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Ybor City attracts enclave of high-tech businesses

YBOR CITY

The place rose from Cuban cigar smoke, was reinvented by anarchists, by bootleggers and bolita gamblers, later by hipsters and gays. The latest to reinvent Ybor City are the geeks. They range from large film and video companies, where rows of programmers, animators and editors work in dimly lit cubicles, to one-man Web design shops tucked in little rooms on Seventh Avenue.

Along comes Tim Roberts. He would call a year in solitary confinement a sublime experience if his cell came with Dungeons & Dragons. He has a 13-year-old daughter who has already written more than four business plans — currently one for her very own MMOG — massively multiplayer online game.

Tim Roberts also has staked tens of millions of dollars of his and other investors' money on his visions of a technological empire. He's trying again for at least the fifth time. He says his batting average is about .330.

He's 40 years old.

His new company is called Savtira. If Savtira succeeds in an 8,000-square-foot building Roberts rented on Palm Avenue, he projects up to a billion dollars in revenue and a thousand jobs by 2015. If Savtira fails, its investors are going to get a whopper of a tax write-off.

Tim Roberts is part gambler, part geek. The Ybor City Chamber of Commerce says he could be "the missing piece" in its growing tech enclave — the dealmaker.

A lot of characters have tried to reinvent Ybor City.

Ybor's had nobody like him.

There's something about Ybor City. Most of the architecture hasn't changed in a hundred years. The Columbia Restaurant still dishes out the Spanish bean soup it served in 1905. Old men still play dominoes. They still prefer cigars in the Churchill size and pour espresso into cups of steaming milk.

The geeks love it.

Tampa Digital moved to Centro Ybor in 2007, taking over an American Eagle retail store. It's a digital media, video and film production company with banks of exotic tech hardware inside and century-old brick streets outside. CEO George Cornelius says clients who finish appointments are found wandering the streets hours later like tourists.

Colleen Chappell, CEO of ChappellRoberts, a marketing/digital media company in Centro Ybor, loves those brick streets, loves walking clients on those bricks to La Tropicana, where they can talk business over Cuban coffee, beside the old guys gossiping in Spanish.

"We're selling ideas, creative concepts," Chappell says. "We need to be inspired. I feel an energy walking by the historic statues. I'm visualizing years ago. I feel rejuvenated, just going out to lunch."

Chappell sends her clients home with a Columbia Restaurant paella pan.

Down Seventh Avenue, Charlie Boudreau and Tim Hall each run their own Web design companies out of a one-room office they share. Their desks face each other. Boudreau calls his company Velvet Ink Media. Hall calls his Redfire Creative.

The Chancey Design Building caters to geeks like them — designers who have started one-man companies with no IPOs, no million-dollar deals, just personal savings scraped together from day jobs.

Their landlord is putting in a coffee shop ("New Urban Business Club") with sofas and couches and WiFi. Tenants are encouraged to bring clients there to brainstorm.

By word of mouth, Boudreau landed a job designing a Web page for Tim Roberts.

All the geeks are pulling for Roberts. Any success he has rubs off on them.

• • •

A couple of movies could be made about Roberts. One would be an inspirational tale about a brash kid in a computer store who started a tech company from scratch that made millions. The other would be a cautionary tale about the brash kid all grown up who becomes known for a video game console named — with unintended irony — the Phantom. It soaked up millions, never reached the mass market, and made Roberts a target of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The star would be a young Tom Hanks. Roberts is a Midwesterner with curly hair and a boyish, almost cherubic face. He unwittingly orders latte in Ybor's Cuban coffee shops.

Back in 1994, he was a 24-year-old computer salesman in St. Louis. He had a customer with a Macintosh looking for a way for his computer to talk to Windows. Roberts said he could help him. Roberts had been playing with computers since he bought his first Commodore VIC-20 — the machine that ushered in the home computer era — when he was just 12. He had familiarized himself with the nationwide Internet backbone and come up with his own ideas about how to make it better.

The customer who wanted to talk to Windows turned out to be Andrew Gladney, a 33-year-old Yale grad and heir to the 7Up fortune. While Roberts helped him with his Mac, he and Gladney talked about starting a tech company together. Roberts would supply his own concept of an Internet that avoided the bottlenecks and security risks of public networks. Nothing like it existed at the time. Gladney would supply $600,000. They called the company DiamondNet.

Says Roberts, "It was a classic bar-napkin business plan."

Roberts had a contact at Apple. He got a meeting with Apple executives, trying to sign them as clients. The meeting didn't start out well. Roberts walked out four times. He kept going back.

"I knew if I left, we were out of business."

When he finally did leave Apple that day, he had won "a monster contract."

The company changed its name to Savvis and was acquired by a financial information company called Bridge. Savvis eventually went public and today sells for $32 a share on Nasdaq.

Roberts sold his stock back to Savvis and went on to new ventures. He became known as a tech prodigy.

• • •

Now, the other movie.

Roberts had a rough patch. A company he founded in 2000 called Broadband Infrastructure Group collapsed after burning through $18 million. Almost 200 people lost their jobs. Roberts says the company's formation coincided with the dot-com bust when Nasdaq shares fell to half their worth and venture money dried up.

In 2006, the Securities and Exchange Commission notified Roberts he was under investigation for a company he started in Seattle called Infinium Labs. Infinium had promised a "revolutionary" new game console it called the Phantom. It had promised the console for about three years. In his defense, Roberts says game consoles — the Sony PlayStation, for example — typically take three to eight years to develop.

The SEC found that in 2004 Roberts hired a stock promoter who blitzed tens of thousands of potential investors with faxes that announced the Phantom was at last about to hit the market. The faxes predicted that the stock would soar as much as 3,000 percent.

The Phantom never appeared. But the SEC found that Roberts had quietly sold personal stock holdings of Infinium during the run-up in sales volume. It said he made $422,500.

The SEC complaint was settled in 2008. Without admitting or denying guilt, Roberts agreed to the settlement. He was barred from serving as an officer or director in any public company for five years and barred from offering penny stocks for five years. He paid a civil penalty of $30,000.

• • •

This month, Roberts opened his new company Savtira in Ybor. He chose Ybor not because of economic enticements, but just because he liked the place — the brick streets, the late-night restaurants, the young energy that spills out of Hillsborough Community College.

As for Savtira, he calls that a future "digital media empire."

Savtira, he says, will provide an Internet platform for businesses to run e-commerce stores. They'll be able to sell any downloadable product — software, games, movies, music and e-books — by using his platform. He'll provide the servers, all the technology.

If they don't have e-store stuff to sell, Savtira will provide a catalog of top video games.

Later on, Roberts says, Savtira will expand into a new "entertainment distribution network" that will include technology for what it calls "Digital Media On The Go" — ways to click off a game at home and click it back on someplace else, such as in the car.

It also will provide a free original $300,000 video game to the first Fortune 100 company it signs up.

All this comes decorated with media-empire projections of gross sales of more than $100 million in 2012, and more than $1 billion by 2015.

• • •

Tim Roberts sleeps well. He has no anxieties about following a disaster with another big, expensive dream. He has no regrets. It's not a moral thing, or an immoral thing. "Being an entrepreneur is what I was put on the planet to do — have a vision, see it come to fruition."

Although he agreed to the SEC punishment, he insists he did no wrong. He says he didn't know his Infinium stock promoter was making false claims. The promoter later pleaded guilty to securities fraud. That Roberts sold stock during the sales run-up was coincidental, he says. He sold the same amount of stock every month, he says. Everyone in the company was paid in stock in lieu of salary. He says he pumped the money back into Infinium.

"There was no ill intent. My only intention was to keep the company going."

With Infinium behind him and Savtira ahead he feels as excited as he did almost 20 years ago, when he and the 7Up heir started Savvis. Except, he says, "I know what I'm getting into."

Right now, he is borrowing cash to run Savtira for the next four months and preparing for a $10 million private sale of securities in March. "The $10 million round is pretty well cinched."

He says he has already had calls from a Swedish outfit about a merger. That's how fast these things go, he says.

Things are good.

He discovered the $9 Italian dinners at Tony's across the street. He found some hole-in-the-wall places with cool bands. He found the trolley and rode it to a Lightning game at the St. Pete Times Forum.

In standard disclosures of risks, he acknowledges eight pages worth of reasons why Savtira could fail.

Among them: the need for more money than expected. Competition from large, established technology companies with "significantly greater" resources. A reliance on a youth market that is always fickle. A nest of copyright and licensing restrictions that has sunk many a bold plan. An inability to predict the future of almost anything — from the development of new technology, to foreign exchange rates, to the economy.

Investors aren't oblivious to the risks, he says. They aren't little old ladies on pensions. They're gamblers, too, players like him. "They're betting on either a really high return or a tax write-off."

But he tells them he's got the goods.

"If someone said to me, 'Here's my checkbook,' we would take over the market overnight."

Tim Roberts has come to Ybor City to reinvent himself.

John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2258.

Ybor City attracts enclave of high-tech businesses 02/04/11 [Last modified: Sunday, February 6, 2011 10:25am]
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