New Ideas, New Markets, New Insights
All around the country, Americans are dreaming big. Their boldest ideas are changing their communities--and having a ripple effect throughout the world.
This is an admittedly unusual strategy, but the guys at the HuB in Sarasota, Florida, are pretty sure that by poking a little light fun at the imperfections of their adopted hometown, they can in fact generate the best kind of publicity for it, the kind that both piques the curiosity of outsiders and gets the locals snickering. After all, it worked for Portlandia.
“That’s our theory!” laughs Rich Swier, Jr., a founder of the HuB, a social enterprise/startup incubator in town that fosters media and tech companies and produces many of its own quirky media projects. “Whatever the traditional thinking is, we don’t think that’s going to work for the next generation. I think people embrace honesty, and embrace humility and appreciate self-deprecation more than they appreciate bullshit marketing.”
That more, umm, traditional form of civic marketing will tell you that Sarasota has the best beach on earth, the best restaurants and the best “senior living” communities for retirees who aren’t ready to put down their golf clubs. Maybe you’ll get a panoramic shot of Longboat Key, a couple of air-brushed scenes that project paradise, relaxation, luxury! The Hub has gone instead with its own parody of Portlandia (yes, it is possible to parody a parody), a series of webisodes that riff off of the more mundane: local politics, a recent parking meter fiasco, Sarasota’s odd boutique culture. They call the show Saratopia.
The project fits into Swier’s broader vision of evolving Sarasota from a beautiful beach community for old folks and tourists into a place where young creative types will actually want to stay, live, and start companies. “HuB wants to be a part of social change,” Swier says. “Video and social media are our sword and shield in that.”
The videos have been produced by HuB Studios, one arm of the HuB (“It’s separate, but it’s not, if that makes sense,” says HuB Studios partner Lucas Colavecchio). The HuB itself is both a family of startups and a physical space, now located on two floors of a four-story, 42,000-square-foot building downtown that was purchased by HuB member Jesse Biter. Its members seem to get a kick out of the fact that the HuB isn’t easily described: “Our plan is the non-plan,” Swier boasts. “We don’t have a business plan.” The HuB houses (and in some cases has invested in) about 15 companies that are expected to share more than four walls and a broadband connection. Many of them are media companies, which makes sense in a town with a major animation school. Silicon Valley has Stanford, Swier says; Sarasota has the Ringling College of Art + Design. Elsewhere in town, other startups are hoping to process plasma for medical research and to serve the film industry, which is expected to grow with new tax credits from the state.
Thanks to the local universities (the University of South Florida and New College are also based here), Sarasota has an odd mix of young people--most of whom don’t stay here after they graduate--and retirees. But from a startup perspective, this may be the perfect balance. Sarasota has both young entrepreneurs with ideas and older potential angel investors with deep business networks.
Of course, not all the old folks are amused by the 5-to-10 minute sketch-comedy episodes, which warmly embrace the theory of humor that some things can only be made fun of by the people closest to them.
“The fact that we make fun of ourselves will attract the kind of people who we want to be here,” Swier says. So far, the most popular of the first five shows on YouTube--episode 2: “Sh*t Nobody Says in Sarasota”--has attracted about 12,000 views. “We don’t want fake people here. We want people who are real,” Swier says. In fact, HuB’s website says they’re looking even more specifically for “the Crazy Ones. The Misfits. The Rebels. The Trouble-makers.”
Among people who already live in Sarasota, Saratopia creates a sense of community just by telling inside jokes that everyone in the city can be in on. What’s with the odd hours of all the high-end boutiques downtown? Weren’t the new high-tech parking meters in the central business district ridiculous? (In one episode, a meter asks would-be parker Joey Panek to select his preferred form of payment, and then to press 1 or 2 for his preferred candidate in the Republican presidential primary).
“All the [episodes] we have written, the main character is not necessarily me, the main character is really Sarasota,” Panek says. In another episode, he takes his parking-meter beef to the town mayor, who can’t help literally acting like a clown (a nod to Sarasota’s earliest entrepreneurs, the Ringling Brothers). “There’s something to be said for a city kind of owning its warts, which is what we’re doing. It’s like walking into a party and saying ‘Yes I have a zit, here it is.’ You kind of respect somebody who does that.”
Saratopia’s creators say they’ve heard from native Sarasotans who realize they miss the city, or from outsiders who’ve considered relocating here because of the videos--or, more specifically, because of the subtext the videos project: Some creative people seem to be having a really good time here (this is in addition to the emails the HuB guys have also received from local business-owners who think they’re jerkwads).
That’s not to suggest that Sarasota has suddenly transformed into a magnet for young, hip entrepreneurs. In many ways, the city still has a social scene intended for septuagenarians. Sarasota long had an ordinance banning live music--indoors or out--past 10 p.m. “It was like Footloose here,” Swier says. And the Creative Class doesn’t want to live in a place like early-'80s Elmore City, Oklahoma.
This speaks to the “social change” HuB wants to bring about. If Sarasota can become more welcoming to creative entrepreneurs (and create more jobs for them to stay here after college), the city already has much going for it that Silicon Valley does not. Florida has no income tax. The weather is even better. And there is that famous beach.
“There are so many reasons to come here over coming to California,” says Biter, who like Swier, Panek, and Colavecchio moved here as an adult and opted to stay. “Our biggest natural disaster you have to worry about is a hurricane, and they give you a week’s warning. There’s just so many reasons why Florida is a better place to live.”
In the background of Colavecchio’s Saratopia shots, you may pick up on that idea, too. “I‘m trying to not show the typical things that people are always accustomed to seeing about Sarasota,” Colavecchio says. “I’m trying to show something that’s maybe a little edgier, a little cooler. It’s an alternate reality of Sarasota inside my head, and just from an artistic perspective, I want people to see Sarasota the way I see it.”
Panek himself is becoming a bit of celebrity around town because of all this. People come up to him at the store with ideas for future episodes. People will even come up to him and Colavecchio while they’re filming around town suggesting rewrites for lines. “No, what you should say to the parking meter is…”