joined the organization in 2013 working for the Miami office, and took over as director in June when the chapter’s founding leader, Lorena Garcia Duran,moved on to an Ashoka leadership position in Los Angeles. The South Florida office is relatively new, established in early 2012, but actively seeks to broaden its network of entrepreneurs and mentors, produces programs for youth and is works with local universities to establish “Changemaker Campuses,” among other projects.

Escorcia recently discussed Ashoka South Florida’s programs with the Miami Herald for this Q&A.

Q. You have an interesting background working for corporations and spending a large chunk of time in Haiti. What does that experience bring to the table in your role heading Ashoka South Florida?

A. I learned valuable lessons of what works best when managing organizations that create social change. I left the private sector reassured to see that a number of corporations understand their responsibility extends beyond their shareholders to the community at large. My corporate experience afforded me the opportunity to create change in the board room and on the ground working hand in hand with disadvantaged communities.

Q. How are Ashoka fellows chosen?

A. Ashoka fellows are leading social entrepreneurs who Ashoka recognizes have innovative approaches to social problems and the potential to change the pattern in their field. They possess the vision, creativity and extraordinary determination of the business entrepreneur but devote these qualities to introducing new solutions to social problems.

All Ashoka fellows must undergo a rigorous search and selection process that has been refined over 30 years. Each candidate is evaluated against five criteria, which aim to select only the most qualified candidates who exemplify innovation, creativity, an entrepreneurial quality, a drive for social impact and a high ethical fiber.

Continue reading "Q&A with Maria Escorcia of Ashoka: Boosting entrepreneurship for social change " »


Outside looking in: The 'deal hunters' are sniffing around South Florida tech

Wayra (28)

Mariano Amartino, who heads Wayra’s Latin American operations, and Martin Varsavsky of Fon have a fireside chat at the global accelerator's Demo Day in Miami. 


By Nancy Dahlberg / ndahlberg@miamiherald.com

With the wind blowing through palm trees at an outdoor evening event, Dave McClure, co-founder of 500 Startups, said the Silicon Valley fund group is bringing its PreMoney conference to Miami this spring and the organization is considering some kind of presence in South Florida, without giving too many specifics.

Wayra, the global accelerator and startup fund started by Telefonica, earlier this month held its International Demo Day in Miami for the second time, showcasing some of its top entrepreneurs. Mariano Amartino, who heads Wayra’s Latin American operations, said the organization is also seriously interested in Miami. Right now, he said, Miami is a gateway for Wayra startups to generate business but “what we are seeing is slowly but steadily Miami is becoming a true hub.”

Endeavor Global’s International Selection Panel brought about 200 entrepreneurs and investors from around the world to the Magic City. While these events were going on, Miami’s investors were making news of their own, announcing new funds, with significant investment from outside the area.

Indeed, there was a lot of outside looking in these past two weeks. Along with the 500 Startups, Wayra and Endeavor events, events (some strategically clustered around Art Basel) included Sime MIA, WeXchange, a Citi Fintech meetup, ITPalooza, a Microsoft Innovation Center open house, private events for family offices, cocktail parties, speaker series, a book signing and others, together bringing hundreds of high-profile investors and entrepreneurs to the area to check us out.

There wasn’t as much talk about what Miami’s tech ecosystem still needs, though there was some of that, said John Fleming of Biztegra, who was attending Sime MIA, a three-day conference of speakers, panels, demos and events. Fleming’s marker of progress: “The difference this year is that the deal hunters are sniffing around.”

Noting the amplified fund-raising activity of 2014, “I wouldn’t be surprised if we see several more funds opening here in the next year,” Benoit Wirz, director of venture investments for the Knight Foundation, said at the 500 Startups event.

In the past two weeks, Peter Kellner’s Richmond Global Ventures announced it is raising an $80 million to $125 million venture fund and that one of its three offices will be in Miami. Manny Medina said Medina Capital has closed its $182 million private equity fund for tech investments. This followed a string of new funds opening for seed stage investments. And Magic Leap's phenomenal $542 million raise has single-handedly put Miami on the Series A map, said Martin Varsavsky, CEO of Fon and part-time Miami Beach resident, who spoke at Sime MIA, Wayra’s Demo Day and the 500 Startups event.

Still, while South Florida was clearly enjoying the spotlight, it shouldn’t get too comfortable as the region is still coming from behind as a tech hub in the making, Varsavsky and several of the investors said. Some of them offered some advice:

To the entrepreneurs, Varsavsky said: “Don't compete with a company that is doing the same thing in Silicon Valley because it will kick your ass. Do things that are different. ... Silicon Valley has the microphone.”

For the venture community to progress, South Florida needs more education and standardization, said Juan Diego Calle, investor and co-founder of .CO Internet. In Silicon Valley, term sheets are standardized, everyone speaks the language of venture and processes are efficient, he said. We aren’t there yet.

Bradley Harrison of Scout Ventures, one of the funds that opened a Miami office, said the energy is palpable here but Miami needs to do a better job of marketing itself. He said he and others have been meeting with the Beacon Council and other civic organizations.

“We’ve been talking about how to market Miami differently around entrepreneurship. We need to put that all together so people will take us seriously,” he said during Sime MIA. “Miami needs to define what makes Miami unique and market it to the rest of the world.”

In that marketing, ditch the beach scenes, said Joe Morgan, a Miami investor and entrepreneur who is in the early stages of developing MaverixLab, a Miami-based business accelerator and education center for entrepreneurs and who spoke at ITPalooza, a gathering of 2,000 in South Florida’s tech community. “We don’t need to use that in our marketing. Silicon Valley is a nice place to live, too, but you don’t see them marketing that.”

Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg. See more coverage of Tech Week events on the Starting Gate blog on MiamiHerald.com/business

 Posted Dec. 14, 2014

Susan Amat: Ways to make your pitch count when courting investors

By Susan Amat

SusanamatThis year, I have been lucky enough to see startups pitching in five continents. Sometimes it happens in a room with hundreds of people; more often it is a couple of guys across a table. Some are full of confidence regardless of the quality of their business. No matter where I am, most startups prepare a pitch with the goal of getting that person to hear every word of the presentation. Many entrepreneurs fail to realize that no matter how awesome your product is and how incredibly rich and powerful you will be, potential investors and strategic partners must want to work with you before anything else will happen.

Think to your own interactions. If you like someone, you are more likely to want to learn more, spend more time with them and support their efforts. When the speaker doesn’t engage you, the fabulous features of their offering may be ignored because you have already tuned out, or the negative feelings you may have toward the presenter have transferred to the product.

In pitching to 1 to 1,000, the most common mistake many entrepreneurs make is in fielding questions and comments from judges or other designated “experts.” It is unfortunate when everyone is in awe of a great pitch and the speaker ruins all the excitement about his business by becoming defensive or rude in a response to a question. Triggers for undesirable reactions include but are not limited to: 1. “Dumb” questions; 2. Condescending questions; and 3. Rude or disrespectful comments.

It is extremely difficult to explain what your business is and what you have been doing in the many months/years you have devoted to it in five minutes. While you live and breathe your business, these people may not know the space, understand your unique twist or comprehend a key assumption that you take for granted. Often entrepreneurs fail to tailor their pitch to the audience to the extent they should, leading to major communication challenges that may result in unfortunate interactions after the pitch. You can come back from that easily, smiling while explaining how something works in an educational but respectful manner. That is a great opportunity for you to find ways to incorporate more language to tie together concepts that may not be obvious to your audience.

The darker situation occurs when challenging or seemingly obvious questions are specifically posed to elicit a reaction. It may come veiled in a smile, or from the person you had most wanted to impress. It may start with a harsh criticism, that she has seen that 100 times or a statement like “that won’t work.” Or perhaps a simple question to explain how you arrived at your assumptions with an arrogant tone.

The key to overcoming unexpected questions and comments is practicing responses as much as you practice your pitch. Always ensure your tone is professional and you will earn respect and possibly a new advocate.

Let’s explore a few scenarios to get the best results in your pitch:

* Pitching to 20-10,000 people requires showmanship. Letting your passion for the product flow and staying high energy is key. If you aren’t excited about what you are doing, no one else will be. Questions will likely come from a pre-set group, so research who they are beforehand so you can offer answers that may incorporate their interests, backgrounds or expertise.

* Three to 20 people can be made to feel like an intimate group simply by introducing yourself and shaking hands around the room if feasible. Find ways to use humor or engage members of the audience briefly. With 20 or fewer people you can make eye contact with each person in the room at least once.

<bullet>If you are speaking to one or two people, ask them about themselves. Be friendly! Your presentation should be more of a conversation that naturally flows from the introductions. While some of us hate “small talk,” it really makes a difference in creating the initial connection and sets a tone for a different level of rapport. Without it, investors often go straight to everything that is wrong and what won’t work. With it, I have witnessed many of those same investors give valuable guidance and supportive critiques. Even if they don’t like your idea, the real goal is for them to believe in you.

Susan Amat is the founder and CEO of Venture Hive, an entrepreneurship education company in Miami. Follow @SusanAmat on Twitter.

Posted Dec. 14, 2014


Entrepreneurship Datebook

AWESOME FOUNDATION DEADLINE: What do a water-testing submarine, a community garden in Little Haiti and a pilot program for assisting asylum seekers have in common? They are all grantees of the Awesome Foundation Miami. To enter your awesome idea for a monthly $1,000 grant, apply here by the 15th of every month: http://www.awesomefoundation.org/en/chapters/miami

VENTURE LAW PROJECT: Free workshop by a Yahoo! in-house attorney on “Internet Law & Social Media – Changing Rules, Legal Compliance & Savy Strategies Every Entrepreneur Needs to Know,” 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, The LAB Miami, 400 NW 26th St. More info: TheLABMiami.com

COFOUNDER’S LAB: This meetup brings together people who are looking for co-founders or team members and others who are looking to join a team, 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday, 525 NW First Ave, Fort Lauderdale. More info: www.meetup.com/microvc/

SMALL BUSINESS SEMINAR: Join the SBA, SCORE and Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce for this seminar that will offer a presentation on the different funding options available in the marketplace, 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, 100 Miracle Mile, Suite 200, Coral Gables. Fee applies. More info: coralgableschamber.org (click on Events).


On the Starting Gate blog on MiamiHerald.com/business, you will also find reports on the whirlwind of tech events the past two weeks, new funds from Richmond Global Ventures and Medina Capital, Endeavor’s choice of Kairos and NovoPayment as Endeavor Entrepreneurs, blackdove’s recent launch of its app featuring works by some of Wynwood’s finest artists and others as well as plans for a marketplace for digital motion art, and much more.

Nancy Dahlberg @ndahlberg

Posted Dec. 14, 2014