This week’s Startup Capital interview is with Ryan Aughtry, Chairman of the TalTech Alliance and advocate for Tallahassee startups.
The TalTech (Tallahassee Technology) Alliance is a nonprofit organization committed to promoting and supporting technology-based businesses in Tallahassee and the capital region. TalTech Chairman Ryan Aughtry agreed to speak with us about the future of Tallahassee and the challenges we must overcome to create a new economy in North Florida. To learn more about TalTech and Ryan Aughtry’s goals, keep reading below.
What is your connection to tallahassee?
I originally came here for school. I was an economics major at FSU and being perhaps one of the lucky ones, I had a lot of good opportunities available to me upon graduating. I had been an intern at two different companies in town and I felt comfortable establishing myself here.
How did you get involved with TalTech?
One of the things I do to grow my business as a financial advisor is to involve myself in the community and give back as much as possible. Reciprocity is one of the most powerful principles in business. I connected with TalTech on the advice of Ken Morris, a Leon County Official. Because I had been an analyst at a private equity company that dealt with early-stage, high-tech ventures, I figured that TalTech was an organization that I could get involved with and provide some assistance to.
When I joined I was just a TalTech programs committee member. Then, as the programs chair became Chairwoman the following year I became chairman of the programs committee. After that, I served as a the TalTech Chairman and I still do.
“It’s that sense of fellowship and mentorship that I think is the brick and mortar of how startups get launched and sustain themselves.”
Could you talk briefly about the history of the organization and some of its overarching goals?
TalTech strives to become the leading voice for technology in the capital region. It was founded about ten years ago by Rick Carney, Jim Hunt, and John Frasier. Initially, it was an event at the Chamber of Commerce that happened to have a lot of momentum behind it. Afterwards, it officially became the TalTech organization and we’ve been meeting ever since.
What excites you about Tallahassee right now as far as tech and startups?
There’s a lot of excitement and energy bubbling around right now and I would say that there’s beginning to be a lot of interest. There are a lot of innovative new companies being formed. I think people are starting to get the right concepts – the sharing of knowledge between people is what’s ultimately most important. Let’s take the business incubator Domi Station. They’re fostering a fellowship of entrepreneurs.
It’s that sense of fellowship and mentorship, especially when they bring in outside professionals, that I think is the brick and mortar of how startups get launched and sustain themselves. I don’t think it comes from any kind of special inspiration or innovation in technology or anything like that. Those things certainly help, but the most important thing in my opinion is having a well-developed network.
You’ve had the opportunity to speak with a lot of Tallahassee startups and business leaders. What are some of the major challenges they talk about?
I would say that the biggest challenge anyone faces is a talent shortage. And perhaps shortage isn’t the right word. There’s a disconnect between the technical skills that our universities are providing and the needs of the workplace. And that’s true everywhere, it’s not a Tallahassee specific problem, you can look at this issue nationally as well. But I would say that of the things that I’ve heard about, that’s one of the bigger themes.
Do you see the talent gap as an issue that should be solved at the university level or at the private level? What are some of solutions?
I believe it needs to be a coming together of diverse interest groups as opposed to being spearheaded by one single organization. We each have different things to bring to the table. While TalTech represents many of the employer partners of the TechHire initiative, we don’t have very many training resources built into our organization. There are better facilitators of that.
We’d like to see an organized, collective push to solve this issue. Now, ultimately there’s always going to be difficulties. Certain cities have an advantage of course. Let’s take St. Petersburg, Florida, for example, which has Jabil Circuit who employs thousands of people throughout the country. A lot of their major executives work out of that area and can be available for mentorship and high-quality guidance that an early-stage company needs.
There’s really a combination of two things. It’s not just an issue of needing to develop the entry level of technical capability. We need that, but perhaps we also need to bring in some of that “extra” expertise, or at least locate it within our community. We need those people who can provide the highest level of strategic advice.
Even if your resources are small, you should always make an attempt to follow the principle of reciprocity.
Is there an effort to attract bigger players in the tech industry?
That’s an economic development question. The new city and county Office of Economic Vitality is going to be working on this. Any company that you could convince to move its headquarters here would need low switching costs. It would need to be easy for them to move here. And if that we’re true, it would likely be easy, ten to fifteen years down the line, for them to move again. I think having something grown organically would be much more valuable.
What do you see coming?
Well if I have anything to do with it, there will be a bigger spotlight on growing and successful tech companies here in town. There are very few people, outside of the business leaders in town, who know all that much about it. I can guarantee that students at the university don’t know about the successful technology companies in town. Some do, but generally speaking, they haven’t had the opportunity or the inclination to be involved because it’s not really a story that’s been told yet.
How do we address the issue of talent retention?
On that end, there are a couple of different considerations. I think you have to look at it holistically as opposed to citing just one cause. We hear from the Knight Foundation that “sense of place” is what’s important in retention of talented young people. Incomes are lower in Tallahassee than they are in somewhere with a higher standard of living, such as San Francisco. That’s certainly a factor.
Also, I think that the larger tech companies, who often poach talent from Tallahassee, have more established methods of incentivizing and retaining these people over time. What that means is that they have made it a priority to attract and retain the best talent. Their whole business strategies have been developed with talent acquisition in mind.
Do you believe that we have the resources, partnerships and programs necessary to respond to the innovation economy that’s emerging in Tallahassee. Is the city prepared?
From the infrastructure standpoint, they recently passed the penny sales tax. A portion of the revenue from that will be allocated towards these types of purposes. That will help solve some of the infrastructure problems if the moneys are well spent, which I think they will be. From a connectivity standpoint, no. Not yet. More needs to be done. From a resources standpoint, I would say we’re talking about the number of individuals who are able to improve their productivity, and I think certainly. Tallahassee has a very young, very trainable population.
From a capital standpoint, are there enough investors to sustain new companies? I would say that there are, but you have to know where to look for them. Unfortunately, it’s a somewhat rarified circle of connections that you need in order to be able to access capital in Tallahassee. We’ve had companies funded before with the focus on the startup scene. But again, I’ll go back to saying that from a connectivity standpoint there’s probably a large disconnect between the Tallahassee startups seeking capital and the circle of mentors they need to know to be able to appropriately find and ask for it.
What needs to change for that to happen?
A couple of things. The one that comes to mind is that mentorship needs to be understood at a deep level as a way of giving back to the community. There are some leaders who understand that, but there are others who haven’t been too involved yet. Domi is doing a great job of trying to bring these two groups together, but more could be done.
Secondly, I would say that from the entrepreneur’s standpoint, that idea of reciprocity needs to be full ingrained in them, as it is in Silicon Valley. In that climate, if you want to meet someone, you can ask anyone to connect you and they’ll do it without a single thought because they know that they’re creating good will for the future. That’s not something that’s always done in Tallahassee. Even if your resources are small, you should always make an attempt to follow that principle of reciprocity.
What are you and TalTech doing to make these changes happen?
TalTech provides the annual Tallahassee Tech Expo which brings people together and exalts local achievements. We’re holding forums and creating opportunities for people to talk about this in a serious way. What we can do more of, behind the scenes, is become a sort of bridge, connecting the people who need mentorship or need access to that investment circle through our credibility and established network. We have the ability to do that.
The TalTech alliance is an integral part of Tallahassee’s network of technology professionals and startup entrepreneurs and investors. The more we can bring people together around entrepreneurship, the more opportunities there will be for growth, successful funding and new ideas coming from Tallahassee startups. Thanks to Ryan Aughtry for answering our questions and heading up the TalTech Alliance’s efforts in building our tech economy.
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