Thursday, April 19, 2018
Business

Better opportunities drawing entrepreneurs from Florida

Belmont Heights raised a star. • From one of Tampa's most blighted neighborhoods, Garrett Johnson triumphed with a tremendous success story. He became a champion shot-putter for Florida State University. A Rhodes Scholar. An almost-Olympian. A congressional staffer. • But when Johnson, 28, abandoned Harvard Law School last year in search of a place to launch a tech start-up, Tampa wasn't ready to win him back. • The city "has potential," he says, but that wasn't enough.

As his messaging company, SendHub, grows in San Francisco, Johnson echoes the refrain of many local business leaders:

"How can we get Silicon Valley to move to Tampa?"

That's becoming a focus of economic development in the Tampa Bay region. Without a flourishing tech atmosphere, savvy minds leave the state and few outsiders come in. Several bay-area initiatives are working to solve the technological gap — the "brain drain," as some call it.

Johnson has become a prime example of what business leaders don't want to continue to happen. As Jimmy Wales did in 2006, uprooting Wikipedia from St. Petersburg, Johnson took his work west.

"We're not doing a good enough job as a state," Johnson said, "providing (entrepreneurs) with the support and the access to capital that other places are."

• • •

SendHub first budded in Tampa. Johnson had watched the frustrating disconnect between parents and teachers at his nephew Jamari's school, Bible Truth Ministries Academy on 22nd Street.

Jamari forgot his backpack. Forgot to bring in a book. Forgot to turn in an assignment. But the teacher's reminder emails weren't reaching Johnson's mother, who cares for Jamari. She didn't use email. Johnson found many African-Americans didn't have computers, Internet or email addresses.

"When you're thinking about trying to reach the most at-risk, the most difficult population from a graduation perspective," Johnson said, "sending an email is not going to help."

But everyone has cell phones. Johnson partnered with two friends to create a service that provides a phone number for a user to send individual and group text messages that recipients can reply to.

Its use expanded into businesses, sports teams and youth group conferences.

With the concept in place, SendHub worked through a California-based accelerator called Y Combinator, which provides money in the beginning phases of a start-up. From there, Johnson and his co-founders say they raised $2 million in two weeks from investors mostly in California and New York.

In Florida, he had just one investor: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

As an intern during Bush's governorship, Johnson won the politician's confidence.

"I invested in him," Bush said. "He's just the real deal. He's a person of incredible integrity, deep faith, hard work and great intelligence. . . . This guy is going to be a star in anything he pursues."

He wasn't surprised that Johnson branched out to California.

"We're definitely on the right track (in Florida)," Bush said, "but (California has) tremendous talent that is to be admired and respected."

• • •

From April through June, venture capitalists in California backed 379 deals with $4.1 billion, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers and National Venture Capital Association MoneyTree report.

Compare that to Florida's numbers: just 11 deals funded by $95 million.

But experts say Florida has valuable resources beyond the traditional venture capitalists. There's plenty of money in-state. It's just a matter of making more people like Jeb Bush recognize new ways to invest.

"People with nontraditional tech backgrounds are seeing the potential that their brand can lend," Johnson said, with a nod to actor Ashton Kutcher's influence as a venture capitalist. "An undeveloped market is an opportunity for growth. We need to get different stakeholders involved in helping Florida — specifically Tampa Bay — develop that economic system."

And now could be the time. Local business owner Bruce Bennett says the bay area's entrepreneurial drive seems stronger than it has ever been.

"It's easier and easier to retain great ideas," said Bennett, CEO and founder of mobile developer Mad Mobile Inc.

He has started six companies in Tampa Bay, building upon his experience to raise local capital. About 60 percent of his funds come from Florida, he said.

But Bennett is the exception to the rule, said Daniel James Scott, associate director of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg's Sustainable Entrepreneurship and Innovation Alliance. The mission is to develop a pipeline of successful endeavors.

Scott is collaborating on the "6/20 Plan," where veteran entrepreneurs commit to fostering local talent and seeking sources of capital. Similarly, the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. is analyzing the information technology workforce gap, and interviewing business and education professionals to find solutions.

"If the right elements get into place," Scott said, "in less than a generation, this is a considerably different place to do business."

• • •

There's no guarantee that any start-up — not even Johnson's SendHub — will succeed. There's no guarantee that anything will come close to being the next Wikipedia. But creating an environment to help them succeed requires a broad buy-in.

Scott had tried to persuade Johnson to keep SendHub local.

"It's devastating, right?" Scott said. "The most successful thing we can say is, 'Hey, your family's here.' "

But as Tampa's business environment improves, the lure of family could be enough to bring Johnson home. He's still here more weekends than he has spent in his Menlo Park apartment in California, sleeping on his old extra-long twin bed in his family's Belmont Heights house.

Jamari, the nephew who inspired SendHub, is 14 now, a sophomore at Tampa Bay Christian Academy. He's following Johnson to events this summer to help market SendHub.

When Johnson rolls into a spiel about SendHub, Jamari watches silently.

Jamari has already pitched ways to improve SendHub and thinks he could start his own company someday. Or he could continue his uncle's work.

His greatest goal, he says, is to "be able to support my whole family and have no debt. That's all I want to do."

It's okay if that leads Jamari far away from home for a little while — "as long as I can come back."

Stephanie Wang can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.

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