Not many of us will, in our lifetimes, experience a trillion of anything. So let’s put the number in perspective. A trillion is a 1 married to a dozen zeros. It’s a million millions. It’s a thousand billions. A trillion is a number so big it’s borderline unfathomable.
So, now that we better understand the magnitude of a trillion, consider this: Since early 2020, South Florida has reportedly seen $1 trillion in new assets come to town.
There are lots of reasons for this massive, unprecedented increase in such a short time—lax pandemic rules compared to other states, relatively low taxes, and heck, maybe even the likability of the Miami Heat. But there’s one reason that stands out among all others: South Florida is in the midst of a tech boom.
How did we somehow end up with a trillion-dollar increase in just 16 months? The answer is both obvious and ambiguous, sometimes credited to one man or nobody at all. We do, however, know exactly when the world started watching. And it all began with four words.
The Tweet that (Sort of) Started it All
Midmorning on October 26, 2021, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez took a seat in one of three director’s chairs spread out on a stage in Brightline’s downtown Miami station. The passenger train company had an announcement: a new Uber-like service would begin soon. Suarez used both hands to clutch a microphone in his lap as he listened to speeches from Brightline’s CEO and a county official. Then Suarez, dressed in a dark suit with a red tie that matched socks adorned with palm trees, got his turn. Suarez can fill his chiseled face with a weatherman’s toothy grin or a furrowed-brow scowl that makes him look like an enforcer from a mafia film. That morning, he looked jubilant, triumphant, a politician taking a victory lap just days before his landslide reelection.
“This Miami movement began with a simple tweet,” he told a crowd of mostly journalists and Brightline vendors. “The tweet was not just about emphasizing some of the attributes of this city, in terms of our tax climate and things that make people want to come live here and move here. It was also about rolling out the red carpet.”
Suarez sent the tweet in question on December 4, 2020. It was a reply to a venture capitalist who had suggested that Silicon Valley relocate to Miami. “How can I help?” Suarez retorted. The tweet picked up millions of views and ended up creating headlines from major news outlets.
Some have suggested that the tweet became the catalyst for South Florida’s recent tech boom. More realistically, it pointed out something that was happening already. But either way, it got the world’s attention. It was the moment Miami became an official tech hub.
The truth is that South Florida has been working for more than a decade to lure tech companies here. The Knight Foundation alone has sunk $40 million into the effort. In Miami, venture capital funding—the money given typically to startups or accelerated-growth companies—grew from $1 billion in 2013 to $3.3 billion by 2019.
The companies that have relocated or started here in the past few years include Eight Sleep, House of Wise, Novo, OpenStore, and Blockchain.com. Major tech giants are opening local offices, including Microsoft and Spotify. Firms and folks that fund startups and high-growth companies have also relocated here; among them are big-name investors like Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, Shutterstock founder Jonathan Oringer, and venture capitalist David Blumberg. In early 2021, funding giant SoftBank announced it would invest $100 million into Miami companies to cement the city as a technology hub.
But it’s not just Miami: the tech boom has come to Broward County too, which is home to startups and scaleups like Boatsetter, Citrix, Magic Leap, Chewy, Ultimate Kronos Group, Future Tech Enterprise, and Nearpod.
According to Suarez, thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars in venture capital money have arrived since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Beyond the lax lockdown and the tax incentives (just 1 percent of companies here pay corporate income tax), Suarez says Miami also made it clear to companies that they would be appreciated. “It was about creating a concierge environment for business and for those who are creating and innovating,” he explains.
What was the exact moment the tech boom started in South Florida? “That’s a really good question,” says Jason Liu, a renowned computer scientist and University Eminent Scholar Chaired Professor at Florida International University’s Knight Foundation School of Computing and Information Sciences, which expects to double its enrollment to 6,000 students in the next five years.
There simply isn’t one answer—or one moment—that changed the direction of the city, he says. South Florida’s climate, its multicultural diversity, its prestige these days as a great place to live—all of these are factors in a growing movement to bring tech companies to town. There’s also the fact that Silicon Valley has become too expensive and too crowded, and there simply needs to be another tech HQ. South Florida just makes sense as the best choice.
“I hear about this tech boom, and I think, yeah, it’s long overdue,” says Liu. “It should be the case that Miami is not a secondary place for tech companies. We are finally being seen as an obvious place for tech companies to be located.”
Having these new companies come to town means South Florida just might become the place where something big happens. These days, advances in computing and technology happen so quickly that we’re likely to see major innovations happen here, perhaps in artificial intelligence or augmented reality. “This is a great opportunity for us to take the leap and bring change,” Liu says.
What’s it like then to be in the halo of the region’s tech industry these days? For those who remember “The Days Before the Tweet,” it’s a very different place.
The Changing Face of South Florida
In early August 2021, Jared Shapiro drove out on the Venetian Causeway to the $22 million mansion owned by venture capitalist Robert Zangrillo. The occasion was a hackathon—an event designed to give computer programmers a space to work on a project together and also to convince angel investors that the thing they’re working on will definitely change the world.
Shapiro was there because he owns a PR firm in South Florida called The Tag Experience that represents several tech companies and venture capitalists. Shapiro watched the attendees with fascination. “I looked around the house, and there were no realtors, no plastic surgeons, no party promoters. It was a very different Miami crowd. It was CEOs of startups, founders, venture capitalists, and techies. They were from San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and other places.”
Those newcomers arrived in South Florida to find private schools that cost 40 percent less to attend than schools in Silicon Valley, and two-bedroom homes that are a fraction of the cost of a closet-sized space in New York City. They had fled pandemic-closed Manhattan to find restaurants in South Florida so crowded that Boia De had reservations booked for three months, pizza pop-up Old Greg’s sold out as soon as it posted that week’s orders online, and New York expat–owned Carbone had tables available only to those who knew someone.
By the time the mayor sent that fated tweet in December 2020, venture capitalists were already handing out large checks to newcomers, startups, and existing South Florida tech companies. “To give you an idea of what’s going on in the Miami tech scene: every day, sometimes multiple times a day, a big, massive deal is announced,” Shapiro says. “It’s literally like every day that somebody is pulling the confetti.”
He’s not far off. For the first nine months of 2021, there was a funding deal announced, on average, nearly every weekday—179 funding deals total for startups and growing companies. Those deals brought the tech investment surge in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale metro area to $2.4 billion in the first three quarters of the year, according to venture capital reporting firm CB Insights.
This period of explosive growth is something Jeff Ransdell has been watching with curiosity. In 2001, after working on Wall Street, Merrill Lynch sent him to Miami to oversee the company’s presence in Latin America. He quickly discovered the city’s attributes—good weather, more affordable housing than in New York, multicultural diversity, livable neighborhoods—the same upsides that tech companies and venture capitalists are finding today.
When Ransdell opened his own VC firm in 2017, Fuel Venture Capital, he headquartered it in South Florida. Fuel now has a $160 million flagship global fund that has deployed more than $50 million to South Florida startups. Among them is Fort Lauderdale’s Ubicquia, which Ransdell says is “really dominating the smart city infrastructure around the world.” Two years after Ransdell’s firm invested $25 million in satellite company Terran Orbital of Boca Raton, the company has plans to go public with a valuation of $1.58 billion. A deal like that used to be something seen only in New York or Silicon Valley, but now it’s becoming more common in South Florida.
“I think Miami’s tech scene is going to continue to grow,” says Ransdell. “The first thing is to build the ecosystem of creativity. You’ve got founders and creators here now, and it will continue to grow.”
Among the startups taking off in South Florida these days is Taxfyle, often described as the Uber for filing taxes due to its ability to connect people virtually to accountants. In 2021, the company doubled its staff and hit a growth rate of 300 percent. Founder Ricky Lavina recalls first heading out to Silicon Valley to pitch his idea to venture capital firms along Sand Hill Road. All of them wondered why he was in South Florida. “They’d say, ‘Hey, love what you’re doing, but you need to move over here,’” Lavina recalls.
As more investors and companies arrive, Lavina says people with new computer science and programming degrees stay in Miami rather than leave for Silicon Valley. That means it’s easier to bring on new talent, since few startups can afford relocation costs. “With every day that passes and the area grows more and more, there’s less of a reason for a tech company to have to go to New York or Silicon Valley,” Lavina says.
All this tech growth is also fundamentally changing the metro area, perhaps for good. Shapiro, thinking back to that hackathon, says it’s the moment when he realized the very personality of South Florida had changed.
“We used to be Instagram-obsessed,” Shapiro says. “Now it’s more LinkedIn and Twitter.”