Empowering and Connecting Entrepreneurs
The Florida Virtual Entrepreneur Center
As individuals who study, build and promote innovation ecosystem architecture, Michael Zaharios and Art Zimmet know that connectivity is critical to the success of a city or region’s effort to foster innovation and entrepreneurship. “That’s why we are so excited about the Florida Virtual Entrepreneur Center, and why it has been so well received,” said Zaharios, Program Director at the FLVEC. “The portal is a valuable connector to both resource agencies and other entrepreneurs.”
The Florida Virtual Entrepreneur Center is an online directory of resource agencies that serve Florida’s entrepreneurs. It can be searched by county and by the stage of the business seeking assistance. The FLVEC’s latest addition is the inclusion of profiles that tell the story of entrepreneurs across the state, raising their visibility and connecting them to our statewide innovation ecosystem.
The FLVEC is powered by The Corridor, a regional economic development initiative of the University of Central Florida, the University of South Florida and the University of Florida.
“When you study innovation ecosystems and speak to the entrepreneurs on the ground, connectivity jumps out at you as this critical piece to success,” said Zimmet, Program Manager at the FLVEC. “The FLVEC connects entrepreneurs to the resources they need to grow, to other entrepreneurs with whom they can share information and to other companies with which they can conduct business.”
The Missing Link
The entrepreneur profiles may be a new feature, but they are already making an impact connecting entrepreneurs, raising their visibility and facilitating commerce.
“Thanks to the entrepreneur profiles on the St. Johns County FLVEC page, I learned about a local company that I feel we may use for future business as we may have video production requirements for promotional needs,” said Paul Glenister, CEO of 2G Energy. “If not for the FLVEC featuring the profiles of local entrepreneurs, I may not have become aware of the company right here in my own backyard.”
“As a start-up that hosts events to bring strangers together and share their ideas, earning the trust of the community is essential,” said Lacey McLaughlin, Founder of Idea Dinners, an event- planning company with a social mission. “My profile on the FLVEC website not only helped elevate my status in the community as an entrepreneur, but it also was a great marketing tool to share our mission through social media and engage with people interested in our concept.”
Zaharios and Zimmet have seen the power of connectivity to build innovation ecosystems both through their efforts with the FLVEC and local initiatives they are involved with in their home county of Volusia. The pair has, both together and individually, been instrumental in launching several entrepreneur ecosystem building initiatives including 1 Million Cups Daytona Beach, Startup Weekend Daytona Beach, Elevate Daytona Beach and Trep Factory.
“We have the pulse of the entrepreneurial community,” said Zaharios. “We take that information, bottle it and give it to others through the FLVEC online portal and by sharing with our economic development partners.”
What Is Needed, What Can We Do?
The FLVEC was born in Volusia County more than 10 years ago in 2005 after a roundtable discussion among Volusia County college and university presidents poised the question of “what can we do to provide more support for our local businesses?” The presidents recognized that there was no place business people could go to learn about all the resources available to support them.
Bob Williams, then a Senior Vice President at Daytona State College, developed the idea of an online database of resources available to assist businesses throughout Volusia and Flagler counties. Williams brought the idea to Randy Berridge, President at The Corridor, who helped fund the FLVEC pilot program.
“At the time, no one was talking about assisting businesses in this way,” said Zaharios. “You could Google search it, or perhaps one of the local economic development agencies knew of the resource that would best assist you and their staff would share that information with you during a conversation.”
Under Berridge and Zaharios’s leadership, FLVEC grew from two Central Florida counties to cover all 67 of Florida’s counties in short order. “We drive web traffic to the resource agencies that support entrepreneurs and give Florida entrepreneurs a voice to promote who they are and what they are doing,” said Zimmet. “We are the only website in Florida that provides both those layers of access to resources and individual entrepreneurs on a statewide basis.”
Plug-and-Play for EDO’s
In addition to providing this access on FLVEC.com, the Florida Virtual Entrepreneur Center’s portal is available in a plug-and-play format for economic development agencies to integrate seamlessly into their own website so it appears as if that agency is the one providing the information. “Our partners have been very happy with our product,” said Zaharios. “They get a portal managed and maintained for them, and they leverage our talent to promote their entrepreneurs through our profiles.”
The St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce is one of those happy partners. The Chamber’s Vice President of Economic Development, Declan Reiley, regularly tweets links to FLVEC profiles of St. Johns County entrepreneurs to promote his members. In addition to increased entrepreneur visibility, resource agencies also gain quality web traffic to their sites. “We provide a layer of credibility so that the visitors the FLVEC refers to resource agencies stay on the agencies’ sites and read because they know the FLVEC has in effect vouched for them,” said Zimmet. “Our traffic spends on average between one and five minutes on a resource agency’s site.”
Increased traffic to resource agencies looks to continue in the future based on Florida’s entrepreneurship outlook. This summer, Florida has received national press in relation to entrepreneurship on several occasions. Florida was a top ten state for startup activity according to the Kauffman Foundation’s Kauffman Index. Tampa was ranked a top ten city nationally for increasing numbers of tech talent according to MoneyRates.com. Lastly, several Florida cities including the Orlando area were ranked in the top ten nationally for the best cities for young entrepreneurs to relocate according to investment services firm CBRE.
Zaharios believes Florida is primed for increased innovation and entrepreneurship as well. “Florida is being very aggressive in its balanced approach to economic development. There is greater support, attention and emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurship than when we launched FLVEC,” he said. “There has never been a better time to be an entrepreneur in Florida than now.”