Over the past few years, there has been a great deal of conversation in the business community worldwide about “startups.” That conversation and the culture it references has even bled over into popular media with the release of films like “The Internship” (about Google’s [in]famous employee development) and shows like “Shark Tank.”
Unlike many things that capture the fascination of the greater cultural lens, however, startups aren’t untenable fantasy. They aren’t untouchable the way that pop-star fame or movie-star riches are. Startups are founded by our friends, and lead to the success of our neighbors (case in point: Dustin Moskovitz from Gainesville. He co-founded this little website called Facebook).
What do we mean when we say “startup?”
So what is a startup, exactly? Couldn’t it be just any small business? Well, maybe, but what we most often mean when discussing them is a little bit more constrictive. Specifically, startups are small businesses started with a focus on scaling rapidly to mid- and large-sized businesses. This is most commonly technology companies because tech is an industry that often requires less working and initial capital than areas like food distribution. Many tech companies are started with only a designer and a developer building out a web product (SaaS) or an app. Another defining element of startups is disruption. We look for companies that are creatively addressing an industry-wide pain point, or creating an entirely new industry. A local example of this would be Vinny (myVinny.com), who is attempting to bring parity to used car purchasers by delivering access to the same pricing information that the salesman has.
So why do startups matter to Jacksonville?
In many senses, startups are the next great cultural evolution for Western societies. They represent a new way of thinking about business and corporate culture at every step. They are started in unique ways: in dorm rooms by kids, or by guys who quit their big corporate jobs and bootstrap a solution to a problem that big companies are unwilling to address). They are grown in unique ways: often startups are run initially without revenue by investment capital willing to take an early risk because of great potential payoff long term. They are operated in unique ways: employee performance is evaluated on merit of work product, rather than adherence to rigid structure or schedule and the environment tends to allow for creativity and autonomy.
We should support projects like the Jax Connector that allow us to overcome the unique geographic challenges of the city’s consolidation. We should be showing up to public zoning hearings and voicing our opinions on urban development. And most of all, we should be starting businesses that are disruptive, unique, and emphatic about making the world better.
The result of this uniqueness is unprecedented. These are companies being started and operated by young people and they are creating wealth and culture all over the world. They have redefined how we think of the work week (timely project completion matters more than hours clocked), they have redefined how we think of employees (an essential asset whose stoke needs to be kept alive, rather than a liability to be micromanaged), and they have redefined how we see potential in ourselves (anyone can create a startup, and the community will rally to support good ideas early on).
What if I don’t work in tech, or startups or just don’t have any ideas?
Startups still matter. Bringing them to Jacksonville and paying attention to the ones that are already here is vitally important to the progression of this city for a number of reasons. For one thing, big, old-fashioned corporations have started paying attention. They see that people who work in tech startups are happy. Not because they make more money (they usually don’t), but because they love their work, and their bosses don’t mind if they take a break from a crush session of coding to play some table tennis. More and more companies are emphasizing “culture” as a way to invest in workers, and are realizing that micromanagement rarely equates to better, longer-lasting employees.
Okay, so what’s going on in Jacksonville then?
Initially, startups were the purview of a few communities in the U.S. San Francisco, Seattle, New York and Boston are all traditional centers of tech innovation. Over the past decade though, we’ve seen a decentralization and the meteoric rise of areas like Austin, Texas and Boulder, Colo., as the scene has grown. Jacksonville is no Austin, yet, but it does have a really incredible group of motivated individuals working to develop and grow the startup culture here. I have had the pleasure of working with many of them over the past few months, and coming most recently from the Boulder scene, I am excited by what I see.
One of the biggest challenges to developing a startup “scene” is creating a funding and development ecosystem. All of the cities I mentioned have extensive support networks for growing ideas into businesses. Jacksonville is on the road to the same thing. In the past six months two new acceleration/incubation programs have been announced downtown: The Factory (relocating from St. Augustine) and KYN (a direct outgrowth of OneSpark). In addition, Addecco’s Ignite incubator is located on Bay Street, and Healthbox is on Forsyth Street. That’s quite a bit of support in one small area for people with interesting, disruptive startup ideas. Further, you have companies like the one I work for (PCR Agency) that are applying the lessons we’ve learned from technology companies to build better businesses. We take an agile approach to development and partner with several other startups (trello, HubSpot) to deliver industry-disrupting results to our clients. PCR is not a startup in the traditional sense, but we’re an agency that runs like one, and we benefit greatly from the environment curated by the scene developing in the urban core.
So there are a lot of things Jacksonville is doing well, but the road is long. We should expect the city to continue supporting events like OneSpark and the migration of businesses into the urban core: density is destiny. We should support projects like the Jax Connector that allow us to overcome the unique geographic challenges of the city’s consolidation. We should be showing up to public zoning hearings and voicing our opinions on urban development. And most of all, we should be starting businesses that are disruptive, unique, and emphatic about making the world better.
SaaS – “Software as a Service;” essentially cloud-based apps
Disruption – Taking an established industry and shaking it up by creating a unique solution to an old problem
Vinny – An incredible car-purchasing app that allows potential used car buyers to see what dealers actually paid for a vehicle
Bootstrap – To run and build a company on extremely limited resources, making the best use of what’s available
Accelerators/incubators – Venture capital vehicles that focus on hedging risk by mentoring and walking alongside the startups they invest in.
Agility – A method of product development in which we roll out an early stage of a product to a limited number of users for testing, and then we reiterate based on feedback and discovery of improvement opportunity
JaxConnector – Seriously awesome. JaxConnector.com