Monday, December 11, 2017
Business

High-level boot camp for start-ups never opens

Tall, bald and intense, master-of-tough-love Adeo Ressi visited Tampa Bay in March to test its entrepreneurial passion and help introduce his global business incubator known as Founder Institute.

Ressi took the spotlight at St. Petersburg's [email protected] to tell a room packed with locals with startup visions that it's a wonderful but painfully competitive thing to start a business from scratch.

But that evening's promise of a big leap forward for Tampa Bay entrepreneurs became a step backward.

A college dropout, Ressi went on to start at least eight businesses, including Total New York, a regional city guide that AOL bought in 1997 and turned into AOL/Digital Cities. Since starting Founder Institute in 2009 in — of course — a Palo Alto garage, Ressi travels incessantly and globally to hear startup pitches. He is quick to interrupt, mixing a veteran's advice with sharp criticism ("I've only heard that same startup idea a hundred times this year" is a favorite) and plenty of humor.

Founder Institute was ready to claim a stake in Tampa Bay with its first boot camp. It had pitched itself as an international-caliber program for startups with strong potential, tough skin and sufficient obsession to make the cut. Area mentors from university business schools and other startup programs had been engaged and were standing by. And a Founder Institute graduate, serial entrepreneur Michael O'Donnell, already had moved here from Seattle. He was the one who liked what he saw in Tampa Bay and decided the institute could operate a local version here.

It was all systems go in March. But Founder Institute never launched.

It turns out, according to O'Donnell, that there were "not enough aspiring entrepreneurs qualified for the Founder Institute" in the Tampa Bay market. Failing to reach a minimum number of qualified candidates, the boot camp was canceled.

O'Donnell said there were too many dabbling entrepreneurs or "wannapreneurs."

Rather than waiting for the fall to try another round, O'Donnell himself has moved on as well. He's taken a job with Broward County's Workforce One organization to help startups in Fort Lauderdale.

"It is a disappointment," says one of the standby mentors, Rebecca White, a management professor who holds the James W. Walter distinguished chair of entrepreneurship at the University of Tampa. "I was very impressed with Mike and hate to see us lose him to Fort Lauderdale."

White's not sure why Founder Institute could not find enough of the kind of startups it was looking for. "I think a lot of our early-stage entrepreneurs were not clear yet on how valuable that kind of program can be so they may not have been willing to invest the time and money."

Another willing mentor and deeply involved entrepreneur here, John Morrow, says Tampa Bay has a "wide pipeline" of various startup programs under way that might have diluted the talent pool.

This is a good if harsh lesson for Tampa Bay. In the end, this region's goal is really the same as Adeo Ressi's: Creating more startup successes not only boosts economic recovery but creates more and better jobs at locally founded companies.

Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected]

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