In case you missed it, Wednesday at around 10:00 AM the Orlando community started buzzing with requests to contribute to The Orlando Tech Community Kickstarter. The campaign is a Hail Mary pass at the start of the season; they are looking to raise all of the funds required up-front to keep several well-known local tech-centric organizations afloat. Specifically, Orlando Tech, FireSpring Fund, Starter Studio, and Canvs.
And at first brush, their goal seems…lofty. Standing at a whopping $165,000, the literal shovelfuls of cash required to meet this all-or-nothing goal is daunting. And besides, where was it all going? As is Kickstarter tradition, the description of where exactly the money will go is loose. For example, the Starter Studio portion notes the money will go toward “the funding needed to use the beautiful Dr. Phillips center for demo day.” How much does that cost? Why should I contribute money so they can use the beautiful Dr. Phillips center?
[edit: Gregg Pollack was kind enough to send me a message on Kickstarter about this. He hadn’t realized the adjective “beautiful” could be construed as lavish, so he removed that from the Kickstarter description. He also noted that the demo day event last year actually made money for the organization.]
I’m fairly critical and tend to question any organization I give to. In the checkout line at Publix, whenever they ask “Do you want to give a dollar to Whatever Fund?,” I can’t help but wonder what that fund’s impact is. How much do they pay staff? Is this just a glorified tax haven for Publix or their CEO’s friends? Do they throw lavish parties? Due to the store’s insistence at exploiting typical social contracts, I give a dollar so the cashier won’t think I’m Hitler. In the back of my mind, it irks me that I may have wasted that dollar on an ounce of caviar to be eaten by some debutante at a “charity event.”
Back to the Kickstarter page, I thought “At least these four organizations are working together.” I have no numbers to quantify this, but lately the Orlando tech scene has felt a bit stagnant and lacking cohesion. Several things have contributed to that gloomy feeling. Orlando Tech has had a lot of upheaval with the original founder Orrett Davis joining financial chat bot company Abe.ai in July. In the Orlando Devs Slack, arguments in #career-advice regarding moving to San Francisco happen like clockwork. UCF seems like a natural ally to the downtown tech scene, but it seems like their involvement is incidental at best. Same goes for the tourism industry here. I’ve met a total of two Disney employees at meetups, and I’ve attended my fair share.
When I moved from DC back to Orlando, I was pleasantly surprised to see the resources we had. This was in 2015; Orlando Tech was going strong and there were typically three startups giving talks each month. I attended the Canvs one year anniversary when they announced the second location in Winter Park. Once I was on the Orlando Devs Slack, I felt like a whole other world was opened to me. However, as time went on, I stopped going to Orlando Tech. It’s not that Orrett didn’t do a great job (he did and I think his efforts are a big part of why we have a tech “scene” at all), it’s simply that I lost interest in the subject matter. I don’t think I’m alone in that.
“I’ve been a few times [to the Orlando Tech Meetup], I like knowing what the community is up to around the area. A few of the startups have interested me. Most haven’t. Few job offers here and there, but yea the general feel is ‘business business business… numbers. Is this working?’… I think I attended four or five through 2016. Each time I went, I felt like I was witnessing demos from a weekend hackathon, but where the devs got drunk and the designers had a cold. It was absurd to me to hear that these products were seeking investment. So maybe I’m the asshole.”
— Andrew Studnicky, Software Engineer in Orlando
It seems like in their eagerness to fund and support Orlando’s potential unicorns, an unintended consequence was that some of the very people on which those tech companies rely, the developers and designers and people in the trenches every day, felt alienated. Perhaps it was the lack of interest in slow-growth service companies, or the infiltration of get-rich-quick “idea guys,” or some other intangible that kept me from going.
However, with the kickoff of this Kickstarter, it seems like the horses are starting to pull in the same direction and I’m liking where they are going.
It feels like the start of Oceans 11, or perhaps Gone in 60 Seconds. Pressing matters has brought the old gang back together and the audience wonders if they can pull it off like the old days. Orlando Tech feels like a spiritual cornerstone of tech in Orlando, and now with a well-supported Diane Court acting as Executive Director it seems like they have their footing. I have not met Diane personally, but I have heard nothing but great things. I’m hoping she and the rest of the board can help make Orlando Tech into what it can become.
Starter Studio, along with the UCF Venture Lab, has been one of the big tech accelerators in Orlando, and it seems Gregg Pollack is back in full force manning the effort. Although he never left, lately it seems as if he’s playing a more active role in both hyping Orlando Tech and the closely aligned Starter Studio. We don’t need to worry too much about Gregg being in it for the money, thanks to his multi-million dollar exit from Code School and activism in the community. Working legalese into that transition that included keeping the Orlando office open and staff employed shows his commitment to the community here.
When I moved back here from the DC area, one of the first things I did was get a desk at Canvs. The company I now work for, Nebbia Technology, started out of Canvs and graduated from there. We now have our own downtown office, have seven employees, and turn a profit. We need more success stories like that and places like Canvs and Catalyst can be the difference between success and failure for early-stage companies. Not only do they provide cheap working space, but more importantly, foster an environment where water-cooler talk about who can help who comes naturally. Dayle Moore is the manager of Operations and Programming for Canvs, Starter Studio, and FireSpring Fund. The world is a small place, previously she worked at UCF Venture Accelerator and I met with her to talk about my now-defunct business. And who can mention Canvs without mentioning the always bubbly and helpful Shanika Marlow? As Operations and Membership Coordinator at Canvs, her job is getting and retaining Canvs members. When I finally realized it didn’t make sense to keep a desk there when I never used it, it was extremely difficult to look Shanika in the eyes and tell her I no longer needed it.
And then there’s FireSpring Fund, of which I know so little about that I can hardly comment. Suffice to say that I hope they, too, are making meaningful changes.
As you can tell from the paragraphs above, I’m not a blind cheerleader. Even acknowledging that certain organizations aren’t perfect can be social suicide, but at this point in time we have to wash our face with cold water and take a good, hard look at ourselves in the mirror. What do we stand for? Are we not a community? At the end of the day, these organizations have a solid track record. As the Orlando Tech website says, we have a $14 billion dollar tech industry here. Can we not raise $165,000 to help some of our most visible organizations that support our industry?
When we look in the mirror, what do we see? Be honest. I hope we are a community that’s willing to risk a few bucks for the good of our tech industry. That’s why I gave some money.
That, and the sweet t-shirt.