In its third year, the Emerge Americas tech conference boasted a sellout crowd – although conference founder Manny Medina said the decision to close registration was a painful one.
“We didn’t want to do it – we don’t want to discourage anyone,” he lamented in a briefing for press as the conference opened Monday at the Miami Beach Convention Center. Though the crowd of 13,000 attendees wouldn’t have exceeded the capacity of the entire conference center, Emerge Americas had only booked a single hall. In future years, he hopes to get more ambitious. “We don’t expect it to be as big as South by Southwest, but that’s what it’s modeled on.”
Still small by tech conference standards, the conference featured a few large booths on the show floor from companies like EMC, as well as local universities showcasing their IT programs and technology incubators. But the conference organizers also reserved a generous allocation of space for small tables where early stage startups could give one-on-one demos.
Medina is one of the region’s tech heroes, founder of the Internet data center and network operations firm Terremark, where he served as chairman and CEO until its 2011 acquisition by Verizon for $1.4 billion. Through Medina Capital, he has been investing in startups, often with a focus on South Florida and Latin America.
Meanwhile, as more tech talent becomes concentrated in the region, it’s becoming easier to attract more of it – something that has been a challenge in the past for South Florida tech firms, Medina said.
Modernizing Medicine, based in Boca Raton, now has more than 500 employees and expects to add hundreds more in the next few years, said CEO Daniel Cane. The company makes iPad-based electronic medical records software that allows specialists such as dermatologists and ophthalmologists to record the results of a patient exam by tapping relevant regions on a 3D anatomical model, rather than with keyboard entry.
Cane said he saw so much talent on display at a hackathon he helped judge that he wished he could hire more of the participants, who were mostly local university students. He has about 30 open requisitions, he said, but “I wish I had a hundred.” The challenge in South Florida “is not so much finding or attracting talent, it’s retaining the talent we develop,” he said.
“This is a non-issue, an absolute non-issue – people will get excited about exciting stuff,” said Maurice R. Ferré, CEO and Chairman, Insightec, which is developing MRI-guided non-invasive treatments as an alternative to surgery. The company was founded in Israel but will be expanding in South Florida, he said. Ferré pointed to the rapid hiring for and investment in Magic Leap, the virtual reality / augmented reality startup based in Dania Beach, as evidence that “if the opportunity is there, people will come.”
Several of the keynote speakers at the event reinforced the idea that technology innovation will be less centralized in Silicon Valley over time.
“Technology is going to be less defined by place in this third wave,” said former AOL CEO Steve Case, who is on a book tour for “The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future.” Cities like Miami are recognizing the importance of nurturing tech talent, as well they should, he said. “Startups are the seed corn of your economy and your community.”
“When I told my wife the idea for Netflix, she thought it was the stupidest thing she had ever heard,” he recalled.
The only catch is that the critics are probably right – most ideas turn out to be worthless, but you don’t really know until you try. The only cure for that, “is a process and a system that allows you to try as many bad ideas as possible – quick, fast, and cheap,” he said. “You will learn more in a day of doing it than six months of talking about it.”
Randolph was part of Netflix from its founding in 1997 until he left the company in 2004. He and Reed Hastings, the current CEO, brainstormed dozens of ideas before starting the company, originally discarding the idea of video rental by mail because it would never work with VCR tapes, he said. Later, they realized it could work with DVDs. Yet the business model they started with, a mix of rentals and DVD sales, was not the one that later became successful. It took time to refine the basic idea of mailing out DVDs to add the other ingredients, such as eliminating late fees, moving to a subscription model rather than a per-movie fee, and allowing members to establish a queue of movies they wanted mailed to them after they were finished with the current one.
In the meantime, Netflix hit a low point in 2000 when the founders were looking at a $50 million loss and would have happily have sold out to Blockbuster – except that Blockbuster laughed at paying $50 million for such a puny competitor. Coming out of that meeting, “All I could say was, Now we’re going to have to kick their ass.” Since his departure, Netflix has gone on to become bigger than he could have imagined, moving into streaming video and producing its own programming.
“The thing I’m proudest of is my optimism,” he said, and that’s something every startup at Emerge will need as well.
I am the author of Social Collaboration for Dummies, a technology journalist since the mid-1990s, and a web and content marketing consultant.