Startup Capital: Steve Evans

Steve Evans has been an MLB ballplayer, an IBM executive, and a mentor to startups and CEOs alike. He’s also been a Tallahassee mainstay for more than thirty years. One of the city’s greatest advocates, Evans serves on multiple boards in the community and frequently mentors business owners, students, and startup entrepreneurs. We talked with Steve to get a sense of what Tallahassee is currently experiencing and how we can continue to accelerate its growth and vitality. Keep reading below.

You’ve been in Tallahassee for quite a while. How has it changed since you’ve lived here?

That’s right, almost thirty years, and I’ve seen quite a bit. Of course, for about ten of those years I was travelling almost 300 days a year so I missed a lot of the evolution. But Tallahassee has grown. It’s grown in population and it’s grown in its industry.

It’s become a big city but it’s really retained the small town atmosphere. The beauty of Tallahassee is the warmth of its people, the vitality of its environment, and the tremendous exposure to everything from arts, to politics, to academia, to research, business, and creativity. It’s a rich environment that we’re in right now.

From my perspective, over the past three or four years we’ve gone through a tremendous journey, and we’re going through it still. It really started coming together around four years ago. It’s a spirit of innovative talent and a spirit of vitality which is evidencing itself in startups and in about ten organizations that are growing everyday.

Organizations like Domi, like Summit East, like the Entrepreneurial Excellence Program (EEP), the Center for Advanced Power Systems (CAPS) program at FSU, the Jim Moran Institute for Global Entrepreneurship, what Tim Moore’s got going on at FAMU with tech transfer, the Code Academy at the DRS… I could go on and on.

These are all things that have evolved here over the past four years, and it’s exciting and it’s dynamic.

It’s a rich environment that we’re in right now.

I’m also a great believer that the important word is “vitality.” It’s not economic development, the word that we need to be using is economic vitality. Some people make the mistake of saying that economic development is defined as the new building that’s built at the corner of such-and-such place, and the businesses that move in there. That’s one definition.

But to me, the most important thing to understand is economic vitality. Vitality is the underpinning from which economic development emerges. When you start recognizing the talent in the community and engaging it, you start to develop it, you take it down the path where you can not just develop it, but enable it in the form of making sure that talent is developing the right skills and being aligned with the right organizations.

Whether these be startups, or other companies looking to grow, we need to develop organizations like the ones I just mentioned – Domi, EEP, etc.

The fact is that we’ll have half a dozen companies walk off the stage at the Jim Moran School of Entrepreneurship with degrees and businesses already running, not ideas but running businesses. That happens every semester.

We can start taking people who have dreams and concepts of starting a business and put them into incubators, like Domi, the Leon Country R&D Authority at Innovation Park, and all these things play together. We can bring in a tech transfer department like the one at FSU, where researchers might have something that they think has commercial value, but don’t have a gearbox through which to take their idea.

Vitality is the underpinning from which economic development emerges.

So you put a gearbox in place that knows how to vet them and guide these researchers through how you think of something from a commercialization standpoint, which is a lot different than thinking of something from an R&D standpoint. And once you’ve captured that talent, you start aligning its skills, whether that’s around starting a business, or being able to integrate into an existing company to help it grow.

But at some point during this entrepreneurial path you’re going to need capital. So you bring in things like the Florida Angel Nexus. That was brought in about a year ago and it continues to grow. And once you’re ready and have gone through a vetting process, you put them into the Nexus where they can come together in front of angel investors, which are local people that want to invest in people that have great ideas. But, they want those ideas to already have been vetted, which is what the Nexus does.

So, when they get their fifteen minutes of fame in front of an angel investor, they know how to present their business. They have fifteen minutes to pitch their idea, the concept, the game plan, and the market strategy. And then investors can make that decision, and say I’m going to invest X amount of dollars.

When you start getting all of that together and it starts working together, these things start feeding each other. That’s when you start to develop a level of economic vitality in the community that will grow exponentially. That’s the ecosystem.

We’ve been reading about the ecosystem that you have down there… and we want to come.

When people start to recognize that fact, all of the sudden you’ll have people coming from the outside knocking on your door saying, “We’ve been looking to move our company from Philadelphia, or Atlanta, or Boston, and we’ve been reading about the ecosystem that you have down there and the talent and the skills and the innovation, and we want to come.”

It doesn’t work the other way around. Communities spend millions of dollars trying to bring in the next automotive plant or Boeing or whoever it might be, as opposed to recognizing the value that comes from building the ecosystem and capturing local talent.

We have thousands of kids here graduating from FSU. I had the opportunity to work with the FSU Foundation, wonderful people, tremendous assets. I served on several on their boards, and there’s tremendous talent and skills in their faculty and students.

One day I was asked to come take a tour of their facility, the Dunlap Student Success Center, and I said absolutely. It’s a beautiful building at the center of campus. You walk in, and there’s a glass partition which displays a library on virtually every company you can think of. So if I’m a student and I’m about to graduate in a year, this is a place where I can go and do research on what kind of companies and careers are available.

Upstairs they have a bunch of mini board rooms so that when a corporation comes in and says, “We need to hire this many engineers, and we’d like to be on campus for these dates, we’re looking for this type of student,” they can take that room and advertise across campus so that when a student shows up, that’s the IBM room for three days.

People come in, get their one minute drill, and the interviewers take notes. And then they narrow it down; if you have 100 come in the first day, maybe you have 20 come back the second day, and you walk some of them on.

So I toured the program. I walked through while they were doing their interviews, and afterwards they brought me coffee and we sat down in a conference room and they said:

“Well, Steve, what do you think?”

My first question was:

“How many students got jobs out of this thing last year?

And I recall the number was over two thousand. I asked how many companies came in here, and the answer was over 600. And then I asked:

“How many of those companies were from Tallahassee?”

And the answer was less than a handful.

“That’s my concern.”

I said, “I’m incredibly impressed, but if I was to walk out into the street in Tallahassee and talk to any ten local CEOs, in all likelihood none of them would know this is here.”

“How many of those companies were from Tallahassee?”

So since then there’s been an effort, and there’s going to be an increased effort, to integrate all that Student Success Center into the fabric of Tallahassee and Leon County to create that communication.

Now, there’s better communications back to FSU about the types of jobs and skills that people are looking for, and vice versa. There’s communications back to the community through the Chamber of Commerce and the Office of Economic Vitality about the tremendous talent and skills at FSU as opposed to 600 companies coming in, drinking the coffee, eating the donuts, and hiring our students out of town.

There is a disconnect. We’re lacking an avenue right now. And that’s what we’re in the process of building right now through the Office of Economic Vitality.

So how can local companies be more competitive with these nation-wide corporations that recruit from FSU and colleges all over the country?

Easy, we need more visibility. We’ve got plenty of jobs here, many of us serve on boards at companies where we know what the jobs are. We do a lot of mentoring a coaching. So you see it.

Three years ago a legislator was asking me what I thought the agenda should be for the new year. My recommendation was:

“Not jobs.”

We’ve got plenty of jobs here. One night I went online and found over twenty-five hundred jobs in a twenty-five mile radius. Those jobs range from clerical to administrative to sales to managerial. All of sudden you can say well, it’s not a jobs issue.

It hit me then that the issue here is not talent, the issue is skills and awareness. We need to get every one of these companies and keep a list of the ones where people call and say, “Steve, I’m looking for these skills.” Or someone can say, “I’m getting ready to graduate, I’d love to work here. Where are the opportunities?”

The good news is that there’s plenty of jobs. But, there’s not a clear avenue as to how you match them with local talent.

Part of it is to create a gate, outside of these national websites like Indeed and Career Builder, to create an avenue for communication with resources like the FSU Career Center, or FAMU, or through the Chamber or the Office of Economic Vitality, where there’s a free flow of information of talent, skills and jobs.

Because part of it is making sure that we’re developing the right skills. You look at technology, and it’s moving so fast. I spent my career in that area, I’ve spent a lot of time with startups and entrepreneurs and budding entrepreneurs, and what you learn is that we’ve got as much talent here as any other place in the country. Skills are a different issue.

What companies are looking for are two different types of skills. Number one are behavioral skills. These are a great work ethic, great team players, people who look for ways to make things happen as opposed to dwelling on reasons why they can’t happen. Those are the things every CEO looks for. You give me those characteristics and I can teach them any sport.

The good news is that there’s plenty of jobs. But, there’s not a clear avenue as to how you match them with local talent.

But if you’re the type of person with an ego as big as the sky, and you’re sitting there wondering how many vacation days you’re going to get and when you’re going to be a manager and this and that, you’re probably going to be invited to go on to your next interview.

There are two sets of skills in this community. We have a tremendous number of IT jobs. And they’re not just at IT companies, they’re at every organization in this community which requires IT talent to take it to the next level. The hospital has hundreds of jobs in IT. The schools have hundreds of people in IT. The city has over two hundred people in IT. Look at the county, the state, and state agencies, and there are thousands of jobs in IT.

IT is absolutely more critical today than it was yesterday, and it’s infinitely more critical today than it was four years ago. When you look at that , the skills are changing.

We have an abundance of IT talent in this community, tons of basic talent coming from the schools. But the kind of IT talent that you need for a startup is much different than the IT talent that you need at an existing company. At an existing company, I’ve got some great core IT talent that’s on it, they’ve got it, they’re mapping out the future of the company and developing an IT road map around how they’re going to take this company from point A to point B, because everything is changing around technology. Every business is changing around technology.

As a startup, I’m looking for people who have current skills on the emerging operating systems and programming languages, not the old systems and languages. C++ is great, but I’ve got tens of thousands of people I can hire for C++. But Swift? How many people are developing these skills? Can I go to colleges and find Swift coursework being taught at the schools? Probably not.

And that’s the opportunity that we have before us right now. It’s not the problem, because it’s only a problem if we’re not developing a solution. But the magic is: How do we identify the true skills of this emerging entrepreneurial community (which, by the way, is exploding)? I put together a chart and shared it recently at a Chamber of Commerce conference in Jacksonville. It showed that over the last three years, over a hundred local startups have come into being.

They’re doing everything from biotech to big data to software and apps. If I had put that same chart up five years ago, we’d see restaurants, construction companies, and others. Now, we’re seeing things that you wouldn’t have seen four or five years ago. That defines a whole new set of talent and skills.

Now, you’ve got a whole new Apple operating system – where are we developing that skill? We’re developing 10,000 mobile apps a week in this country. Those skills are not using old programming languages. They’re using the things that are coming out of the clouds every day.

So what are we doing to look out there and see what those are and start developing that talent pool? Because that’s what these startups are looking for. Nobody’s going backwards, they’re moving forward. They’re accelerating. We’ve got a unique opportunity. I’m not one of those people that dwells on the problem, I dwell on the opportunities.

But what we’ve got to do moving forward – I mentioned those ten organizations earlier – is to identify talent, grow it, built it, and develop it. But we need to make sure that we continue leveraging each other. The minute we start falling back into silos and everybody says, “We’re doing our own thing,” is the minute we fail. Game’s over.

What we’ve been trying to do over the past three years is to build these to be feeder mechanisms for one another. Do your job over here and when you’re ready, move them over here and start developing the next set of skills.

Once I’ve got my startup off the ground, where do I go to get talent, mentoring and coaching to take it to the growth phase?

You’ve been mentioning talent as well as skills… what’s the difference?

Talent is a ballplayer who can throw hard, run fast, who can hit the ball a mile. Skills are that same player who knows how to pitch, not just throw. He knows how to think about a batter, the psychology of the pitch. He knows how to keep people off balance, not just rear back and throw 90 mile an hour fastballs. He understands the psychology of pitching and hitting. Therefore he’s developed a unique set of skills.

Skills is not just throwing a baseball 90 mph. That’s a talent, I need skills. Major leagues don’t hire talent, they hire for skills. They’re assuming that the talent is there. What they want are skills.

And where are skills developed, versus talent?

Some of those skills need to be developed in schools. Kids are coming out of high school today armed with more technology talent than you can imagine. The challenge we have in our schools is that the kids are often ahead of where the teachers are. Same thing in the colleges. These kids are ahead because they’re out there playing these games. They’re out there using this technology in ways that people haven’t even dreamed of yet.

So, we need to be on the front end of the learning curve as far as where the world is changing. Because remember, part of what we’re trying to do here is to diversify our economy. The state needs these skills and talents if it’s going to continue to provide government services for the betterment of the taxpayer in a way that’s more effective and more efficient. Every company here needs these skills that can develop these apps that improve health care, city services, and education.

The challenge we have in our schools is that the kids are often ahead of where the teachers are.

So those skills need to be developed in schools, but the schools have to do a better job of identifying what skills are needed today and tomorrow, not yesterday.

But ultimately, these skills need to be developed in workplaces. You put someone in a job, and if they’re in the right job, they’re going to develop skills that you’re not going to learn anywhere else. Because it’s live, it’s real time, and it’s in a program that is going to build on the skills you learned in schools.

To their credit, the schools’ role is not to develop all of your skills, but to make sure that students graduate ready to be the athlete that’s ready to be drafted when they walk off that stage with their degree.

How do we encourage the schools to adapt more quickly to the skills that are needed in the workplace?

Part of it is having a good level of communication between the business community and the school. We need a process to identify the needs of the community and make sure that the right talents and skills are being developed.

The Chamber’s going to start going down that path as well, as well as the Office of Economic Vitality. So it’s a great opportunity. A lot of the things that we’ve put in place right now are in effect doing that right now. You see what we’re doing at Domi, at the JMI, at all of these incubators that are popping up around the community.

It’s all about taking talent and developing skills. It’s about the interaction that happens in a place like that, where you’re sitting next to colleagues and helping and learning and overcoming challenges together, and you integrate that into entrepreneurship.

It’s really collaboration and communication, there’s no magic button. It’s just making sure that people don’t fall back into silos. Just running programs. But bringing them together communicating, leveraging each other, and focusing on results. Not programs, but results.

You’ve got to have that base. Otherwise, what you end up having is someone buying a lot of land, building a complex, filling it up with eight to ten tenants, and saying, “There’s economic development.” That’s not development, that’s someone making an investment.

But when you have a community that starts focusing on results, in the form of jobs, skills, new companies, growth, then all of the sudden what you’ve created is an ecosystem that’s focused on vitality.

From vitality grows sustainable economic development, that’s what’s magical.

A big thanks to Steve for providing his thoughts on Tallahassee’s growth. With every Startup Capital interview we complete, we’re coming closer to answering some of Tally’s pressing questions. Whether your goal is talent retention, economic vitality, or entrepreneurship, there’s a solution (and an opportunity) to every problem. Advocates and mentors like Steve Evans are helping us get there.