LAKEWOOD RANCH -- It's easy to see that Jesse Biter is the Mark Zuckerberg of Sarasota.
At just 37, the Pennsylvania native is a multi-millionaire living and working downtown, all while trying to change the business climate of his beloved city.
Biter shared his secrets to success during a presentation Thursday to about 150 members of the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance. His keys: trust God, maintain a positive workplace environment, don't micromanage, think bigger.
After dropping out of college, Biter said he borrowed $1,000 from his mother to start a business installing fiber optic cables in neighborhoods.
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On the side, to pay the bills, he helped car dealerships with their networking systems -- until one of the dealerships asked Biter to build a website. His price: $30,000.
As Biter built the website, he came in contact with Auto Trader, which had a very time-consuming, tedious process for listing its cars. Biter was hired to find a way to speed it up. He succeeded.
Next thing he knew, he had offers from hundreds of other dealers.
"One of my prayers has always been 'God, close the doors you don't want me to go through and open the ones you do,' " Biter said, noting that faith in God is paramount to his success.
In 1996, he officially started his business, a vehicle inventory management system dubbed HomeNet, and began to hire employees.
Shortly after, he moved to Sarasota and fell in love with the area. He ran the company remotely. It was then that he learned to stay away from micromanaging. He said he had to learn to let go, not hover and trust his employees to do the right thing.
"I realized that if I wasn't there, the company still went on and still made money," Biter said.
At that point, he implemented the "Caught System."
"I decided I didn't want to hear anything negative anymore," he said. "If you catch someone doing something good, then report it back to me."
His 135 employees earned rewards for reporting and receiving "caughts."
Through the 2000s, his business continued to grow. He sold to clients like Cars.com, eBay and AOL. He had more than 18,000 car dealers as customers and was bringing in up to $2.5 million per month in revenue.
But in 2010, Biter decided it was time to do something new. He sold his business, found a partner and started another called Dealers United, which sells car products to dealers -- sort of like Amazon.com with a Groupon-like component mixed in.
Biter also discussed the birth of the HuB, a 42,000-square-foot space at 1680 Fruitville Rd. in Sarasota, where entrepreneurs and startups can come together and run their businesses. The building is 100 percent sold out, Biter said. The HuB was completed
in December and was full by June.
Mark Lewis, a chiropractor with HealthSource who lives in Sarasota, came to hear Biter's ideas for the city: "I want to see the city change and grow and attract more businesses and families. I don't want downtown to close at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night."
Biter also stressed the importance of providing housing in downtown Sarasota for young professionals. If the city wants new businesses, there needs to be affordable places for young people to live, he said.
Michelle Demperio, an architect with Architecture Planning and Interiors in Sarasota, was interested in hearing Biter's plans for development: "We wanted to hear his vision for downtown. As architects, we're always interested in development. It's our life blood."
For Biter, development brings the perfect setting for business.
"I invite more buildings and more living downtown ... because that helps Lakewood Ranch, that helps Manatee County, that helps everyone," Biter said. "As we attract the right people here, the right talent here, it's a positive circle of growing business."