At age 34, Jesse Biter could have moved anywhere, done anything. It was December 2010, and AutoTrader, the online car sale behemoth, paid tens of millions to acquire the online inventory software company he had built up over the previous 14 years. Biter could have spent his time flying around in his single-prop Cirrus SR22, spear-fishing with buddies, floating on a yacht.
Instead, he stayed in Sarasota and went back to work.
As a kid in Philadelphia, Biter was a nerd, a “tech guy.” He charged neighbors $1 to help them reset the clocks on their VCRs when the power went out and tutored people on how to use their computers. When he was a student at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, he wired the house he and his buddies lived in so they could play video games together.
Biter started HomeNet, a company that could install fiber optic cable, in October 1996 with $1,000 his mom loaned him after he dropped out of college. To make ends meet, he worked at car dealerships, setting up computers and helping the dealers save money by, for example, stringing together their PCs so they could use a common printer. One dealership asked him to build a website so the company could advertise its cars online. Biter didn’t know how to create a site, but he and a buddy figured it out. Soon he started doing the same for other dealers.
Back then, information about car sales was still being traded from dealership to dealership via fax. Biter refashioned HomeNet and started building software that would allow information about sales and listings to be handled electronically. The software cleaned up any spotty data—“Dealers would spell ‘Chevrolet’ 100 different ways,” Biter says—and let sellers and buyers both know exactly what was available where, in real time.
By 2000, the number of dealerships HomeNet worked with was 500 and growing. Internet phone technology had evolved to the point where Biter could work remotely; he wanted to leave Philadelphia. He and his fiancée drove the back roads from South Carolina to Miami and then up the Gulf Coast. When they got to Sarasota, he fell in love. It’s a “big small town,” he says.
Family, Faith, Politics
Then Biter experienced what he says were transformational events. He married, moved to Sarasota, became the father of two daughters and discovered Christianity. “One day God just ripped my heart out and said, ‘You’re mine now.’”
That led to a sea change in how he ran HomeNet.
“I decided to give the company to God,” Biter says. HomeNet wasn’t cheating its customers, but some of its practices fell into “gray areas,” he says. One example: The company was charging old customers for services they had begun offering new customers for free. “We weren’t being as honest as we could be,” he says.
Biter laid out the company’s new principles to his employees, starting with scrupulous honesty. “We started morning prayer sessions and started educating employees about Jesus and the Bible,” Biter writes in an email.
A funny thing happened: The company took off. The change “had a profound positive effect on the business and the lives of those who participated,” Biter says.
HomeNet began including a simple tagline at the bottom of all its press releases: “The company is based on Christian principles.” Biter signs off emails with a simple “God bless!” When Biter and his wife divorced in 2007, their settlement asserted the importance of encouraging their daughters to participate in “the Christian faith.” To this day, Biter and his employees hold regular prayer meetings.
In 2001, the Bush tax cuts passed. Biter says the legislation had an immediate impact on HomeNet. Right away, his company started saving a few thousand dollars a week, which Biter says he reinvested. The experience made him realize how the federal government can very easily help (or hurt) a company’s bottom line.
That realization, he says, helped him fall “in love” with Vern Buchanan and his family. After Buchanan won a Congressional seat in a close and controversial election, Biter decided to help him work on his reelection campaign. He appreciated Buchanan’s philosophy of getting government out of the way of business owners, he says. Hedonated the max ($2,300 times two) to Buchanan in August 2007, and also maxed out for 2008 presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani. Buchanan won reelection handily, while Huckabee and Giuliani flamed out.
Biter has remained an influential money man for the Sarasota GOP. For the 2010 cycle, he again gave the maximum to Buchanan and supported the Vote to Elect Republicans Now PAC (“VERN PAC”). He donated $5,000 to Concerned Americans for Freedom & Opportunity, a so-called “leadership PAC” affiliated with Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb.,that doles out money to Republicans nationwide. Just weeks before the 2010 election, he gave $10,000 to the Florida GOP. He has supported a growing list of local and national Republican candidates and PACS, and on April 19 of this year, he dropped $25,000 into the coffers of Gov. Rick Scott’s 2014 reelection campaign.
In all, in the past five years, Biter and his family have directly donated at least $110,000 to GOP candidates.
Life After HomeNet
By 2010, Biter was looking to sell HomeNet, but preserving what he had built was important to him. The car sales website AutoTrader—a subsidiary of the sprawling Cox Enterprises—had become one of HomeNet’s biggest customers and was interested in acquiring the company, which had become the authority on data management in the auto industry. Biter chose AutoTrader because the company promised to keep his company intact.
In documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in June(AutoTrader is planning to go public), the company writes that in December 2010, AutoTrader “acquired certain assets of HomeNet in a business combination for cash consideration of $61.6 million.” Biter calls that number “inaccurate,” but says he is bound by contract not to discuss details of the transaction. An AutoTrader representative declined to speak with Biz(941).
Biter wasn’t sure what he would do next. He had fallen in love with Katie Annis, whom he met through his chiropractor. Annis was planning to move to California, but Biter convinced her to stay in Sarasota, telling her California didn’t deserve her. They got married on May 15, 2010. Vern Buchanan signed their wedding license as a witness.
In April 2011, Biter bought an old bank property along Fruitville, just north of Main Street, for $2.8 million. He needed an office (he was tired of working at home, by himself), and he wanted to create a “fun” environment for young, creative entrepreneurs. He convinced his good friend Rich Swier Jr., the founder of the Sarasota business incubator The HuB, to relocate his enterprise from the Rosemary District to the building in January.
Their friendship might seem unusual. Swier Jr. is ultra-liberal, a self-proclaimed “Obama guy,” who wears flip-flops and shorts to work; Biter a Christian conservative. But the two men share a “geek” heritage and an entrepreneurial bent. Swier says Biter is “open for anything”; Biter retorts that “Rich is just the easiest guy to get along with. If you have a problem with Rich, then you have a problem.”
The Fruitville property is still a wreck: Much of the first floor has been ripped up, and scaffolding circles the building. But at least one detail is finalized: The HuB’s green logo now hangs along the top floor. Florida Shores National Bank is going in the first floor this fall, but Biter wants other tenants to be creative or tech-oriented.
That’s not Biter’s only downtown deal. For $1.6 million, he took control of the empty retail space below the city’s Palm Avenue parking garage. He says he bought the Palm space as an investment at what he figured was a steal. Biter later inked a deal withLibby’s Café + Bar owner Steve Seidensticker to fill the space with a restaurant and event venue.
But even with his real estate moves, Biter says he remained a “startup guy.” He wanted to “reboot” his mind with a new project.
Creating Dealers United
Biter met Matt Buchanan, Vern Buchanan’s son, when he started working on Vern’s congressional campaigns. Matt had graduated from Stanford University and was working in the investment industry in Boca Raton. Vern’s dealership business was struggling. As a full-time congressman, he didn’t have time to fix it, so he asked Matt if he wanted to take it over. According to Matt, his father was considering selling his remaining franchises if Matt couldn’t take them over. (“Vern is focused on his congressional duties,” writes a Buchanan aide, when asked for Buchanan’s comments.)
“I had seen my dad sweat and bleed for this business since the early ’90s,” Matt says. “I didn’t want to see him just sell it all off.” So Matt put his plans on hold and started getting his hands dirty at the dealerships: changing oil and making sales. While he saw some improvements in the business, he kept hitting a wall when dealing with vendors.
In the auto dealer industry, consolidation is the name of the game, and so-called “mega-dealers” rule. According to National Automobile Dealers Association data, in 1991 there were 24,200 dealerships nationwide. By 2012, that number had dropped to 17,540. In another NADA report, the authors write that the numbers show “that the loss of dealerships over the past 20 years has been largely concentrated in relatively smaller-volume new car dealerships”—i.e. small family dealerships.
Matt says small dealers—like the Buchanan chain, which has gone from 20 “rooftops” to three—are getting squeezed out. “We don’t have the same negotiating clout as we used to have,” he says, “so our purchasing power went way down.”
How do you compete with the Wal-Marts of the auto world? Matt came up with the idea of a local buyer’s group, which would give members leverage when shopping for services. The name: Dealers United.
In February 2011, Matt and Biter were hanging out in a San Francisco club during an NADA conference. They were already friends, having bonded over their shared love of flying. Matt told Biter about Dealers United. He had already purchased the domain name. Biter thought the concept could go national. “Let’s do that for every dealer,” he said.
They worked out the details, drafted a flow chart for how they thought the website and software should work, and then Biter sent it to Swier. When Biter returned after a long summer vacation, Swier had built the site.
The concept is simple: Independent dealers sign up, for free, with Dealers United. Each month, the Dealers United crew works to identify the best deal on a specific product and then shares that deal with members. The dealers then can sign up to purchase the product. Think of it like an auto dealer Groupon. The dealers get competitive prices on stuff they need; the vendors land hundreds of new contracts all at once. Win win.
The first Dealers United videos (shot by The HuB) hit last November; the first deal—search engine optimization for the dealers’ websites—was offered this March. Matt says a big social media push and a lot of positive press generated buzz quickly. Four thousand rooftops have already signed up. Vendor contracts stipulate that they not reveal how many deals came out of a specific offering, but Matt says the numbers are impressive. “Not thousands,” he says, but “big.”
As of press time, Dealers United has sent out three deals, each generating better returns than the last. Biter says the company is already profitable.
Matt feels the company is “shifting” the industry. “You can be a game changer for that company that has a great product or a great service, but they don’t have the marketing,” he says. He thinks dealers are signing up to join a “cause”—saving the small, independent dealership—and he predicts Dealers United will become a concept those in other businesses may also embrace.
My New Hometown
For Biter, investing money and infrastructure in Sarasota, and trying to attract new companies or entrepreneurs to town, is energizing. He sees Sarasota—his “new hometown”—as “the new Silicon Valley.”
“And why not?” he asks. “We have the best beach in the country, no income tax, a reasonable cost of living, a great nightlife, and opportunity to support aspiring entrepreneurs, education programs and businesses that will continue to put Sarasota and the region on the map. Sarasota’s just the perfect mix of where somebody would want to live. It’s where I want to live.”
In May 2011, then-presidential candidate Rick Santorum visited Sarasota, and Biter was knocked out. “He didn’t say what people wanted to hear,” Biter says. “He said the truth.”
“I’d love to help you,” Biter told Santorum. The candidate gave him his cell phone number. Biter raised $100,000, ended up leading Santorum's entire Florida effort and opened the Santorum campaign’s Florida headquarters in his Fruitville building. He learned on the job, he says, working 20 hours a day. Romney’s enormous money advantage won out, and Biter says that showed him just how important finances are in an election, especially in a large, diverse state like Florida.
Also this year, Biter was appointed by the Florida House to the board of Enterprise Florida, a public-private partnership whose goal is to promote and develop Florida businesses. He traveled to Spain on an Enterprise Florida mission and blogged about the experience. “Before being on the board of Enterprise Florida I didn’t have much of an opinion of Rick Scott,” he wrote. “I knew the media hated him but that was about it. [I now think] his biggest problem is communicating to the media. He isn’t a politician, he’s a CEO and he is running Florida like a business.”
This fall, Biter wants to convene local entrepreneurs, colleges, students, retired executives, nonprofits and government agencies to bring more high-tech companies to Sarasota. Friends in the tech industry tell him they do business in California because the best employees want to live there. Biter thinks that with enough effort, Florida can attract companies that can move the state’s portfolio away from just tourism.
Will Biter one day move full-time into politics? He won’t rule it out, but it’s not on his agenda. As he notes, “It is so easy to not get involved in politics. The media keeps good people out,” he says.