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Startup City: A welcoming city does make a difference

Michelle Waite

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Jim Cutillo discovered St. Pete while he was still living in Indianapolis and building his mortgage business there. After taking that company public, he started AppraisalVision - a tech platform for streamlining and improving the residential home appraisal process. He moved to St. Pete full time in 2019. Photo provided.

I’ve moved a lot.

I spent the majority of my formative years through the age of 17 living in and around Pittsburgh. But, even then, my family lived in a lot of different homes, and I went to many different schools.

My first grade year alone was a true field study in how to make friends and integrate into a new community. That was the year I went to three different schools. My parents had decided to buy property and build a new house near where my father grew up, further away from the city. The home was not finished yet when we had already sold our previous one, so we moved in with my uncle for a period of time. I can still clearly remember the first days in all three of those new schools shyly sitting at my desk surrounded by curious and questioning 6-year-olds.

I guess that transient lifestyle suited me. Or perhaps, it created me. In my adult years, I’ve lived in a multitude of cities both in the US and abroad. Some places were easier to assimilate than others, and much of that had to do with the culture of the community.

Although I came to love my 10 years living in New Orleans, it was probably one of the hardest places to establish a feeling of belonging. Newly married and with no family there, my husband and I did not have much to anchor us except our jobs in the early days. Eventually, we purchased our first home and both of our kids were born there. Most of the people we came to know were natives to the region – and over time, we developed closer connections through work, our neighborhood and our kids’ schools. However, there was always an underlying sense of being an outsider.

It was different moving to St. Pete last year. Yes, we had family here and yes, my husband grew up from 7th -12th grade here, but I was nonetheless nervous about finding my way and connecting with people. In Houston, San Francisco and Singapore, it was fairly easy. Our kids were in school, and I made some of the best friends of my life in those communities. When we made the move to St. Pete, however, it was the first time we settled in a new community as empty nesters.

What I soon discovered was that Tampa Bay is a community that welcomes you. A diverse community made up of people who have lived here forever and people who just moved here. Genuine people who are interested in interesting things and have lived (and are living) interesting lives. People who bring you into their circles and make introductions to others – just because. It’s a place where I feel like I can settle in and stay for a very, very long time.

I believe that the welcoming and connecting nature of a city’s community is a key differentiator for not only attracting startups, other businesses and talent, but in helping them all to thrive.

How Does Tampa Bay Welcome Innovators?

This same welcoming spirit does indeed exist in our own local business and startup community. “An innovation community is only as strong as the people in it,” explains Brian Kornfeld, CEO of Synapse – a local non-profit that connects entrepreneurs, investors, and other stakeholders within the innovation economy across Florida. “The only way to get stronger is to be welcoming of more and diverse people to the ecosystem who want to contribute.”

Recently, Kornfeld and the team at Synapse have also taken a leading role in facilitating a cross organizational and regional effort to welcome new talent and support our burgeoning tech ecosystem. Dubbed Hi Tampa Bay, this grassroots effort aims to attract and retain top talent to support innovative organizations.

It was initially set up as a single landing place, followed by a “red carpet” treatment of introductions and opportunities. The group is also now coordinating monthly happy hours and gatherings to bring people together. “As we all contribute together to welcome new talent to our region or local talent into our ecosystem,” further explains Kornfeld, “the collective community will continue to only get stronger.”

Lakshmi Shenoy agrees. She is the CEO of Embarc Collective, Florida’s fastest growing startup hub, now serving 125+ companies. Alongside other community leaders and organizations, she was one of the original instigators for Hi Tampa Bay. “This launched as a collaborative way to connect with the increasing interest from tech talent nationally in the Tampa Bay region,” Shenoy notes.

Shenoy experienced first-hand what it feels like to be a transplant to the area when she moved to Tampa in 2018 to launch and run Embarc Collective. “Florida is filled with transplants, and many of us have experienced being the new person at one point or another. What I really like about the Tampa Bay region is that there is diversity amongst its people. There is an openness here to support different interests, cultures, and perspectives.”

Another local organization focused on attracting and welcoming businesses to our community, including startups, is the St. Petersburg Economic Development Corporation (St. Pete EDC). Their role is to promote what many people who live and work in St. Pete already know – that it’s a place where innovative companies thrive in a vibrant and authentically warm business community.

“We encourage companies to relocate and expand in the Sunshine City, which generates opportunities for the people of St. Pete, bringing new jobs and new business,” says J.P. DuBuque, President and CEO of the St. Pete EDC. One of their goals includes marketing the city to executives, referral sources and site selection consultants for companies working within the St. Pete Grow Smarter sectors.

A welcoming and connective ethos is at their core. “When companies consider our area, we serve as their ‘St. Pete Concierge,’ collaborating with our community partners to inform and connect prospects to resources,” further explains DuBuque. “We personalize each interaction, depending on the company’s requirements.”

The work doesn’t stop there. Once a company has chosen St. Pete, the St. Pete EDC will also help them “Become St. Pete” by assisting with issues like media relations for announcements, helping them promote new positions, assisting with opening their new office and integrating their employees into the community.

Not every city or region is so natural at embracing outsiders. This welcoming spirit, combined with structured programs like the ones discussed above, makes Tampa Bay a very special place where new businesses launching or moving to the area can achieve great success.

A local transplant’s founder story

Like many transplants in the Tampa Bay region, Jim Cutillo, founder and CEO of AppraisalVision, moved to St. Pete from the midwest. Prior to moving here, Cutillo was the founder and CEO of a company called Stonegate Mortgage Corporation. Stonegate was an Indianapolis-based mortgage originator and servicer founded in 2005.

After weathering the financial crisis in 2008, the company was able to successfully go public in 2013 raising over $100M with an IPO. During that same period, the opportunity to purchase a warehouse bank called Natty Mac presented itself. Natty Mac happened to be located in St. Pete at the time, and through multiple visits to the area while exploring the purchase of the company, Cutillo was hooked.

“In 2012, I started coming down here as a result of the due diligence and acquisition process and stumbled upon staying at the Vinoy,” recalls Cutillo. “It was at that point that I said that I was going to live here someday.”

While later visiting the area with his kids in 2016, he happened upon a house that he purchased, and where he now lives in the Old Northeast neighborhood of St. Pete. “It was a very spontaneous thing, but I’m glad I did it,” says Cutillo. After living for a period of time part time in both states, he eventually moved to St. Pete permanently in 2019. “We love it here. It’s so walkable. We’re downtown all the time and love the pier. Lots of good stuff to say about St. Pete.”

After taking some time to figure out his next move, Cutillo started thinking about one of the biggest pain points in the mortgage process – the property appraisal.

“When you go to buy a home or refinance, the whole process is contingent upon the value of your property,” states Cutillo. “It has to appraise, or you’re ending up in a situation where you have to renegotiate the price … or you’re not able to get as much money out of your house as you had hoped.”

Recognizing that there has been very little tech innovation in the appraisal space in recent years, and given changes to the ecosystem after the mortgage crisis of 2008, he knew he could leverage his experience to reinvent the business model.

The team set out to support all stakeholders in the appraisal workflow including the lenders, the appraisal management companies, the independent contractors who were conducting the actual appraisals and, ultimately, the sellers and buyers.

“There are appraisers who work for multiple appraisal management companies,” explains Cutillo. “We have appraisers who are saying we have to log into 10 different systems today to do our job. It is really inefficient because everyone has their own system.”

AppraisalVision is a multi-sided platform where appraisers can access a network of appraisal management companies and lenders that send them business and pay them using the same system with one log in, one process, and one way of communicating with everyone.

The overall transaction is rated from start to finish to help identify where the friction exists and how the process can be streamlined. This is not just a 5-star rating system.

“We created a layer within our platform that is driven by data and analytics – a business intelligence – that gets embedded into the application itself,” describes Cutillo. “We can tell you orders that are behind schedule, orders that are ahead of schedule, orders that are likely to be delayed and the reason why.” This provides the lender or appraisal management company with a high level of certainty for on-time delivery, when they place the order.

“We are in a pretty high growth mode right now,” says Cutillo. Despite current market trends, he believes they are well positioned to grow, even into a contracting market.

No one can know for sure what the markets have in store for us over the coming months. One thing is clear, however, and something both Cutillo and I agree on – St. Pete is a great place to live and work!

Startup City will continue to explore topics on what it takes to have a thriving startup ecosystem on a bi-weekly basis through stories and thoughts of local residents.

Michelle Waite is the VP of Marketing at Florida Funders, a locally-based venture capital firm and angel investor network who enables tech startups to thrive through monetary and business-intellectual capital. She has invested in, co-founded and worked for tech startups for the last 10 years. She counts herself lucky every day to work for and alongside some pretty amazing entrepreneurs. You can follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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