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Bus trip to Austin bolsters startup culture in Tampa Bay

Thank a bus fueled by startup energy for giving Tampa Bay's modest entrepreneurial ecosystem fresh momentum.

Thirty people recently piled on to "StartupBus Florida" in Tampa amid a sendoff by local media and Mayor Bob Buckhorn. All budding entrepreneurs, these passengers competed to be on this invitation-only bus, which would take a circuitous multiday route from Tampa to Gainesville to Atlanta to Baton Rouge, La., and, finally to Texas.

It was one of 11 buses nationwide of "buspreneurs" who were all heading to Austin's behemoth SouthBySouthwest or "SXSW" festival. SXSW was built on music but has since morphed into an "in" place for social media types and, of course, budding entrepreneurs.

While traveling, each Startup­Bus was to divide its passengers into groups that would come up with a business idea and implementation strategy that would be ready to pitch 72 hours later before judges in Austin.

Remarkably, a Tampa business startup idea called BumperCrop that originated on StartupBus Florida was the runnerup in the Austin judging. That's impressive, given Tampa Bay's still juvenile entrepreneurial roots, especially when compared to 50-plus competing teams on buses coming from the likes of San Francisco or Boston or New York.

What's the point? This was an exercise, says Greg Ross-Munro, who as "conductor" of StartupBus Florida and an area entrepreneur helped manage the Florida bus effort, in the grueling process of starting a technology business quickly. It's about the hyperspeed, all-night IT culture of software coders and tech business developers who may need to see their tech "product" fail three or four times before they get one that makes sense to the market.

Doing that in days or even hours rather than months is a critically competitive skill to develop, says Ross-Munro. His own startup called Teburu — an online customer ordering service for smaller restaurants — last year was one of the first six startups to make it through the Gazelle Lab business accelerator at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

"The entrepreneurial spirit we try to ingrain is not the typical spirit behind starting a restaurant or a consulting company," he says. "It's an IT culture of not eating or sleeping and making things happen fast."

Nobody says startups are pretty. The StartupBus trip from Tampa was a bonding experience, yet stressful at times. One veteran passenger advised future buspreneur teams to stake a geographic claim on the bus far from its tiny restroom.

Ross-Munro is part of a growing crowd that wants to foster a tech entrepreneur culture in Tampa Bay. They want to establish a support group, a social network, a feedback system — whatever you want to call it — that helps motivate people to try startups and to keep them here.

Ross-Munro knows all about that. He went to USF and was friends with the guys who started a company called Wufoo, whose software product makes it easy to create customized forms. Wufoo got noticed last year and was bought for $35 million, only to be promptly relocated to California by the acquiring company.

Tampa Bay's goal — repeated like a mantra by area startup leaders like Linda Olson of Tampa Bay Wave, Tom Wallace of the Tampa Bay Technology Forum, Marvin Scaff and Daniel James Scott of Gazelle Lab, Michael Fountain of USF and Rebecca White at the University of Tampa, just to name a few — is to keep future Wufoos right here, whenever possible.

On the StartupBus Florida trip, few anticipated BumperCrop would end up taking second place nationwide. BumperCrop's idea was to create an online connection between consumers and the growers of local crops.

"You did Tampa proud," a pleased Mayor Buckhorn commented on Twitter.

"StartupBus is something that we must promote to the best and brightest technologists and entrepreneurs that Florida has to offer," says USF instructor in entrepreneurship Nathan Schwagler, who took his second trip on StartupBus Florida as a member of one the startup teams.

"It's a win-win," he wrote last week in a piece on the 83 Degrees website. "Participants accelerate their individual growth, and Florida begins to earn respect in the startup world."

Startup energy is brewing for those who bother to look around Tampa Bay. But it's still a fragile culture to be encouraged — for jobs, creativity and making this place more compelling for innovators.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@tampabay.com.

Bus trip to Austin bolsters startup culture in Tampa Bay 03/17/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 17, 2012 4:31am]
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