Start your own business. Be your own boss. Make your own hours. If only it were so easy.
Since real estate visionary George Merrick founded Coral Gables and donated land to create the University of Miami (UM), the City Beautiful has been a haven for entrepreneurs looking to succeed on their own terms. But building ventures nowadays is challenging. It’s competitive, expensive, and tech-heavy.
Just ask Sam Palmer-Shields. She runs day-to-day operations at The Launch Pad, the entrepreneurship program for students, faculty, staff, and alumni at the University of Miami. The center assists more than 200 ventures yearly.
“The biggest challenge for students is to understand the full scope of their enterprise and what the customer might experience.We recommend that entrepreneurs act as if they were the customer – searching online, looking for frequently asked questions,” says Palmer- Shields.“And we work with students to validate that their business is really a solution to the problem they’re trying to fix.”
Or ask Bill Lopez. He’s developing an online platform for apartment rentals that lets potential renters adjust their move-in date and other lease terms to better their odds for a rental contract. His startup, Livo, operates from Miracle Mile, sharing an office with partners also involved in real estate.
“The days of running a business on gut feeling are gone,” says Lopez. “If you’re not data-driven and repeatable, you’re not going to make it in today’s business environment. You need to make your decisions based on what the data is telling you to do, not wasting time or money on guesswork.”
Entrepreneurship in Coral Gables takes many forms, from the solo accountant at a co-working space, to partners starting a wealth management firm, to shipping executives automating payments and going global with $100 million-plus in investments. City officials want to assist them all.
According to Belkys Perez, acting director of the city’s economic development office, roughly 90 percent of businesses in the city are small, employing one to nine people. Many are operated by their founders. The single largest economic activity citywide is professional services, a broad swatch that spans law, medicine, architecture, finance, and more.That’s where entrepreneurs like Fernando Garcia come in.
A longtime Gables resident, Garcia left a larger law firm in the Gables with two colleagues to start their own boutique firm in the city in 2017. The attorney saw an opportunity collaborating with an insurance broker nearby who often worked with Hispanic supermarkets needing a lawyer for issues with their locales. He now also collaborates with an accountant in the area, mutually referring clients for their respective services.
“Those relationships I have with professionals in the city helped me to develop my practice,” says Garcia, whose firm, Pena Garcia & Diz, now includes nine lawyers.
Garcia says being a founder gives him more freedom to take on the projects he likes, including the “Little Colombia” office hub he aims to create. “And now, I have greater flexibility in setting rates to be more attractive for middle-market companies, which are the majority of businesses in Coral Gables and Florida.”
Innovation District Planned, More Support Needed
To boost entrepreneurship, especially in the booming tech sector, Coral Gables is developing an innovation district. It’s to be located in the former industrial area around the Shops at Merrick Park. The city is putting in fiber-optics for high-quality telecom connectivity, adding free Wi-Fi, and investing in other infrastructure, aiming to lure tech startups, incubators, and accelerators, says Perez.
City officials are also reviewing a just-completed economic study prepared with urban planner Dr. Ned Murrray at Florida International University to see how Coral Gables stacks up against rivals and where the city is most likely to succeed in luring and growing future business, she says.
“We want to define what our target industries should be and what’s complementary to what’s here now,” says Perez. “Tech hasn’t been tapped into as much as we would like.”
Tech ventures nowadays often skip the Gables for Miami’s downtown or Wynwood, partly because their employees can find housing more easily in those denser, urban areas full of apartment towers. But the Gables also lags because “lots of people new to Miami just don’t know the area,” says entrepreneur Michael Zwerner. “They think the Gables is the deep suburbs as far away as Kendall, and they’re surprised when I say it’s just four miles from downtown.”
Zwerner is a South Floridian who worked for years in finance in New York and is now developing a tech startup from his Gables apartment. He leads Seekr, a platform that helps restaurants, stores, and other businesses find employees through a format like a dating app, complete with visuals. More than 100 companies, including Papa Johns and Lux Parking, are now testing out Seekr in parts of Miami-Dade County, say Zwerner and his co-founder Darren Himebrook, both professionals in their 40s.
To boost tech in the Gables, Zwerner suggests greater outreach to the tech community – including meetups at restaurants and UM facilities, plus conferences featuring the city’s tech heavyweights such as Manny Medina, who started Terremark, Appgate, and Cyxtera, each valued at more than $1 billion.
“Miami Mayor Francis Suarez has a whole Venture team that does a lot of events and outreach for tech,” says Zwerner. “Coral Gables could consider something like that.”
For fellow entrepreneurs facing challenges from funding to time management, he offers this advice: Find a great co-founder. “Someone you can rely on, who is in the trenches with you, is essential.” Also, stretch your cash and consider all appointments sacred. “I calendar everything,” he says.
University of Miami as a Hub for Entrepreneurship
By sheer numbers, the largest source of entrepreneurs in the Gables is likely the UM community. Indeed, UM’s student-focused Launch Pad is so popular that the program is doubling space on campus in 2023, “so we can hold multiple meetings at the same time,” says assistant director Palmer-Shields. She’s also expanding Launch Pad’s links with Miami’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, including mentors, partners, and more. “It’s all about networking to diversify our engagement and contact points,” she says.
Beyond students, UM is also encouraging faculty and researchers to turn science into businesses, especially in medicine. Perhaps most successful is the Wallace H. Coulter Center of Translational Research. It works with researchers as a team to create biomedical products they can either license to an established company or produce through a new professionally-managed startup.
Norma Sue Kenyon, UM’s vice provost of innovation and a professor of surgery, says the Coulter Center has completed 58 projects to date and has five ongoing. At least two of the companies formed have gone public on Wall Street. The ventures have raised more than $600 million in funding to date, mainly from private investors.
“We’re educating the faculty to think in a different way,” Kenyon says, not just about science but also business. Researchers historically have focused on publishing in journals and seeking grants to study deeper. “Not all think, ‘This research can actually be applied to make a product to improve human health,’” she says.
Of course, researcher-entrepreneurs face steep challenges switching from labs. The Coulter Center helps assemble support teams that feature specialists in areas such as marketing and navigating regulatory requirements. And Miami’s tech and finance boom is bringing more local financing too, says Kenyon. “A lot of people have moved to the area who are interested in funding biomedical,” she says. “We have more angel investors now, and I just met with a local venture capital group.”
Still, every new year presents new challenges. Property-tech entrepreneur Lopez sees potential for a recession in 2023 that could slow funding. Having started his venture right before the COVID-19 pandemic, he realizes that’s par for the entrepreneurial course. No one said it would be easy.
On the Entrepreneurial Runway
When Joshua Rome was deciding where to locate his new tech venture, the longtime New Yorker got a welcome boost from Miami. A friend had just moved to the Magic City to work for investment fund Pareto Holdings, and Pareto soon opted to invest in Rome’s startup.
The Millennial entrepreneur now operates his company, Runway Health, from the Lifetime Coral Gables co-working space. Rome says he chose Lifetime, one of numerous shared-work spaces in the Gables, for two key reasons.
First, co-working at Lifetime Gables includes access to Lifetime’s sprawling gym facilities in the same complex. “Having a gym where I work, I have fewer excuses not to find time to exercise,” says Rome, noting many company founders struggle to prioritize hours for physical wellness.
Second, the Gables space offers both dedicated desks and ad-hoc private offices that members can use.“As we’re trying to build our business, with so many video calls, it gives more credibility if you’re in a private office instead of what looks like a small phone booth,” says Rome.
Runway Health launched in May, aiming to provide travelers a faster and less expensive way to obtain prescription medicines before their journey. Users chat online with a doctor for $30 per trip; the doctor then prescribes select meds to be delivered to their home before they leave. Medicines generally run $20 to $125, depending on the products, cheaper than what many U.S. residents pay for prescription meds they get through visits to brick-and-mortar “travel clinics,” Rome says.
Runway is building clientele largely by partnering with travel agents, travel agencies, and tour operators. Partners earn a commission on referrals and can tap into Runway’s travel-by-country health guides. Rome is leveraging contacts from years working in the travel industry and so far, has signed up more than 70 partners around the globe.
Being in Miami-Dade County has proved beneficial, says Rome: “Having in-person access to brainstorming sessions with Pareto and other investors in Miami is helping move the company forward.”