What one thing could be added to the Tampa Bay startup community to help it grow and prosper?
The Tampa Bay Times reached out to these leading area entrepreneurs and startup experts for answers.
Here’s what these startup leaders said. Some of the responses have been edited for space.
• Tom Wallace, serial entrepreneur, managing partner at Florida Funders, a startup investment group, Tampa
The one thing I think we are missing here in Tampa is our very own "unicorn" — a real breakout tech company that grows to over a $1 billion valuation in a relatively short period of time. That is what we are working on finding, funding and helping to build at Florida Funders. This could really help bring Tampa tremendous exposure and lift our entrepreneurship/tech reputation to the rest of the world, as well as encourage and build confidence among our own new crop of tech entrepreneurs that anything is possible!
• Erin Meagher, founder of Beneficial Blends coconut oil products, Inc. 5000 member, Tampa
What Tampa needs is to encourage more start-ups and entrepreneurs to foster ecosystems of like-oriented businesses. A bit of that is already happening as you see health science companies moving into downtown Tampa. In my business, finding a cost accountant was challenging because there aren’t that many manufacturing companies around where cost accountants can find meaningful employment. If there were more then we could benefit from one another.
But it’s more than just the same type of businesses in one area. There needs to be a spirit and backdrop of change and fostering advanced ideas and growth within these business sectors. I think the universities play a major role in this as well as the local government. Hopefully, Tampa can develop its own unique identity in the years to come.
• Brent Britton, Startup legal expert, managing partner in Tampa of De La Pena & Holiday law firm
Our tech startup sector has made great strides in recent years. But we have yet to see a national, professional venture capital firm open an office here. I am eager for that because it tends to put upward pressure on success and raises the bar for everyone.
• Joy Randels, Startup community activist, chair of TechNova Florida, Tampa
To me this is super simple. Less hype, more hustle! The growth of ours or any other ecosystem is directly proportional to the number of truly scalable startups and the successful founders who repeat the process. By scalable I mean startups which could be several hundred million or billion dollar companies. Every startup hub/ecosystem started this way and the majority of those companies were B2B (business to business) software companies — not service providers. Those companies have to achieve success and then the founders must stay and build more companies and/or reinvest in the community.
This is how Silicon Valley, Austin, Boston, Seattle… and now Denver, Atlanta, Kansas City, etc. all got started. None of those communities became what they are because of government backed plans, incubators, accelerators, etc. It was founders who built something, sold it or did an IPO and continued to repeat the cycle.
Here we have a handful of those people: Myself and (area serial entrepreneurs) Kurt Long, John Morrow and Tom Wallace. But not nearly enough.
• Roberto Torres, president and co-founder, Blind Tiger Cafe & Black & Denim Apparel, Tampa
So what I think Tampa needs to raise the temperature is for existing businesses to do a reverse pitch. As an example: Take a company between $25 to 50 million in revenue. They can afford to spend or create a budget to work on a project with a local (or out-of-town) startup to solve a problem. The idea for an out-of-town is so that we can eventually recruit them to move to Tampa. What that does is that it adds instant credibility to a startup that might be pre-revenue or might not have clients yet.
Macy’s did this for us with their "Workshop at Macys" program. We were able to then learn how to do business with a big company and ended up selling to them, Steinmart and Walt Disney. Small companies need this so they understand the process. And big companies can learn how to be patient.
• Linda Olson, president of Tampa Bay WaVE entrepreneurial hub and accelerator, Tampa
When our region has undeniable breakout success stories, as well as a pipeline of breakouts in the making, we will have arrived at the next level in our ecosystem. Two homegrown companies, Tribridge and MyMatrixx, had some recent exciting exits (well over $100 million each), but that news alone has not necessarily caused our community to believe we have crossed the finish line.
What’s missing? A greater critical mass of tech startups that are well-funded and on the path to breakout success. One thing our community-at-large can do to help foster a strong ecosystem of startups is to raise their hands and grow the number of individuals who want to care for these startups, become early adopters, provide mentorship, and help them celebrate their success milestones.
• Paul Sanberg, senior vice president for research, innovation & knowledge enterprise, University of South Florida System, Tampa
Tampa Bay has better "raw materials" than many of the communities we are trying to compete with. We have strong entrepreneur support organizations, a variety of funding opportunities, a global research university system in USF (which is growing at a steady and aggressive rate), entrepreneurs and management talent. What is missing is that we are not "village-like," as are some of the communities that have succeeded in developing their entrepreneurial ecosystems. Our geography is spread out, opportunities are widely varied, and often it requires almost brute force efforts to connect entrepreneurs and management talent with the right opportunities. What we need is a better, more effective way to match these opportunities; a mechanism that can secure buy-in from all or the major facets of the community and build the kind of interdependence that spurs economic growth.
• Tonya Elmore, CEO, Tampa Bay Innovation Center/TEC Garage, St. Petersburg
The single most important, practical ingredient would be access to capital. Our clients have been more successful in the last few years in raising capital from angel investors. The Florida Funders investment platform is also helpful. However, we still lack a true accelerator with investors in the region that can provide initial and second round funding for startups. Funding coupled with support for entrepreneurs will essentially lead to better deal flow providing an increase in startup activity, capital investment and high-tech job creation.
• Stu Sjouwerman, serial entrepreneur, founder/CEO of KnowBe4 cybersecurity awareness training startup, Clearwater
Not that hard. But easier said than done: A well-established ecosystem of angel investors, early- and middle-stage venture capital and a catalyst like a startup-focused business school.
• Kevin Burgoyne, CEO, Florida Venture Forum, Tampa
Tampa Bay has all the pieces in place to continue to build a sustained, thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem: world class academic institutions with dedicated resources for both students and the community, excellent support organizations for early stage entrepreneurs, corporations increasingly plugged in with — and supportive of — the innovation community, resident capital actively looking for investments, and obviously a fantastic quality of life that helps attract and retain talent.
Of all of these pieces, I believe more seed-stage capital and resources to support very early stage companies will make the biggest impact.
• Rebecca White, professor of entrepreneurship and director of the Entrepreneurship Center, University of Tampa
A key challenge is overcoming the lack of appetite for risk by potential investors here. We are waiting on the sidelines for a few breakout companies. Serial entrepreneurs can help our startup market mature. We need their experience.