Scott Conlon has been championing the local scene in Tampa for years now – even before he started MyArea Network. We’re so happy we got to speak with Scott about his takes on talent, tech, our wonderful city of Tampa, and how important connecting with your local community truly is.
Roxanne Williams: You came highly recommended from Tony DiBenedetto. When we interviewed him, he said you were doing something awesome for the tech community in Tampa. Can you tell us a little bit about the product and what problem you’re solving in the Tampa ecosystem?
Scott Conlon: MyArea Network is a community platform for locals. Here in Tampa, we have 813area.com and 727area.com. With that, we’re also building marketing tools and solutions for businesses to be able to engage with local consumers, and to re-engage with existing customers as well. We also provide data analytics and the data driven behind it for these businesses to help uncover more insights about their customers.
The problem that we’re solving is digital fragmentation. If you think about media consumption, people are consuming media content on other social networks and on other platforms, and some isn’t purposeful or relevant to them – especially locally.
You look at local content that is getting fragmented across all these platforms, and it’s more than just search. Other tech companies are going after search and how to find businesses or events. However, we truly believe that local is more about discovery as well.
Matt Vaughn: You said re-engage with customers. Is it just posting to anybody that likes your business? How does that work?
Scott: It works in the sense of bringing social media to local content as well. Businesses are able to unlock insights in terms of who’s connected with them. We have text marketing tools, and other ways people can opt into programs for that. Think about bringing together the marketing tools they may use into one platform.
Matt: Yeah, so not having Facebook and Google and everything else.
Scott: Exactly. One of the value propositions for businesses is that they can actually see a marketing report of all their analytics. Not just on our platform, but they can pull in analytics from their website and social media to help them save time. From that, they’ll be able to deploy campaigns across multiple platforms.
Matt: There’s an impressive list of coming soon/future expansion areas up on the site. What are a few of the upcoming cities that you’re more excited about expanding into?
Scott: We’ve been growing into Orlando aggressively, and we have about 15 active markets now, so our current expansion plans are really growing deeper throughout Florida. We also are very active in Austin, Texas, so we’re starting to launch more in the Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio areas. And, we actually have somebody licensing out 228area.com, which is Biloxi, Mississippi, so we have a local operator there that’s going to be growing that market. In the next several months, it’s all about Florida to Texas.
With the expansion, what I’m really excited about is cities like Baltimore, which was my hometown before Tampa, and also Chicago and Charlotte. We look at markets based on several different metrics, not just how populated they are. What kind of growth ecosystem do they have? Do they have a lot of universities, growing universities, and sports teams? The majority of our business is also around people that are an active audience, so we want that diversity in different markets.
Matt: What goes into raising awareness and expanding into a new market? You make the site, what happens after that?
Scott: We built out a content engine, so to speak, where you can curate content. It’s not just about content we create, but curated content and member-generated content as well. We have a go-to-market strategy where the first few weeks are spent seeding a market with content that’s curated from various platforms and services.
Then, it phases into us creating some content and hiring local contributors. MyArea Network has a contributor program where local writers and photographers can sign up. That way, we don’t have to open up an office in, for example, Chicago. We just need to be able to establish local writers, contributors, and photographers, and we can start laying the groundwork of the market and start growing it from a local presence.
The third phase is more of the really sales-heavy initiatives, being able to sell into that market from Tampa. There would be certain markets, though, where we would open up a small satellite office.
Matt: Are the contributor positions paid, or is that people trying to get more exposure from the photography and writing side of things?
Scott: We pay all of our writers and photographers. Also, if you think about it being a community platform, those dollars can then stay local, right? We’re reinvesting a lot of that. We do have an internship program where we have some writers that are non-paid initially, but a lot of times, we end up hiring them on full-time.
We’re looking at implementing an incentive program as well, based on certain metrics. Right now, it’s almost a flat basis.
We are very strong in search engine optimization, so we write a lot of content for SEO to rank well on search engines. That helps drive more traffic to those sites initially. Then we start growing into more of the virality content, the content that’s also about social engagement.
Roxanne: If I am to trust your LinkedIn, you started MyArea Network three and a half years ago now?
Scott: MyArea Network started in September 2015. I had actually started 813area.com many years prior to that.
When I moved to Tampa, I was new to the area and wanted to explore everything Tampa had to offer. I created 813area.com as a way to share that with everybody, and I wanted it to be consistent.
For example, if you join 813area, you can log into 407area with the same info. The site layouts and structure are the same, so you don’t have to learn how to navigate another site. We’re also working on personalization of content too, so if what you like in Tampa is craft beer, and then you go to Denver, you’ll see all the cool craft beer places in Denver.
Another thing I saw is that we want to live like locals too, and it’s really about discovering the things that we don’t know exist in our local communities. I saw so much opportunity to scale this across the country, so I bought all the domains of area codes. I picked area codes because they’re a good representation of local. People have 813 tattoos, you have songs like Mr. 305 by Pitbull, there’s 312 Beer in Chicago. And now, here in Tampa, we celebrate 813 Day. I love it.
Roxanne: What kind of growth have you seen so far, when it comes to employees?
Scott: We’re at 21. We’ve really focused our growth on scaling the people, the processes, and the technology. The growth, in terms of our team, has been phenomenal. We’ve projected that we may outgrow this space in the next 6 months.
Roxanne: I’m curious now, because we’ve been kind of touching on tech a little bit. What kind of tech do you guys use here?
Scott: The main core platform is on Amazon AWS. It’s core PHP with MySQL, and MySQL is set up on RDS instances. It’s built to scale. We’ve already scaled, we have huge peak times of traffic around holidays like New Year’s Eve and things like that.
Otherwise, we’re working on the native app right now, so we’re using NativeScript to do progressive apps, and then we’ll do a native iOS and native Android app too.
Matt: Excellent. You touched briefly about coming up with the idea for MyArea Network in Baltimore and then coming down here. What actually brought you to Tampa?
Scott: I grew up in a military family. My dad was in the Army. Moving around as I grew up, I got exposed to so many awesome places, and uniqueness of the culture every city has. By the time I was 23, I’d been to 42 states and 13 countries.
I was in Maryland for about 8 years and I was like, “Man, I’m not so used to being so idle.” My brother had moved down here to go to school at USF. I kept visiting him and really fell in love with Tampa. So I ended up moving down here, lived in his little bungalow in Ybor city just blocks away from all the action, and I just fell in love with Tampa.
Once you feel like you’re part of a community, you’re more likely to stay. And what’s unique about us is my business partner, David Annis, was born and raised here in Tampa – third or fourth generation in Tampa – and he feels part of that community. But for me, growing up in a more transient family and having to move around, I was always wanting to be a part of it. You have to quickly learn, you have to quickly make friends.
It was good to finally find a place I can truly call home. I love where Tampa’s heading and I have no desire to move this company, and I hope that we can continue to grow here.
Roxanne: Having been in Tampa for 9 years now, what do you have to say about the quality of our tech talent? Do you feel it’s gotten better over time?
Scott: It has certainly gotten better over time. The tech community and tech ecosystem for talent has certainly grown.
I think it’s at a pivotal point, and it’s going to start growing exponentially. The universities are doing a good job with growing that talent here but I think that the companies, the ecosystem that we’re building, is ultimately going to pool in a lot more talent.
Roxanne: Do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs who may be struggling?
Scott: Get into some kind of mentor network, whether that’s joining an accelerator program like a Tampa Bay WaVE or Embarc Collective, and hang around coworking spaces. I see so much value in being around other people with common interests. That’s, again, part of the community. We’re building a really strong tech startup community here in Tampa. I would recommend entrepreneurs be part of it in any way, shape, or form. Get out there, attend the events, join an accelerator or join a program. You get so much more value out of being part of that community.
Roxanne: Speaking of events, what’s your involvement in the tech community here? Do you attend Startup Week, Synapse, poweredUP, all those?
Scott: Absolutely, and not just for me. I encourage the company as a whole to be part of, and attend, a lot of the events that are available. We were heavily involved with Synapse, for example. Not just this year, but last year as well, helping with marketing. We want to help grow that ecosystem – not just for people that are in the community, but also for the companies. It’s important for the companies here to know what’s happening.
We’re going to be part of Digital Orlando. That’s happening in April. We’re going to be helping them by doing some marketing, and other things around that event as well.
Actually, last year at Synapse, I did the Tampa Bay WaVE pitch event and ended up getting an investor from that.
Scott: Yeah, there was a success story that was written about us. Rachel West was the investor, she retired in the Sarasota area. There’s some good information about her out there.
Roxanne: That was not the 500k investment, right? Different one?
Scott: That was part of that seed round. We had a seed round that opened up in October 2017 and it spanned on for about a year.
Matt: What do you think Tampa as a whole should do to increase talent retention?
Scott: For Tampa as a whole, I would give the same advice as I would for a business: they need to not only be engaged with how to get new customers, or in this case, new talent, but also how to nurture and engage with their existing customers, or in this case, their existing talent.
Tampa could really compete with the Silicon Valleys, because we’re not trying to be like them, we’re Tampa. And focusing on that, we have so much more to offer here for our talent.
Roxanne: What do you hope to see in the next few years in Tampa Bay when it comes to tech?
Scott: I’d like to see some other big exits with companies. I think that always helps. I’d really like to see more marketing outside of Tampa, whether it’s Hillsborough county, whether it’s the EDCs. And really showcasing the businesses that are here, externally. There are already initiatives behind that, but I’d really like to see that accelerate more so. And then also what you guys are doing. Being able to talk with tech leaders in the community and help get them out there, get the message out about what they’re looking for, what their needs are, I think ultimately helps as well. You guys are doing a phenomenal job of that.
Roxanne: Thank you! These interviews, while good content, aren’t selfish. We’re interviewing people and companies, showcasing them. I’d like to think we’re bringing the community together.
Matt: Who is someone in Tampa that you think is doing something cool or innovative that more people should know about?
Scott: Going to the startups is one thing, but I think what gets missed is a lot of the companies that are right here and that have been around for years, like Revenue Management Solutions. They’ve seen the industry as a whole, so you get a different message and data behind that.
Threshold 360 is actually one of our neighbors here, and they do virtual tour content at scale. I think their motto is, “Get the largest database of all virtual tour content.” If you’re wanting to go visit a place and you’ve never been there before, you can virtually step inside and experience it. And they’re doing that at scale. It’s phenomenal and I would highly encourage talking to them, because it’s not only on the tech talent side, it’s also the innovation of virtual tour content that can then tie into augmented reality and other things.
Roxanne: Really cool. One of my favorite interviews to do was Paul Toomey from Geographic Solutions because they’ve been around for a quarter of a century. It’s cool getting that really long scale perspective of what they’ve seen happen through Tampa.
Matt: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in these past 3 years, and how did you overcome it?
Scott: As a CEO of a startup company, you have to grow and be able to handle so many roles and responsibilities that constantly change while doing all the work. And then shifting yourself from working in the business to working on the business – that’s probably the biggest challenge.
Matt: You kind of touched a little bit with the mentors being an assistant for that, but what are some other resources or platforms you could suggest as far as getting insights or knowledge around that?
Scott: Read a lot, listen to podcasts, always be curious, and always find information out there. One of the things that Tony told me is, mentors and knowledge out there can only give you the information, you have to figure out how to best apply it to yourself in your own business. And that is very true. Just because somebody else did it that way and it worked for them, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to work for you.
Matt: Did you read the Tony interview before?
Matt: He actually said that almost verbatim.
Scott: Oh really, oh my God. Whoa. [Laughter]
Matt: You properly quoted him!
Roxanne: Do you have other mentors?
Scott: Yeah. Rachel West that had joined us as an investor also joined as an advisor, and she’s phenomenal. I mean, even Rich McIntyre, one of our initial angel investors, has been a great mentor. And also, Jamie Agosti, he’s been a mentor over the past several months, it’s been phenomenal working with him as well, he gives so much. After leaving with a meeting with him, I’ll have 3 or 4 pages full of notes and just a long to-do list of things. But then I go back, and I show him, “Here’s progress that we’ve been making based off of that meeting we’ve had.”
There’s a book, Exponential Organizations, that is very good. As I was reading that book, I realized that I was already building and integrating many things they recommend, like dashboards and interfaces. There are so many components of that book, or that philosophy for scaling exponentially, that we’ve integrated in our business strategy and plan.
Matt: Are there any further thoughts you’d like to share? Anything else exciting coming down the pipeline for MyArea Network or for yourself?
Scott: I’ve built out a whole technology roadmap and a data roadmap, so now it’s not just about the things that we’re going to be accomplishing over the next quarter or the next 6 months, but it’s also about what we’ll be accomplishing in 2020 and 2021. I’m excited about seeing all this come together, because I worked so hard for this. It’s just my passion. It’s amazing.
About MyArea Network:
MyArea Network is a digital media company that advocates for communities by expanding their voice through content creation and technology.
They connect residents to local businesses through meaningful content and act as a trusted resource for where to explore and what to enjoy in cities around the country.
Their platform brings together businesses and neighbors to make hometowns more engaged and activated. By building a virtual local community, they make areas better for residents, visitors, businesses, and cities.
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