• Sorena Vargas

Getting up to Speed

If you’ve been thinking about breaking away from the corporate world and starting your own small business, now may be a great time.

Business accelerators are popping up across Southwest Florida. And they can help you with all aspects of starting a business, from renting office space to learning necessary skills to attracting financing. 

In case you’re not familiar, an accelerator is a sort of school for startups. They gained traction with the rise of tech companies, many in Silicon Valley. They work best for companies that can take advantage of a quick timeline from startup to getting a product or service to market. A company that joins an accelerator hopes to—as the name suggests—speed up the process of going from the idea stage to an entity that’s up and running.

An incubator, which is slightly different, is usually sponsored by a university or a municipality and supports a young company through very early stages of development. (For example, Florida Gulf Coast University’s Runway Program is available to help student entrepreneurs and the City of Fort Myers sponsors the SWFL Enterprise Center.)

Eric Berglund, president and CEO of the Southwest Florida Economic Development Alliance, feels that the influx of accelerators is a natural fit for this area. “We’ve been doing innovation in Southwest Florida since 1885 when Ford, Firestone and Edison showed up. People want to live where they can have a great lifestyle, and today a lot of companies are not location-dependent. I think we’re going to see a bustling ecosystem of companies.” 

“The goal is lots of tech jobs in the area,” says Dieter Kondek, founder and CEO of The RocketLounge in Fort Myers, which he describes as “a co-working space, an incubator and an accelerator.” Kondek, who has worked in Silicon Valley, had that in mind as a model as he set up his operation on Hendry Street in downtown Fort Myers. In the bright, modern office space there, he’s worked with entrepreneurs starting new businesses for about six months.

“Our job is to help these young teams build a company. That means you have to have proof of concept, build a product, build a business model, build hardware and software, use social media, and on and on.” Other areas in the country that have gotten behind startups—especially technology ones—are Austin, Texas; Boston and New York City. “Compared to these regions, Florida is very far behind,” he says. “That’s why I wanted to do something here.” As a resident of the area and a veteran of many startups himself, Kondek could see the potential in this region. While he recognizes the vast difference between Southwest Florida and Silicon Valley, he is hopeful that this is an area whose time has come.

A critical initial phase at RocketLounge, he says, is getting the companies investor-ready. “We create pitch events so the company founders are presenting to their potential investors. They will have worked with mentors who’ve been on both sides of these pitches, so they know what they will be asked, what to expect.”

Those who get financing can then move on to create what they need to take their product or service to market. Kondek and others at The RocketLounge often make a deal to take equity in the companies they shepherd into being. This, he says, is critical so that all parties have a vested interest in helping that company succeed. “We are here to help them grow and eventually for them to have an exit—either by someone buying them or having them go into an IPO [initial public offering].” 

Travel south from The RocketLounge and you’ll come to Naples Accelerator, just off Pine Ridge Road. Like The RocketLounge, it offers co-working space at various price points, events and a collaborative environment for entrepreneurs. It’s been in business for about two years now. Marshall Goodman, president and CEO of Economic Incubators Inc., the overseeing 501c3, says that they offer a platform that allows innovators and entrepreneurs a place to get support in areas like finance, legal, marketing as well as funding opportunities.

Entrepreneurs, Goodman says, “Bring us a great idea, and we can help.” He goes on to explain. “A lot of entrepreneurs come to us without a business background. They may have a great product or service, but they don’t know what a term sheet is. They don’t know how to talk to a venture capitalist. We can help them get the data they need and prepare them for those meetings.” In addition, Goodman says, they can help entrepreneurs see into the future. “When you’re involved in a startup, you’re generally very concerned with what’s happening that day, that week. But investors want to see a 10-year plan,” he says with a laugh. “That’s where we come in.”

Unlike The RocketLounge, Naples Accelerator is a nonprofit. It depends on government funding and also has price plans for members.

Cari Lee Jones, who owns Elephant Marketing & Media, is one of the entrepreneurs who has taken advantage of these new institutions. She moved her fledgling company into Naples Accelerator in May 2016. Part of her motivation, she says, is that she wanted a level of professionalism for her company. “I didn’t want to take my meetings at Starbuck’s,” she says. But what she’s appreciated even more than the space is the collaboration with other professionals. “I usually start off my morning by stopping into Marshall’s office and bouncing some ideas off him,” she says.

“When you’re starting a company and you’re by yourself, you don’t have that team to run ideas by.”

Jones, whose Elephant also provides marketing for companies coming into the accelerator, says she’s gotten more out of joining than she ever hoped for. She appreciates the ability to talk through all aspects of business—be they legal issues, scalability, or creative ideas. “If you need total quiet, then it’s probably not the place for you,” she says. “But if you want to collaborate with others, you will really benefit from the space. I can’t say enough good things about it.” 

Fusion Pointe

If you are looking for customized mentoring for your company, look to Fusion Pointe. Based out of the VentureX co-working space in the Mercato in Naples for almost two years, Fusion Pointe specializes in bringing together entrepreneurs and mentors who can guide them.

“Naples is the center of the universe for experienced men and women who have time to give back,” says Executive Director Rob Strandberg, who has set up a similar shop on the east coast of Florida.

Companies are nearly guaranteed to get relevant help because, to get into the program, the company must be selected by a mentor who can specifically help them. “The mentors are like directors on a board,” Strandberg says. “They help with specific execution of what it will take to succeed.” He adds that Fusion Pointe brings in subject matter experts as well, such as engineers or digital marketing pros, who help guide the new companies.

Strandberg continues: “The key thing is to create a product that has a market. Then the challenge is building the right team, which Fusion Pointe helps with. Investors invest in a strong team, not a single person. We help the companies check the boxes that the investors will want them to take care of.”

Currently, Fusion Pointe doesn’t charge a fee or an equity share. Strandberg says, “We don’t want to burden the entrepreneur with paying fees or giving up equity.” They have sponsors from within the community and have received funds from grants, foundations and some of the mentors. Although, Strandberg says, “We may have to tweak the model to keep it sustainable.”

According to the Small Business Administration, more than half of the nation’s jobs and almost two out of three new jobs are created by small business. Here in Southwest Florida, there is plenty of opportunity to get help with a new small venture.

Berglund, of the Southwest Florida Economic Development Alliance, thinks it bodes well for the young people just finishing school. “I’m excited about what this means for the next generation,” he says. “They won’t have to move away; they’ll have great opportunities right here.” 

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