We Need 52.177457 Miami Tech Weeks

An encouragement to the community to be more positive sum.

I want to preface this by saying I was born and raised in the city and I think it is one of the most criminally underdeveloped metro areas in the United States. I work at Citrix, one of the few multi billion dollar tech companies in South Florida. I have devoted my whole youth to this city from the high school focused Burn Your Brain events hosted at FIU, to hosting the first hackathon at FIU. I can say confidently that my fellow Alumni and I are the reason why companies recruit from the city. Currently, I give back by helping try and hiring local talent as much as possible in addition to my responsibilities as a Product Manager.

Its always been my opinion that Miami could serve as a innovation hub because the challenges it faced from it’s very founding make it relevant for the problems of today. I think Miami serves as a model of what a multicultural society can look like even as it deals constructively with it’s past.

Miami from its founding entertains periods of immigration to this very day. The city’s lifeblood owes it’s existence to the Black community, where Black railroad workers working for railroad magnate Henry Flagler settled en masse in Jim Crow segregated downtowns. Afterwards from WWII, the Jewish community found their home in the south in the 50s. Cubans escaping authoritarian Communism in the early 60s embarked on daring journeys from the island that persisted well into the late 2000s settled in South Florida. It’s served as a home for the LGBT+ community in the 80s. Colombians fleeing drug violence in the 90s moved into encampments under the metro-rail as they worked to get stable housing for their families. To this very day- the city hosts Haitians and Venezuelans under TPS and numerous DREAMers, Miami has always been a home for exiles.

Despite all that, the city has never been a home to stay in for the nation’s best and brightest. After 5 years of advocating on the city’s behalf for MangoHacks and in high school before that- the issue with Miami is that it’s lost out to other devoted “industry towns” and in that process, with an ecosystem short on liquidity, thinks in a zero-sum manner. Much of what Alex Danco mentions in “Why The Canadian Tech Scene Doesn’t Work” can also apply to Miami.

In the City Limits proper, there are not many competitive tech jobs. The local internships for example at Ultimate Software (UKG) pays $15 an hour. If Miami is to be an up and coming hub like Austin or Research Triangle Park in Raleigh, its going to need 3-4 other Spotify sized companies to support the entrepreneurs that are in between ideas.

Much is already said about the influx of capital into Miami. Five months after my update on the Florida Venture Ecosystem it’s undeniable that the money has moved in: the open question lies at the other side of the table. How do you attract builders? Which is why I am disappointed and surprised that notable locals seem to be in opposition to the formerly San Francisco based VC’s who are now hosting events in the area.

I deeply respect and look up to Auston, he alongside Wifredo “Wifi” Fernandez (Founder of The Lab Miami, now policy at Twitter), and Brian Breslin (Founder Refresh Miami) helped build the early ecosystem of the city. Superconf 2013 was my first exposure to a “real” tech conference. Although I couldn’t go (still in high school)- I looked from afar as I witnessed Real Tech Companies come and pitch in my backyard. Before the pandemic, Superconf 2020 was looking to be a slam dunk bringing notable VCs, developers, and founders all in one roof.

So as I read Auston’s post, I found myself disagreeing with a few points he brought up. (Despite what might be considered regrettable behavior on the part of the counter-party)

With that said, I hope readers understand my dissent comes from a place of love out of a desire to see the city do well.

Some Catching Up To Do

There is a long winding thread on people in tech moving to Miami: I cover that in this article. There are a few events that I must tell you, reader, to catch you up.

For those not terminally online- there are a few locals who either have called Miami home or who hail from the city are tweeting up a storm about the inclusiveness on the meetings around the VCs either moving or visiting Miami. Many of them are founders of companies who have found a reasonable amount of success but pale in comparison to the Silicon Valley transplants that are arriving. Throughout the last 6 months, VCs have been able to take meetings, conduct business, right from the sunny shores of Miami. One of those firms happening to take meetings and opening offices in Miami is Founders Fund.

One of the principals of Founders Fund, Delian Aspurahov, suddenly announced “Miami Tech Week” which was a long dormant event hosted by Auston. Delian being unaware of this fact- opened a floodgate of very informal events from a variety of clubs and organizations.

Almost immediately on the Twitterverse: some lamented that the “visitors” were not including the locals. Some of the takes come from a dear acquaintance of mine: kick-ass Belen Jesuit drop-out Michael Sayman.

Its hard to summarize the collective opposition that local tech community leaders have but it can be best interpreted that the newcomer VCs and builders aren’t inviting the existing locals to events hosted by said newcomers.

I think this form of gatekeeping about who is benefitting from what is missing the point. Being a founder in Miami trying to raise a venture scale business until 2021 was a tiresome and terrible proposition. The city was and still is rife with “angels” and some of whom are very backwards and untrustworthy.

Even today it still somewhat remains questionable even if you should start a company headquartered in Miami unless you have unrivaled access to your customer or market. (Which is easier to do in an Internet first world.) It stands to say that in the meantime, most of your hires will be distributed.

So it strikes me as odd when some folks being public about protectionist inclinations insisting that “locals” must be included in every event that occurs. It’s pumping the brakes when there is barely any momentum yet.

The uncomfortable truths are: Miami lacks well paying tech jobs. Many of the existing founders in the area aren’t working on anything noteworthy. Miami is going to have to spend time importing talent to accelerate the flywheels that are in places as well as building newer ones.

As with any new populace moving into an area, what we are seeing play out is a clash of cultures. Nothing hits like sandpaper like Silicon Valley’s do first, get forgiveness later versus the old money mentality that Miami implicitly upholds. The beauty of Silicon Valley of old was that you can be anyone or anything and the likelihood of you getting a meeting with someone was always non-zero, small, but never zero.

Although the #MiamiTech community is welcoming and open, I always found that there was too much focus on dinners and namedropping rather than slinging bits and cashing checks. This observation is not only my own as well.

Meaning: with a different social signaling mechanism that traditional VCs use to determine if they should meet with someone- the value system doesn’t align. VCs are there to generate returns and meet interesting founders. The “What” they working on matters more than “Who” they are. For people not used to these environments, there are a list of unspoken rules that govern that environment and can come off as jarring if you are not used to a two-bit “angel” open with their time. Who tends to offer a ridiculous term sheet like: $20,000 for 20% of your company. The exclusivity you later realize is in fact a feature: not a bug.

But culture and conditions are never static, these are all things that can be improved.

Towards a Quantum Beach

Noah Smith describes a healthy tech ecosystem as one that has the following.

  1. A lot of engineers

  2. Some big tech companies

  3. Venture capital

  4. Startups

He provides an excellent diagram to illustrate the relationships between those pillars.

I would like to add one additional condition that has a lot of tail risk.

Optionality of community.

A healthy ecosystem can sustain multiple cooperative players who do engage in competition from time to time. You find this component in other tech hubs like Singapore, Shenzhen, and the Bay Area. It was that in this piece of Auston’s passage that there was a misunderstanding of this tenant that Miami natives are missing.

I think if this sort of thing continues, Miami Tech will not be the united community it is today, but a fragmented set of tribes working against each other for power, locking people out of real opportunity, and being douches to each other. 

I interpret “Miami Tech will not be the united community it is today” as a protest that the existing stewards of the community will not be the only shop in town.

Which is good!

There shouldn’t be one set of rings, or any, to kiss before one does business in the city. Thats what made the Bay Area great, you can find your set of weird people and be happy. The bellwether of it’s decline started where high prices forcefully homogenized the community and displaced it’s artists. Auston and many community leaders like him are also founders, and I am sure that they would much rather be building their companies than have to worry about being the nexus point for everyone new in the city.

End of the day: people don’t care who hosts events as long as the people running them are generally decent people. Currently, the demand is higher than the supply. If that means that events get announced with a few name collisions then it’s a win for the common builder. The proclamation at the end of the blog post that there is one less event is a little disappointing to read considering Miami needs more of them.

We went from 3 tech weeks to 2 tech weeks and that's progress.

Progress isn’t less events.

New Event Maximalism

I understand and empathize with what Auston is facing. There are a lot of complicated emotions that even I faced when visiting my hometown. People finally seeing what you’ve always seen. It hurts even more so when you put your heart and soul into hosting those events and when people don’t acknowledge them.

However, I remain firm in my disagreement with “Miami OGs” thinking the answer is to funnel everyone into the same community.

I have personally dealt with the consequences of politics during undergrad where I, who didn't care about political battles, was seen as an opponent by people who are political. A club focused on being the only game in town who became so and now there is less variety because of it. The result of that debacle was one less (rather large) hackathon due to the fact that there was “too many” events (read: no longer in the good graces of the university). Never mind the fact that it was the first one hosted on campus.

If Miami is going to be a home for builders it needs to have more gathering spaces of any interest no matter how niche to serve as a home. Wen-Wen correctly identifies this risk in her thread. Selection from the thread below.

It’s a good sign that there are many people who are willing to make things happen without seeking permission to do so. It means they care: although one shouldn’t be a dick about it, the good news is, with a large enough community ecosystem: you can pick and choose who you vibe with.

For too long, people would arrive in Miami for a conference, party hard, and then leave. If the Miami tech scene is to be more than footprints on a beach to be washed away, encourage more tech weeks, not less. Focus on what Miami could be.

It’s a rough world out there, let’s remind ourselves to be kind and charitable to one another.