For the fourth installment of the Startup Capital interview series, we spoke with David Lawson of Domi Station and NewSci about tech, startups, urban economic development, and more.
David Lawson is a tech entrepreneur, mentor and one of Domi Station’s founding members. Lawson works here at the company he co-founded, NewSci, and helps support the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Tallahassee. As an entrepreneur who started a local tech business, Lawson has a unique perspective on growth in the capital city. To hear Lawson’s thoughts on startups and entrepreneurial communities, keep reading below.
Cuttlesoft: What’s coming next for Tallahassee, are we becoming a hub for startups and software?
David: First-off, getting the Florida Angel Nexus to open a location here is very exciting. We’re starting to bring together the investment community around a framework, as opposed to everyone being on their own. I think that’s been a consistent theme. It’s not that there hasn’t been investment and entrepreneurial activity in the past, but it’s been very person-driven, almost like an underground economy. What we’re seeing now is more purposeful.
The environment is also much better than it was. There’s still work to be done, and there will always be work to be done, but we’re at the end of the beginning. Over the years there have been a lot of false starts. This isn’t a false start. This is real.
Another thing that excites me talking about entrepreneurship are things like Grasslands and Proof – companies who aren’t tech-related but are homegrown and thriving. I think the schools are also playing ball. FAMU just increased their support of Domi, FSU continues to do so, and TCC is now getting more involved. And the new FSU school of entrepreneurship isn’t going to hurt, either.
“This isn’t a false start. This is real.”
What’s different this time around?
The community came together. You needed the entrepreneurs and the business people engaged, along with the investors. You had to involve the county and the universities. You had to get the city, and ultimately the community, to support this. Where failure happened in the past was that one or two of these pieces would give entrepreneurs help, but without coordinated long-term support the chance of success was diminished.
Another critical element is what’s happening with the community at places like Gaines Street and Railroad Square. Cascades Park, and soon the amphitheatre at the mall, are creating a sustainable music scene. You can’t just have capital and entrepreneurs; you need a city with a community that people want to be a part of. That’s what’s different this time.
I give our community leaders a ton of credit for the fact that they had the foresight to develop Gaines street, Cascades, and the Madison mile. They enabled Domi to happen. Domi probably would have happened no matter what, but it could never have grown as quickly as it did, and made the impact it did, without the support it received.
So you see this time around as more of a holistic effort?
Yes, and that’s why I think it’s sustainable. Let’s say that Domi was alone or it was being driven by a particular politician or university president. The problem is that these positions change. Things shift. But now, it’s okay if one of the parts falters or isn’t as engaged for a while because the other parts are still there.
In the past there’s been a bit of “The county should do that,” or “the university ought to do that,” or “somebody else ought to do that” and I think that people finally decided, “if it’s gonna be, it’s up to me. I can’t sit in the peanut gallery.” I’m not saying it’s all perfect. There’s always going to be politics and money, but to already have an exit (HWind) is very exciting. It was surprisingly quick. We’ve already had some reasonable angel and seed-level fundings that we hope to see more of.
The thing I see missing right now is office space somewhere in-between Domi Station and a traditional office park. There’s no intermediate space. The businesses who have between five and twenty five employees have nowhere to be right now if they want to stay in the All Saints/Gaines Street area.
So how do we keep this momentum going?
I think it’s important to be realistic about where we are. We’re doing more than we realize. We’ve had people, big name entrepreneurs and investors, come through here and say, “wow, I never thought of Tallahassee this way.” We need to get the story out there about what’s happening. We need to make it less “aspirational” and a little more about what is happening. I think that’s a necessary mindset shift.
“I think that people finally decided, “If it’s gonna be, it’s up to me.”
For a while it’s been kind-of “fake it til you make it.” But we have to do more. We have some of the things that a place like Austin has, but what we don’t have are anchor companies like Dell Computers and Texas Instruments. Seeing companies like Danfoss expand their operations here is exciting, and hopefully a sign of things to come.
The lack of major employers makes entrepreneurship even more important to Tallahassee’s future. Remember that Dell started in a UT Austin dorm room. Would Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, have kept her business here if the support system we now have in place existed when she was at FSU?
A good sign of how far we have come is the company purchasing HWind deciding to keep the company here. There will be more of these opportunities in the future as more companies are purchased. Think about the impact of having a Google or Facebook in town. We need to make sure those companies see Tally as a great spot for a satellite office.
It seems that there’s a divide between some of the locals and some of the people at the universities. How do you get everybody on board? How do you include everyone so that there isn’t a clash?
There’s a tension. Ultimately, if we want good jobs in town, if we want the community to thrive, we’re going to have to allow it to grow. The only reason employers are going to come and stay here is if there’s a community that their employees enjoy being a part of.
With the schools, there’s always going to be some level of tension. Their mission is to educate students, not the community, but without a vibrant community they run the risk of not being able to attract and retain the best students. College Town and FAMU Way show the universities are betting that being a part of the community is better than being apart from the community.
FSU does a lot of recruiting out of South Florida. College Town is for these recruits. Those students aren’t going to come here if Tallahassee doesn’t have spaces like that. And Entrepreneurs in their 20’s aren’t going to stay here if there aren’t fun things to do. Tallahassee is a fantastic place to raise a family and retire, but it’s just now becoming a place where you stay before starting a family.
FSU and FAMU and TCC, their focus should always be education. It’s the difference between an academic incubator and Domi. An academic incubator is not focused on how good or marketable your idea is. They’re focused on teaching a process that can be applied to any product or idea, rather than focusing on whether the product or idea has a big upside. Ideally, the academic incubator will have a very open door and take in anybody to teach them the necessary skills. Then, Domi’s door would be a bit more narrow, taking ideas that can scale.
“Tally is getting a little weirder and cooler every day”
How do you try to connect the academic research with commercial entrepreneurs, and do you even want to?
The university doesn’t necessarily want their professors becoming full-time entrepreneurs. They want to commercialize their research, ideally through licensing to companies and/or to entrepreneurs. There is so much intellectual capital in these university research offices that could really do big things for our community. Entrepreneurs ought to look locally and see if they can build a business around something already in existence.
Academics tend to be innovators, not entrepreneurs, so there is a natural fit for an entrepreneur to build a business around their innovation. We need more business marriages like Wozniak and Jobs, where you have the innovative CTO and the entrepreneurial CEO who can drive the business.
Why did you choose to start to a business here?
I moved to Tallahassee for love. At the time, I was stunned that there wasn’t a business incubator here already given FSU, FAMU and TCC. Then I started to meet local entrepreneurs and get involved in the “underground entrepreneur economy” at RedEye and Starbucks. That’s what led me to meet Micah, John and Jake and that led to Domi, and now to NewSci.
As an entrepreneur, I didn’t intentionally choose Tallahassee, but now I would. Tally is getting a little weirder and cooler every day which makes it possible to attract and retain the talent we need to grow a successful business. It also makes it a place I am very happy to call home.
We’d like to thank David Lawson for taking the time to give us his thoughts on Tallahassee’s burgeoning tech community. Ultimately, it’s people like Lawson who are going to take Tallahassee from a city with “aspirational” goals about tech and startups to one that is able to build sustainable business locally and create a community of makers and entrepreneurs who can support each other and grow in tandem. Be sure to check back in a few weeks and follow us on social media to get the next Startup Capital Interview!