Mayor Francis Suarez on Softbank's $100 million investment in Miami startupsView transcript
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez didn’t expect his tweet about the city’s startups to go viral.
The tweet in question was a reply to a tweet about moving Silicon Valley to Miami. Mayor Suarez wrote “How can I help?” and saw what he described as a tsunami of replies and followers coming his way. As the Silicon Valley exodus gains more traction, Miami has been one of the front runners — along with Austin, Denver, and Los Angeles — to replace the Bay Area as the nation’s tech hub. And Mayor Suarez is welcoming venture capitalists and founders alike with open arms.
As part of his plan to turn Miami into the next Silicon Valley, Mayor Suarez has been courting companies like Softbank, which just pledged $100 million in funding for companies in the Miami area on Thursday.
Mayor Suarez recently sat down with the Business of Business to discuss going viral, Miami’s plans to attract startups and VCs, and why the city is embracing Bitcoin.
Francis Suarez on Miami startups, Bitcoin, and the Silicon Valley exodus00:00:00
The Business of Business: Did you expect your tweet to go viral?
Mayor Suarez: I didn't expect it to go viral. It's been incredibly enjoyable, very positive, fun. I feel like I've been able to express myself in a truer fashion, and be a little bit more myself. I feel like I've tapped into a community of people, and I think it's by their very nature, by their DNA, they’re just very positive. They have to be. If you're trying to build a company, and grow a company, you can't get up in the morning thinking of all the ways it's not going to work out, of all the reasons why it's going to fail. I think we need more of that in our world.
We really need more people, and particularly in politics, that are focused on positive solutions, positive developments, positivity generally, building people up instead of tearing them down, and I think that's missing. I think my tweets, and just who I am, it's something that resonated a lot with people, just because I think they're thirsting for that in a way.
What initiatives are you planning to create a startup ecosystem in Miami?
Well I'm glad you asked, because we just announced a big one today. Marcelo Claure, from Softbank, just announced a $100 million fund for Miami companies, and for companies moving to Miami, as a venture fund that's going to be dedicated solely to the region. I think that was a huge announcement, to have a private sector partner come in, based on the work that I'm doing, and decide they want to do this. I think that's unprecedented in the history of the city, to have that kind of dedication to our city. I think, for me, it's just very exciting.
“We've produced a ton of talent here, and we've exported it to other parts of the country. We have to go from brain drain to brain gain.” - Suarez
I just named a chief innovation officer for the Mayor's Office, and we're working on incentives that we're going to continue, hopefully, to roll out over the next few weeks, that will allow us to compete with any city on the planet, to attract talent. [points to office window] Look, this is not a virtual background. Miami has a lot of things to offer, but I think we've reached that Malcolm Gladwell “Tipping Point” of a confluence of factors that have conspired to make Miami the epicenter of this tech and hedge fund movement from New York.
What are those factors?
The factors are the tax structures of some of these cities, the fact that crime has increased in a lot of these cities. Homelessness has increased in a lot of these cities. We just reduced crime by 25% last year. We have less than 1,000 homeless people. We've reduced homelessness by 90% in our community. I think the fact that we're saying, "How can we help," and we're welcoming, and other cities are pushing people out, or not appreciative of the innovators that are creating high paying jobs in their city.
All the societal problems that exist in any city, exist in all cities. Every city has gentrification. Every city has income inequality. Every city has poverty. Every city has crime. Really what defines a city is how you deal with those issues, and we're trying to create a model for how to do that. We're doing it by decreasing taxes. We have the second lowest tax rate in 60 years. We're doing that by increasing the number of police officers, and that's created a tremendous amount of safety in our city, and we're doing that by inviting the innovative and creative class to help create the kinds of jobs that my children, and my grandchildren, and every child and grandchild born in this city are going to have an opportunity to take and provide for their families.
When I was 20 years old — I'm 43 now — for 20 years we've been an intellectual talent exporter. We've produced a ton of talent here, and we've exported it to other parts of the world, and other parts of the country. We have to go from brain drain to brain gain, and I think that is something that we're focusing on: making sure our talent comes back, and making sure the talent you produce here stays here.
Miami's not the only city that people are flocking to. Why do you think that exodus is happening? Do you feel like it's due to the way San Francisco's run?
It's a variety of things, and I just mentioned some of them. I don't like to call out specific cities, because their mayors are my friends, and I'm blessed to lead the U.S. Conference of Mayors in January of next year, but I think the issues that I talked about, not being welcoming, increasing taxes, crime that's rampant, homelessness that's taken over the city, and I've had people that are six, seven generation inhabitants of cities, six, seven generations that are saying, "I'm done. I've had enough. I'm out."
“Growing the size of government has never been the solution. I think putting more research in the hands of the private sector is, but the private sector cannot solve everybody's problems either.” - Suarez
I think sometimes cities take their residents for granted, and they actually think that they're actually doing something good, but when you look at, for example, where we came from — we came from Cuba, and it's a country where the government basically nationalized all property. They said, "Oh, don't worry, we're going to make everybody equal. The solution to poverty, the solution to inequality is the government's going to take over. We're going to make everybody equal, and that's going to solve the problem." We've seen how that worked out. We've seen a place like Venezuela, which was the second wealthiest country in the world, 90% of its residents now live below the poverty level. 90%, from the second wealthiest country in the world.
For me, growing the size of government has never been the solution, and will never be the solution. That's not how I feel. I think putting more research in the hands of the private sector, the private sector's incredibly generous, but the private sector cannot solve everybody's problems either. A company didn't create those problems, and they're sure not going to be able to solve those problems. Actually, I think tech, to the extent that we can solve a lot of these problems, is probably going to be a big part of the solution.
Crime, for example — I have a gun fire detection system. I know with GPS precision anytime a gun is fired, instantly. We're working on some second and third generation things that will hopefully leverage that technology, so imagine if I had the ability to stop urban homicides. That would be earth shattering, in terms of quality of life, in terms of peace in the city.
I don't think technology is the big bad thing. Certainly, any company, whether it's technology or otherwise that came in, it could be a gentrifier, a stratifier, there's no doubt about it. What I've actually seen with a lot of these technology companies is quite the opposite. Almost the first thing that they tell me is, "How can we become part of the social fabric? What are the organizations that we should be investing in? How do we keep growing this ecosystem?" So they're cognizant of the reputation they have, whether it's deserved or not, and they want to invest, so that's been my experience.
You recently published a white paper on Bitcoin. I'd love to hear a little bit about your plans with Bitcoin and how you're going to utilize that technology.
We're working on a few things. One of them that we're working on, by the way, went completely viral. We got, I think, 2.4 million impressions, crazy. What's cool is there's a very robust crypto community within the technology community. It's very loyal, very excited about the moment as well, because they see crypto becoming more mainstream.
We're looking at three different projects. One of them is potentially having some of our employees take a percentage of their salary in Bitcoin. We saw, very famously, the football player that wanted a portion of his salary in Bitcoin, so we're looking at that. We're looking at paying fees and taxes with Bitcoin, and we're looking at, to some extent, the possibility of investing some of our treasury in Bitcoin. That's something we're looking at. That one's probably the hardest of all of them, not just because it's Bitcoin, but just based on the volatility of the asset.
We have certain parameters that we have to be able to follow through, whether it's corn, or whether it's wheat, whatever the asset is, whether it's a currency, whether it's a commodity, it doesn't matter. What matters is the volatility, but we're working on it. I'm thinking about some partnerships that might reduce the risk to the city, and might make it an exciting value proposition for us. Those are the things that we're looking at in that space, and I think as we roll things out, I think they'll be very well received.
Where do you see the tech scene in Miami going in five to 10 years?
I think there is no limit. I really believe that the city has the possibility, the prospect of being the biggest player in tech, in the world. I know that sounds like a bold prediction, but when you consider the exodus, and when you consider that it's coming from two different mega markets, in Silicon Valley, the Bay Area, and New York, and you have a confluence of VCs, founders, and investors, and programmers. You combine them with hedge funds and private equity, which I don't think has ever been combined into one location, the synergy of that is exponential, and frankly, we've seen how markets are disrupted very quickly. We're seeing what's happening now with GameStop. Markets can be, and financial markets can be disrupted extremely quickly.
Cities can be disrupted very quickly, too. If you're not flexible, if you're not nimble, if you're not adaptable, it can happen. That's why I think I'm lucky, and I'm blessed to be a young mayor. My generation's really the first tech generation, if you think about it. We're the first ones to have personal computers. We're the first ones that had the ubiquity of these really fancy phones that can do pretty much anything. We need to have more sophisticated computer systems, and the systems that used to launch rockets into space, phones have more computing power, so our children are growing up in an environment where bandwidth, tech tools and tech education are going to be the most important things that they really have to encounter.
I'd love to hear about your initiatives for small businesses.
We've been very much trying to help small businesses survive the pandemic, so we have been quick about allocating funds from the CARES Act. We also created something that I just launched yesterday or the day before, which is called eStart. My goal is to eventually be completely virtual, as a City Hall. Have the ability to be completely virtual. Nobody has to actually go into a building to interact at City Hall. Some people would really love that, but I think we started with ePlan. That was my first initiative, which was electronic plans, so we didn't have to pull a permit or anything like that. Everything can be done electronically.
Then I said, "You know what, let's take it to the next level. If you want to start a business, let's give you the ability to start it from your phone, from your laptop, from your computer." We just launched that this week, and then the next step is, I want to go completely virtual. I want you to be able to, if you're going to go to City Hall, instead of having to go to City Hall, you can just get an appointment. You get a facial interaction with somebody, and whatever it is that you need to do, whatever paperwork you need to fill out, it's all electronic. Whatever you need to do is all virtual. There's no real need to actually go in. You can make the payment online. There's just no need to really physically be in the building.
“I think there is no limit. I really believe that the city has the possibility of being the biggest player in tech in the world.” - Suarez
I think that bodes well, obviously for future pandemics, and for our current pandemic, but I think it also is just a hospitality ease of business, and I think also that hospitality, and I'm sorry to digress a little bit, but the hospitality component of being a mayor, I think has been lost a little bit, in terms of some of these other cities. I think that's become a problem.
You met with some VCs and founders to talk about Miami being a tech hub. I'd love to hear about those meetings.
I met everybody. I've met with — the list is too long. Some of the ones that are more prominent, obviously Keith Rabois, Peter Thiel. I've met with Steve Davis from the Boring Company. I'm supposed to meet with Elon Musk soon. It's been amazing, really. It's not that I didn't think, I could never have expected this J curve moment for our City. When I saw it happening, I certainly realized what was happening, the wave that was coming, the tsunami that was coming at me. I guess I was fortunate and blessed to be able to ride that wave successfully.
When did you realize that was happening?
Pretty shortly after the tweet. When the tweet got 2.4 million impressions, I realized I've never had a tweet that had that many impressions. I realized something here, I really touched a nerve. The more that I dove in, the more that I invested, the more reward I got, which is unusual for social media, right? It's usually a pretty nasty place. Frankly it was a lot of fun. Since it went to something that I believed in, in my core, it made it very easy.
Silicon Valley Twitter is a huge community. There’s a lot of active people.
Maybe you tapped into that a little bit.
Oh I totally tapped into it. My Twitter account grew by 100% in basically two months.
Wha other initiatives are happening right now?
We're announcing things, partnerships, almost on a weekly basis. It's extremely exciting. We've created a backend organization called Venture Miami, which is basically my chief innovation officer, and we're pulling people from a variety of different organizations, philanthropic, like the DDO, which is the Downtown Development Organization, or Economic Development Organization, so we're putting everybody in a room together. We're trying to create a deep dive into our strengths and weaknesses, so that we can present the best package to people who want to come here.