Get to Know James Gibson

Check out our interview with startGNV Board President James Gibson and learn about his passion for Gainesville, his love of City Council history, .... and why he thinks when looking to plan Gainesville's future, we should start by looking at our past.

Get to Know James Gibson

As the newly elected startGNV Board President following Aidan Augustin, James Gibson has some big shoes to fill. But at 6'5, and with an increasingly successful company under his belt at age 28, the CTO and Co-founder of Quottly is certainly on his way.

As part of our 'Get to Know' startGNV blog series:

Check out our interview with startGNV Board President James Gibson and learn about his passion for Gainesville, his love of City Council history, .... and why he thinks when looking to plan Gainesville's future, we should start by looking at our past.

Give us the James Gibson 101

My name is James Gibson.

I grew up in Tampa but have long family connections to Gainesville - one of my grandfathers taught radiation chemistry at UF for more than 40 years, and the other went to UF, along with both of my parents and all of my aunts and uncles. At UF I considered going into investment banking, but was always working on startup-y projects and worked for a couple of years as a programmer for a couple of other startups in town. By time I got to finishing my graduate degree, Quottly was already on the horizon, and we had support from our first and most important investor, so I decided to keep working on it. Gainesville is a great place to work, especially early-stage, as the cost of living like a student is very low. I've been here since, aside from several months-long periods living in San Francisco, New York, and Hong Kong.

What is Quottly, and tell us about the name!

Quottly sells software to colleges and universities that enables institutions to work together seamlessly to achieve their and their student's goals. The flagship product is our cross-registration product, which enables students from one participating institution to find and enroll in classes at other participating institutions seamlessly with just a couple of clicks, while following all of the rules and guidance set forth by the institutions. We've been growing quickly and have some very large customers, like the California Community College system. The name really comes from an earlier version of the product which was more oriented towards helping students decide what college to attend, the idea was you could get a 'quote' for a lower price on a college degree by mixing in transfer classes.

Tell us how you found out about startGNV and how long you've served on the startGNV board?

I was familiar with GAIN prior to the GAIN to startupGNV now startGNV transition, but did not really attend any events. Post-transition, I was connected to the organization by our former president Aidan Augustin, who is a friend of mine - both of us had returned to Gainesville after sojourning elsewhere (in his case in Austin, also for Feathr, which is now a startGNV sponsor).

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Favorite moment/memory in the innovation ecosystem?

My favorite memory is perhaps not the happiest, but I think the most important. I went to the Grooveshark offices after Grooveshark shut down with several folks from Immersed Games, with whom we were sharing an office, to buy used office furniture and computing equipment. The owners of the office then, I believe the McGurns - it's now the Shadow Health offices, downtown - were selling everything left in the office to offset some back rent.

Grooveshark had been around for I believe at least 6 or 7 years at that point, raised at least four or five million dollars, peaked at I believe over 100 employees, and was at perhaps 50 when they shut down. Walking into an office like that is pretty surreal, as there was lots of stuff leftover. I distinctly remember us haggling over saving $5 or $10 on a whiteboard that still very clearly had what must have been some cash flow calculations on it, and I imagine was exactly where they decided to shut down the company. Lots of stuff just went in the dumpster I'm sure. It wasn't exactly a happy place.

But the flip side of this is that Immersed and Quottly and several other companies got a lot of very discounted office equipment. I used an ex-Grooveshark office chair for years. I used two monitors, Escape Media Group (the original name for the corporate entity for Grooveshark) inventory numbers 2 and 3, for years. I think we paid $40 ea for them, and they were very nice Sony monitors that must have been $400 or $500 new. They came out of one of the executive offices, so they must have one of the founders'.

So while Grooveshark shutting down was very sad, there was at least a silver lining in that other startups probably saved tens of thousands of dollars on equipment. And the people that Grooveshark brought together have gone on to do amazing other things - the company Admiral being the prime example, in addition to the many who ended up at SharpSpring. That's what we mean by 'innovation ecosystem' - not every company will succeed, at least not forever, but the people who meet at one place go on to found another company, and so on.

You could run Quottly out of anywhere, why GNV?

I lived in San Francisco for 6 months, New York City for 6 months, and Hong Kong for 4 months before coming back to Gainesville. While in normal times, for certain kinds of companies, there can be an advantage to be closer to your customers - e.g. both Grooveshark and Admiral have made the effort to have a presence in New York City, as NYC is the center of the advertising industry - I think Gainesville is a fantastic place to be.

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For me, I want the stress in my life to come from working hard to build amazing things, not from whether the G train will be running today. Intellectually, I'll put your average Gainesvillian up against your average New Yorker or San Franciscan any day. There's great people here, and it's a great place to live, and raise a family.

These days, COVID aside, every founder I know in SF or NYC ends up spending plenty of time flying to the other coast, or to Miami, or to Chicago, anyway, so why not Gainesville?

Tell us about your vision for startGNV and Gainesville's innovation ecosystem? Hopes and dreams for 2021?

I'll separate this into two parts - first, in my role on the board of startGNV, I believe that our job is to help the community achieve whatever it's members are striving to accomplish, regardless of what their vision for their venture is. That could be quick exits, that could be IPOs, it could be just keeping your headquarters here, it could be finally pushing UF out as the largest employer in Alachua County. We're here to try to assist in building that.

Personally, I believe that Gainesville is uniquely positioned to generate very very high returns on invested capital, especially for early stage companies. We're never going to be San Francisco or New York or even Austin in size (which has 5x as many residents as Gainesville), but we can be the best version of Gainesville, with a strong community of smart people doing good work and making the world a better place. I'm more interest in tracking ROI, as hard as that is to track, than just profit size here.

Advice for startup founders like yourself?

Connect with other founders, both your stage and after. startGNV is a great way to do this. Being a founder is, frankly, a uniquely lonely experience - you may have a co-founder, but you don't have co-workers in any real sense (as even if you have employees, there's a different relationship there), and your non-founder friends, while hopefully supportive, aren't in a position to empathize much.

Find some other folks to talk to and be friends with; the best specific advice about individual situations comes out of those relationships.

You've read the Gainesville city council minutes back to the 1800s? Tell us the most interesting things you found out.

I've read a good chunk of the scanned minutes for the county commission from the 1850s and 1870s. The most interesting thing to me is that it's abundantly evident just how much smaller the community was then, and how much more people had to come together to accomplish the goals. You see the same names pop up in numerous places, not necessarily prestigious ones - such and such person being assigned to raise labor to build a road, the same person might show up as the secretary of a local company later, the same person might have their name on the survey of some property.

The county also did much more locally - for example, collecting money to provide for the upkeep of 'widows and orphans', basically poor rolls - there being no state, much less federal, welfare programs. But simultaneously, the county didn't have the capacity to manage other things; as an example, if I recall correctly, Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, which was established in 1868, ended up handling the work of distributing land that had been allocated to be given to freed slaves after the Civil War. Evidently the county did not have the resources to manage it internally; I don't believe I recall seeing any records of the county having full time staff except for the court for a long period.

My favorite example of this though is the fact that Gainesville exists itself.

By way of background Alachua County was one of the early Florida counties, from which many other counties, even down to the Sarasota area, were carved out. In the early 1850s the county seat was a town called Newnansville, which was northeast of what is now the town of Alachua, near where the Hare Krishna temple is, I believe. I infer, but have not confirmed, that this was likely because it was at least close to the Bellamy Road, which was the first highway in Florida, which went from St. Augustine to Pensacola, and did so by way of the natural bridge over the Santa Fe River in what is now O'Leano State Park.

But in 1853 the Florida Legislature chartered a railroad that would run from Fernandina to Cedar Key, called the Florida Railroad. The path of the railroad was set soon after, it came from Fernandina to the west, north of what is now Jacksonville, to Callahan, then cut south-west through Baldwin, Starke, Waldo, Gainesville, Archer, out to Bronson and Cedar Key. Anyone who has driven to I-10 to go to Jacksonville, or down to Cedar Key, has covered a good bit of the path of the railroad.

Of course this left Newnansville about 17 miles from where the railroad would be. Remember this is well before cars - 17 miles on bad roads would likely be 4 to 5 hours, even when hurrying, or maybe a full day's travel when carrying goods. Everyone in Newnansville surely knew that the railroad meant economic opportunity, as the railroad could, in just one day, put you or your goods on a boat in Cedar Key headed to New Orleans or Havana in just a day, or on a boat in Fernandina headed north to Savannah, Charleston, or even New York.

So the solution was obvious, the county seat was decided to be moved to Gainesville on September 6, 1853. The railroad had just been chartered - it wouldn't actually reach Gainesville until 1859! - but that's how much economic opportunity meant. A new courthouse had to be built. Churches had to be re-built. About 200 people moved their homes. There wasn't any special extra money or resources to do this - as far as I can tell the chief burden was imposed on the people who did the moving, with help from other county residents. But there was obviously no hesitation - people moved to Gainesville by 1854, even though the railroad didn't arrive for 6 more years.

To me, it's that spirit that startGNV is trying to continue. Today, economic opportunity for Alachua County residents doesn't require us to move the courthouse 17 miles to be near the (future) railroad. Today, economic opportunity means innovative companies that solve real problems for real people, across the world, and by doing so create high paying, good jobs for people here. startGNV is here to make that happen more.

Anything I didn't ask that you want to mention?

I like to fly airplanes.

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