Does Miami have what it takes to make a thriving tech hub?

Nov 15, 2012

By: Vanessa Horwell, Chief Visibility Officer

Are you worried about the state of Miami’s tech scene? I am.

ThinkInk recently became the PR agency of record for KULA Causes, a Boulder, Colorado-based provider whose online giving platform enables partner companies to connect their loyalty program members with millions of causes worldwide – while allowing those members to turn their unused reward miles and points into cash donations to causes they care about.

And while Boulder might not be a city one thinks of as a thriving tech hub, the Denver/Boulder region is actually one of this country’s top 10 techie havens, according to the National Venture Capital Association. MapQuest and Photobucket were born there and hundreds of millions in venture capital are invested in and around the Mile-High City.

ThinkInk also provides PR support for tech companies including OtherLevels which is based in the world’s tech mecca of San Francisco and Synchology which hails from another top-10 tech city – Chicago. As well as GuestLogix and iSIGN located in Canada’s tech capital of Toronto, ranked by Startup Genome as #4 among the world’s tech cities.

So, looking at Miami, my home since 2003, the home of ThinkInk’s North American headquarters and the craziest metropolitan area in the country’s weirdest state, I see a town ­­famous for its political shenanigans, wildly diverse demographic mix and off-the-wall stories.

But tech business? Not so much.

I got rather annoyed when I read a recent Fast Company article about Miami tech start-ups that focus on another of the city’s most storied industries: the high-end nightclub scene.

We’ve got an online repository of nightlife jobs, an app that allows friends at different venues to buy each other drinks and a platform that club managers can use to track patrons by promoter, seating area, alcohol consumption and overall spending.

There’s also a site  that allows average partiers who want to feel super-important freeze the price of a VIP club table (at, say, $1,000 – a whole paycheck for many) on the off-chance that a Kardashian or a Miami Heat player will stroll in the door and bump up the table’s temporary value by thousands of dollars.

And even then that’s far beyond what your average Miamian can afford to drop on a night out. But what bothered me most is how the Fast Company article perpetuates Miami’s image as a shallow clubbing town.

Yes, the local club scene does pull in revenue for venues’ host municipalities, but how far can this go in a large county with the nation’s second-highest income inequality? And while Miami has produced some inspiring success stories in the tech realm – including online language school Open English, with offices in large South American economic centers such as São Paulo, Caracas and Bogotá; and CareCloud, an electronic medical record storage system whose CEO, Alberto Santalo, will be a speaker at FIU’s upcoming Americas Venture Capital Conference – there doesn’t seem to be the kind of critical mass in the city to build a true tech hub. Unfortunately, the nightclub scene’s fickle nature – hot today, passé tomorrow – and fairly narrow target audience are unlikely to bring a lot of large-scale, long-term investment to the area.

It’s so frustrating to know that Miami has not been able to capitalize on the many perks that make it a prime market for both existing and new consumer technology companies to grow. With a booming Hispanic population (America’s fastest-growing demographic population) and a reputation for serving as a link to the business hubs of Latin America, Miami should be booming with technology ideas and products that cater to the unique needs of a group that will represent approximately $1.5 trillion of purchasing power by 2015.

There is plenty of talent here in Miami as well: both major universities in the area (Florida International University and University of Miami) have burgeoning information technology, computer engineering and business programs, with graduates just waiting for the next hot opportunity to get their hands dirty in creating great technology products. Instead, these new technology and business professionals are faced with the idea that there is not enough of an opportunity for them in this city. They flock off to Silicon Valley and other American tech meccas, helping contribute to the brain drain that has impacted South Florida for years.

There are some hardy souls trying to get a robust scene goi­­ng here, including FIU and the organizers of tech event SuperConf. But they’ve got some serious obstacles to overcome if they want to help Miami become any sort of recognized tech center.

The most popular programs and apps appeal to as wide a cross-section of consumers as possible. While lavish partying may be a way of life for some Miamians, most simply can’t afford a place in that fantasy. The success of Open English shows that investing in companies that provide widely-inclusive services that are affordable and add genuine value to people’s lives can bring in remarkable returns.

Perhaps there’s still hope for this dysfunctional metropolis to grow a real tech scene.

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