You’ve just created an innovative app. Now what? That’s the dilemma for Florida Gulf Coast University computer science major Daniel D’Amato. On his quest to bring his internet tech to market, D’Amato sought out Marc Farron, a consultant with the Florida Small Business Development Center at FGCU and president of the Southwest Florida Regional Technology Partnership (SWFRTP). Farron knew just where to take the young programmer: Estero’s Silicon Valley. Haven’t noticed it driving around town? Just look up the next time you’re strolling along Coconut Point’s Fashion Drive with an armful of shopping bags.
Located in a 1,200-square-foot office above Brookstone, with a balcony overlooking the commerce and commotion of Coconut Point, three tech startups symbiotically coexist. Each serves the real estate industry in a unique way: REfindly helps brokers generate leads, manage customer relations and create websites with advanced content management; Agent Shield allows agents to market and sell new construction homes alongside resales, and Testimonial Tree helps real estate and other industry professionals market their businesses through testimonials on social media.
Founded in 2008, Agent Shield is the oldest of these web tech companies, with REfindly and Testimonial Tree sprouting up within the last two and a half years. Their founders, Lu Doan (Agent Shield), Jason Dolle (Testimonial Tree) and Ryan Tremblay (REfindly), initially worked solo from personal computers. Dolle was the first to rent space at the Offices at Coconut Point. He had more room than needed for Testimonial Tree, so he invited fellow tech entrepreneur Tremblay to move in with his startup company. Soon, Doan was invited to round out the trio of techies. “We work very symbiotically together,” Doan said.
“All three companies service a different need in the real estate industry, so we’re serving the same type of clients but not competing. We all talk to Realtors in different ways, and that open line of communication can help us all build better products.” Aside from serving the same clientele, all three businesses involve internet technology, an ever-changing field which requires constant learning. “For tech companies down here, being in a community that is technology driven, everyone inspires each other,”
Doan said. “Learning is a huge thing because technology evolves so quickly.” Now Doan, Dolle, and Tremblay want to bring that kind of synergy to the larger web tech community in Southwest Florida. While Farron’s group, the Regional Technology Partnership, boasts 300 members plus corporate sponsors, it includes large corporations like Chico’s, which have IT departments but don’t consider technology their core business. In the shared office space at Coconut Point, an idea was birthed for a technology consortium exclusively for the web tech community.
It wouldn’t compete with SWFRTP but would be an offshoot to help Southwest Florida cultivate its technology sector and grow its reputation as a technology hub. “It’s in its infancy,” said Dolle, who serves as point- man for what’s being called the Sunset Coast Technology Consortium. “It’s a very vibrant tech scene here, once you get into it.” With the consortium’s first meeting scheduled this month, about 20 companies have signed on, eager to network and share ideas for growing tech in Southwest Florida. A few are multi-million dollar ventures, like Naples-based Position Logic, but most are small startups, running the gamut from GPS technology to social media to educational software. “I think Southwest Florida could be known for tech,” Dolle said. “Right now, the tech scene is very fragmented. It’s about putting it all in one spot and bringing it under one helpful umbrella.”
The consortium’s initial goals include launching a website for members and organizing networking events and speakers. “There’s a lot of stuff going on here,” Dolle said. “We just need to better organize it.” The consortium also would like to partner with FGCU’s Computer Science program to develop an internship program, aiming to keep tech entrepreneurs like D’Amato in the community. Tremblay recently hired three FGCU interns for REfindly, which has 14 employees and expects to double employment in the coming year. “We need more awareness of the opportunities that do exist in technology here,” Tremblay said.
He, Dolle and Doan are determined to do their parts to shine the spotlight on Southwest Florida’s emerging tech scene. “The whole concept we have here,” said Tremblay, surveying the shared cubicle space and glass-walled meeting room, “it would be a shame if we didn’t expose that to others.” In Dolle’s vision for the Technology Consortium, he sees a potential for a larger office space where multiple web tech companies could co-locate and enjoy the synergy of speaking a language few others comprehend. “We can build something good here in Southwest Florida,” Tremblay muses. “It’s a great place to work and a great place to live. There’s no reason why Southwest Florida can’t be a technology hub.”