Fostering an Entrepreneurial Culture

Las Vegas, Nevada may conjure up images of Elvis, show girls or the Rat Pack.

These days, though, there’s much more to southern Nevada than gambling, glitz and shows. Like many other cities around the country, Las Vegas has been working on diversifying its economy and nurturing a high-technology ecosystem.

Instrumental in the emerging high-tech focus has been Downtown Project, the brainchild of Internet entrepreneur and Zappo’s founder Tony Hsieh. Downtown Project is a $350-million investment to revitalize downtown Las Vegas through real estate investments, investments in small businesses and investments in high-tech startups.

Downtown Project is the umbrella organization that functions similarly to a holding company, and has underneath its auspices a number of different business interests including real estate developments and investment funds for small businesses as well as high-technology startup companies.

Under the Downtown Project umbrella is VegasTech Fund, a seed stage investment fund.

George Moncrief, 40, and co-founder of Raster Media is the entrepreneur in residence at VegasTech Fund. His job is to help high-tech startups meet their potential through mentoring and in turn help build a vibrant tech community in downtown Las Vegas.

VegasTech Fund has appropriated $50 million to invest in startups and Moncrief said they have deployed a little over $30 million of that over the last four years in about 160 companies.

One such company is Rolltech, named after the bowling app that is available for iOS and Android users. The app allows bowlers to automatically track their scores and stats both over a period of time as well as in real time. Rolltech users can also see how they rank against other Rolltech users throughout the United States and even the world.

Rolltech founder and chief executive officer Rich Belsky said that the app is used in more than 40 countries and in more than 3,000 bowling centers.

Belsky moved to Las Vegas from Pennsylvania after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with his law degree in 2005. When first arriving in Vegas, Belsky wrote for a Poker magazine and produced video for the company. After leaving his writing gig, Belsky started managing professional poker players. But in the wake of an indictment following United States v. Scheinberg — often referred to as Black Friday in the poker world — the poker business crumbled and Belsky started consulting and advising small businesses.

After a few years hiatus from the sport, he started bowling in a local league with some friends and watched his game improve. It was then that he got the idea for Rolltech. He initially raised funding for the project from his friends and family and hired an out-of-town developer “to get things kicked off.”

It was about that same time that Belsky also started attending weekly “Jellies,” or meetings for those who were interested in technology startups. Held in an attic above a coffee shop, the Jellies were organic, not sponsored by any large company, just a by-product of interested locals. The Jellies gave people the opportunity to learn, but also gave them the chance to pitch ideas to others who were interested in the high-tech scene.

As Moncrief said, the Jellies drew large crowds. “The meetings just blew up.”

Belsky agrees.

“The idea was to create collisions,” he said, referring to the well-known catch-phrase that entrepreneurship is a contact sport and collisions are required for success. “That’s when the magic happens.”

Though he already had a developer for his app, Belsky met his first in-town developer at one of the Thursday night Jellies.

“And that’s when it all really took off in earnest,” he said, adding that working side-by-side with a developer as opposed to long distance made all the difference for him. “There’s so much energy when people are in a room working together.”

Shortly thereafter, Belsky said, he realized to get the app operational they needed more capital and met with VegasTech Fund and Moncrief. The rest is history.

Moncrief said VegasTech Fund is interested in early stage startup companies that, like Rolltech, have a product that is ready to go to market. But it’s more than just the product that VegasTech Fund is interested in; it’s the people behind the product. It’s about living, working and playing in Las Vegas and, more importantly, about being involved and giving back to the community.

Moncrief said location initially wasn’t a priority for VegasTech Fund but now it wants to focus more startups located in the Las Vegas area, which means those outside of Nevada would have to move in.

“We don’t try to hard sell it,” Moncrief said of the Las Vegas location. “We want them to come out and we want it to be good for them and good for us.”

Rolltech’s Belsky says among those in the high-tech hub in Las Vegas there is “an ethos of offering to the community what you have received from it. And that generates a community with a lot of heart and a nurturing ecosystem of support.”

While the Las Vegas entrepreneurial movement benefitted from a $350-million endowment not all cities and counties have those kinds of benefactors. However, it doesn’t mean that the entrepreneurial spirit doesn’t’ soar.

The Kauffman Foundation hosted The Mayor’s Conference on Entrepreneurship in 2013 and in 2014. The idea behind the conference is to provide mayors with ideas that can easily be implemented, said Jason Wiens, policy director for the Kauffman Foundation.

Twice as many mayors attended the 2014 conference in Louisville than did the inaugural conference in Kansas City. The location for the 2015 conference has not been announced.

One idea introduced by Kauffman Foundation at the conferences has been 1 Million Cups. The idea is to “caffeinate the community” and to connect entrepreneurs to mentors, advisors and entrepreneurs in the community who can provide feedback. The meetings take place every Wednesday from 9 to 10 a.m. in co-working spaces or coffee shops. There are 1 Million Cups programs in 50 cities.

Tallahassee, Florida is one of the 50 cities with a 1 Million Cups program.

Tallahassee is known for a variety of things. Magnificent oaks dripping with Spanish moss, picturesque canopy covered roads, and, for sports enthusiasts, Florida State University offers fans access to top-ranked football and baseball teams, as well as winning girls’ basketball and soccer teams.

Florida is the third largest state in the country and Tallahassee is the capital where lobbyists and legislators flood the town during a 60-day annual legislative session.

In addition to FSU, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University and Tallahassee Community College provide the area with intellectual capital.

Despite the assets the area has suffered from brain drain with graduates leaving the midsized town to head to other southern cities that offer more professional opportunity.

But there has been an effort underway to stop the emigration and to keep the talent here by cultivating a supportive community for entrepreneurs. Helping lead the way is Domi Ventures. Latin for home, Domi is an incubator for early stage startups that, come this summer, will celebrate its first anniversary.

Lucas Lindsey, community manager for Domi, said the incubator is working with 30 startups in the Tallahassee community and that the pace is picking up quickly.

It is located between FSU and FAMU in the “Railroad Square” section of downtown and just off Gaines Street. The area has become a destination district; it’s the hub of the arts culture.

Domi’s headquarters is a county-owned warehouse. The county also offered $250,000 to renovate the building so it could serve as an incubator. Tallahassee City Mayor Andrew Gillum has provided soft support to Domi, including making appearances at some 1 Million Cup events. Moreover, FSU has committed $100,000 to Domi.

But government support for the most part, stops there. The entrepreneur movement in Tallahassee — like elsewhere — is supported and nurtured by local entrepreneurs, themselves.

Lindsey, who came to Tallahassee for graduate school and is an urban planner by trade, said the city has been quick to make progress though it had initially been slow to encourage entrepreneurs.

“It’s become a lot more interesting place to live in, especially the downtown areas.”

Lindsey points to Cascade Park, a $30-million investment in downtown featuring a 3,000-seat outdoor amphitheater, 2.4 miles of multi-use trails, historical monuments, and a “children’s discovery” area. Lindsey said Cascade Park helps draw the crowds to downtown and makes Tallahassee the “kind of place where people want to stay and that’s a really huge part of encouraging catalytic ecosystems for young entrepreneurs.”

“Three years ago we were barely on anyone’s radar. I don’t think anyone thought we would have a space like Domi any time soon. It seems like in the past few years we’ve really accelerated. Now we are even ahead of other small communities our size. There’s been rapid growth, and it’s been awesome to see the response from the community.”

Even Hawaii is focusing its efforts on creating high-tech startups.

The High Tech Development Corporation was developed in 1983 to create technology jobs but its focus has changed over the last 30-plus years from encouraging companies that built computers and software to investing efforts on high-technology startups, said High Technology Development Corporation Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer Robbie Melton.

“Our mission hasn’t changed,” she said. “It’s the companies we work with.”

HTDC is an incubator in Oahu but it is expanding its reach and is working with initiatives on other islands, including Hawaii TechWorks in Hilo, on the island of Hawaii.

Hawaii TechWorks was founded by Tony Marzi, who, after relocating to the East Coast, moved back to Hilo. His goal was to bring design professionals together to more rural areas of the state to create and collaborate. Hawaii TechWorks offers co-working spaces and educational programs and sponsors #TechTuesdays where design and technical professionals can demonstrate new ideas and share concepts.

Additionally, HTDC has set a goal of 80,000 new technology jobs with salaries exceeding $80,000 by 2030.

“There is a lot going on in Hawaii. Even though we might be isolated, we are very connected to both Asia and to the continent.”

Christine Jordan Sexton is a Tallahassee-based freelance reporter who has done correspondent work for the Associated Press, the New York Times, Florida Medical Business and a variety of trade magazines, including Florida Lawyer and National Underwriter.

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