Fusion Pointe mentors Fort Myers startups
News Press, CASEY LOGAN, 6:53 p.m. EST February 6, 2016
A new nonprofit is spurring startups in Southwest Florida.
Local entrepreneurs and others connected in the region’s business scene have likely heard of FusionPointe. For those unfamiliar, it’s an effort to help promising early-stage companies grow faster — or fail faster, if necessary — by providing technical assistance and a network of mentors with a variety of expertise.
Steve Walling, who owns a Naples-based business consulting firm, is founding chairman of the venture that launched in 2014. It has taken time to lay the groundwork, but the organization appears to be coming into its own.
An event Tuesday night at a bank in Bonita Springs showcased a class of seven startups and 10 entrepreneurs, along with five other ventures in the pipeline.
“As you can see, we’ve got a lot going,” Walling told the crowd. “I’m really excited about where we’re headed.”
Walling is no stranger to the startup world. He was a founding board member of Cleveland-based JumpStart Inc., a similar organization founded in 2003 that has found huge success in transforming the economy in northeast Ohio.
FusionPointe has three goals: to identify and support promising companies, produce more investor-ready companies and speed outcomes by partnering with mentors in the region to provide expertise and connections. Its initial focus is on tech startups. The companies in the present class: Fly N Style, Endlink, Cydec, Testimonial Tree, Stay Secure, Doc Charge and Bun.
“It’s candidly amazing we’ve been able to put together such startups in such a short period of time,” said Rob Strandberg, executive director.
FusionPointe looks at startups on a continuum, from imagining to incubation to demonstrating to market entry.
“Mentoring makes a big difference,” said Strandberg, adding the hard fact that the vast majority of startups fail. “It’s without question a very valuable program to these entrepreneurs.”
One of the keys to giving startups the best chance for success comes in making the right matches. The good news is that the region has an amazing array of retired CEOs and other executives to draw from, as well as many subject-matter experts.
“It’s an extraordinary asset,” said Strandberg, calling it a distinguishing factor in Naples and by extension Southwest Florida.
Ultimately, FusionPointe is looking for startups that have high promise, but need a lot of help.
“We’re creating success,” he said.
The night’s keynote speaker was Ray Leach, founding CEO of JumpStart, who said there isn’t enough economic growth coming out of small companies, necessitating organizations such as JumpStart and FusionPointe.
“The broader economy is not diverse enough in Southwest Florida,” he said. “It’s about diversification.”
This region’s economy is dominated by the leisure and hospitality industry, as well as construction. Leach said the work that’s being done to spur more growth is not especially complicated; it’s about maximizing potential and transforming lives.
“It’s not rocket science,” he said. “It’s very straight forward.”
Leach, who has a winter home in Fort Myers, spoke of leveraging the region’s greatest, most unique assets.
“Southwest Florida’s greatest assets are the smart people who live here,” he said, as well as the personal and professional networks the people here have. “That’s an incredibly compelling asset.”
Cleveland, historically a manufacturing city, and northeast Ohio have come a long way over the past 10-plus years. In 2002, for example, Entrepreneur Magazine ranked Cleveland the worst entrepreneurial region among metro areas in the nation. Many Fortune 500 companies had left over the years.
“The region was dying,” Leach said.
Fast-forward to today. Ventures such as JumpStart, in partnership with the state, have worked as change agents. JumpStart now invests $40 million a year and the companies it has helped, according to Leach, produce a $1.4 billion economic impact in Ohio. As a local reference point, the Tamiami Angel Fund has invested over $7 million in startups since 2011, according to Chairman Tim Cartwright.
“It’s infinite the amount of opportunity there is and the payback is very real,” Leach said. “The economic outcome of the work in incredibly powerful.”
FusionPointe, he said, also can help communities realize their entrepreneurial potential by being a connector. Leach noted Southwest Florida’s growing population, large concentration of successful entrepreneurs, the number of quality companies needing assistance and its significant amount of investment capital.
“It’s about leaders in the community who want to unlock the growth,” he said. “If a place like Cleveland can do this, with all of its legacy issues, think what Southwest Florida can do.”
Rob White, co-founder of a communication platform called Endlink, talked about the desire to gain traction and avoid making mistakes.
“I think it’s just amazing,” he said of his experience with FusionPointe. “It far exceeded any expectation I could imagine.”
Mentor advice led him and his business partner to redo the company messaging, which he said had been too generic.
“They’re not just telling you what you want to hear,” White said.
Dennis Hampton, founder of vehicle monitoring company DeviceOnGuard.com, said he needed help with structure and marketing. He got that and more, saying mentors provided encouragement as well.
“We’re looking to start, stay and grow in Southwest Florida,” he said.
Roger Sippey, a mentor and former CEO of Ferralloy Inc., discussed the mentoring process.
“The most important thing is to listen a lot and take a lot of notes, then come back with questions,” he said, adding that it’s important to have a timeline and to have a system of accountability and responsibility.
“The talent through networking is absolutely imperative and incredible,” he said. “I’ve found it to be very valuable, and I’ve had a lot of fun with it.”
Sippey, too, referenced the plethora of retired CEOs and other retired executives in the region who are in their 60s and 70s: “They want to do something other than just play golf.”