Miami’s startup community: Why “soft infrastructure” matters

Raul Moas
Raul Moas
Oct 7, 2019 · 3 min read
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I was recently catching up on my CB Insights newsletters (I love you too, Anand) and came across this line:

“Not a lot is written about the challenges of scaling a company in its ‘teenage years.’”

I was intrigued by the parallels to the challenges in building a thriving startup community during that same period of adolescence. Over the last decade, several regions have made it a priority to invest in their startup communities and have found early success. Miami is chief among them. The initial challenges usually involve there not being enough capital, talent or mentorship for early-stage ventures. So, naturally, the first move is to bring together formal funding networks; develop strategies for attracting and retaining talent; and invest in frameworks of mentorship, like incubators and accelerators.

What happens a few years in, though, when the overall trend lines across capital, talent and mentorship are generally favorable? Should communities stay the course and simply add on more of each? Ian Hathaway mulls this over what he calls “The More of Everything Problem.” It goes something like this: “if we just get more of everything, we can create a vibrant startup community… more capital, more innovation centers, more accelerators, more incubators, more university programs, more startup events… more, more, more.

Hathaway makes the case that this approach “follows linear systems thinking whereby an increase in critical inputs (resources like capital and talent) results in an increase in desired outputs (startups, value creation), and by how much.” He then concludes “More of Everything doesn’t really work.

So, what does work? And what should a startup community, like Miami for example, be thinking of as it enters adolescence?

What appears to matter most is a density of smart people…with an orientation towards entrepreneurship…network and culture,” Hathaway proposes. “What differentiates entrepreneurial regions from others” he argues, is how all of the factors “integrate as a system — one that promotes collaboration, inclusivity, stewardship, an entrepreneurial mindset, and exhibits many other social, cultural, and behavior attributes conducive to the process of innovation and entrepreneurship.

My friends in urban planning offered a helpful analogy. What if we thought of the elements of a startup community as hard and soft infrastructure, in the way we would think of them when assessing a city’s assets? For example, our roadways, water system and electrical grid are mission critical to our city, as are funding, talent and experience to startups. We can consider these hard infrastructure.

What then do we make of parks and green spaces, cultural amenities and the coffee shop down the street? The soft infrastructure that gives life and sustains communities. Are there equivalents in a startup ecosystem? At Knight, we think so — and, like Ian Hathaway, believe the intangibles are as critical in sustaining a thriving community of entrepreneurs as the hard infrastructure itself.

So, what comprises the soft infrastructure of a startup community? We’ve identified three key elements:

1) Local Relationships: The number of quality relationships between local founders.

2) Sense of Community: The ease and consistency with which founders can receive support from other founders, investors and experts.

3) Ease of Access: The amount of friction—or lack thereof—new participants encounter when seeking out resources for their ventures.

As Miami’s startup ecosystem enters adolescence, we’re taking stock of the huge strides we made in transforming our community into a place where ideas are born, take root and thrive. We’re also paying close attention to the intangible elements — the soft infrastructure — and investing in growth on those fronts.

Raul Moas is the Miami Program Director at Knight Foundation.

Illustration by Paolo Gianfrancesco, titled “URBAN SHAPE”, found on Behance; copyright: attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0), no manipulations.

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