In four days, on Nov. 17, the founders of six young businesses just getting started in the Tampa Bay area will each deliver an 8-minute "pitch" from the stage of St. Petersburg's swank Mahaffey Theater to an audience of investors and interested locals. The goal of each of the founders, of course, is to convince deep-pocket people that their startup, their business idea and the confident tone in their relentlessly practiced pitch is worth the risk of putting some capital behind efforts to make local businesses grow. There's great risk in all this. What if the investors are not impressed enough to open their wallets? My guess is some funding will occur. But there is even greater opportunity. Entrepreneurial activity is starting to percolate across this metro area. And this event is just the latest example of a new regional push to help make business startups and new jobs take better hold here.
Thursday's pitch day for these six startups is called Demo Day. It is the culmination of an intense 90-day crash course led by a team of five advisers — all entrepreneurs and business teachers — who are behind the Gazelle Lab business accelerator at the College of Business at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
"We are exhausted but we are excited," says Daniel James Scott, 33, who teaches entrepreneurship at USF St. Petersburg while leading Gazelle Lab through its first cycle of helping startup businesses.
To be blunt, the Tampa Bay area — in fact, all of Florida — is desperately behind the times when it comes to providing the kind of economic climate needed for smart people to start smart businesses and let them grow. All six of these startups are technology firms leveraging the Internet in clever ways to provide valuable information to consumers and to businesses seeking more efficient ways to sell their products. These are not people starting more T-shirt shops, gas stations or convenience stores.
In talking with founders from the six startups, they praised their overall Gazelle Lab experience. But many voiced some concern about whether their young tech businesses can find both the funding and talent locally to allow their companies to take root and grow here.
But every one of the startups is willing to give it a local shot.
Bret Tobey, founder of the startup AutoIQ, grew up here but lived for years in California, where the tools to start companies are readily available. But now he's back in Tampa.
"Gazelle Lab changed my thinking," Tobey says. There is talent here, but it's still harder to find, he says. "Everybody in the economic community needs to know that without high-value jobs, we could become a parking lot for call centers."
Startup founder Greg Ross-Munro says he has friends and ex-employees in the San Francisco area who tell him, "Come on out, the money tap is on." People are not making money in the stock market. And who wants to make 1 or 2 percent in a T-bill? says Ross-Munro, founder of Tampa's Teburu, a startup that builds online menu ordering systems for restaurants.
"Some people would prefer to invest in startups," he says. "But if it does not work here," California is always an option.
You could say Gazelle Lab is really one entrepreneurial startup that is trying to encourage other entrepreneurial startups in the Tampa Bay area. The Times has followed Gazelle Lab since the summer when the advisory team began plowing through 100 applications of startup businesses seeking to make the final six.
Demo Day happens to be taking place during Global Entrepreneurship Week, which starts Monday.
Red Hawk Interactive founder Sean Davis, whose startup is one of Gazelle Lab's inaugural six, says he's sure that there will be one or two success stories coming out of the program. And that, he says, will have a huge impact on the community.
"It just takes a few people willing to jump into the deep end of the pool before everybody else goes in as well. Thankfully we've got people" — he rattles of the names of Gazelle Lab advisers — "to help push things along."
We should see a good measure of that momentum come Demo Day.
"We have started an experiment," says Gazelle Lab's Scott. "It's a start at building a more comprehensive entrepreneurial scene here."
And that, by almost any measure, is something to be seriously encouraged.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Can Gazelle Lab generate new businesses and jobs?
What: A 90-day business accelerator that helps competitively chosen startup companies take root and grow.
Based: University of South Florida St. Petersburg College of Business.
Network: Part of national TechStars business accelerator, investor program.
Advisory team (photo, left to right): Marvin Scaff (has Silicon Valley startup cred), John Morrow (Lab's mentoring guru), Brent Britton (legal maven), Daniel James Scott (Lab leader, resident Yoda), Bill Jackson (links Lab to USF business students).
Goal now: To ready the first six startups to pitch their ideas to investors on stage at the Mahaffey Theater and win some funding at Thursday's Demo Day.
What's next: To pick a handful of strong startups twice a year to run through the intense accelerator. The more young businesses that can take root and create jobs in the Tampa Bay area as a result of this process, the better. Gazelle, which provides some funding to its chosen startups, takes a 6 percent stake in each business.
The buzz: Ultimately, it's all about creating more and better jobs by helping startup businesses succeed, grow and remain in the Tampa Bay area. Florida's economic development focus is heavy on waving expensive incentives at companies elsewhere to expand in Florida. That's okay, but it's a pricey way to increase employment opportunities. Supporting business startups is now getting more attention from the likes of Gazelle Lab and other business accelerator and incubator programs in the area. Gazelle's already starting to take applications for its next 90-day accelerator program expected to start in February.
Want to hear the startups make their pitches to investors?
Demo Day for the six Gazelle Lab startups begins at 9 a.m. Thursday at the Mahaffey Theater, St. Petersburg. A founder from each startup will deliver an 8-minute pitch from the Mahaffey stage. It's free to attend but you need to register at gazellelab.eventbrite.com.
The Gazelle Lab 6 | Snapshots of six startups, the inaugural class of this new business accelerator.
Founders: Ty Mathen, left, Orrett Davis
What it does: A next-generation approach for gift cards. Sends a digital gift card with a personalized video to a person's smartphone when they enter a particular store or restaurant.
The buzz: Here's startup dedication. Co-founder Orrett Davis was working on his MBA at Rollins College in Winter Park, near Orlando, when he heard Dropost.it was picked for the Gazelle program. He immediately withdrew from his classes and moved into an extra room at Mathen's house for three months. This startup seeks $500,000 from investors. Says Mathen: "This is going to revolutionize the way people send gifts."
Founders: Jeffrey L. Baird, above, Nick Kypriotakis
What it does: Mobile application that offers a "scavenger hunt" game to people in cities to prompt visits to specific restaurants, museums and stores.
The buzz: Baird, 23, attends USF St. Petersburg. The only founder among six startups who is a full-time student, he admits he's probably least familiar with delivering a pitch. Lab mentor and branding expert Elizabeth Markie (earning her spurs at Hilton Worldwide) is helping Baird sharpen his pitch for Demo Day. After that comes Kngroo's test run in Tampa Bay, then, Baird says, it's on to five more markets.
Founders: Greg Ross-Munro, left, Leon McIntosh
What it does: Offers online menu ordering services for midsized and independent restaurants.
The buzz: It happened after someone looked at the Chipotle restaurant chain's online menu. Why not develop online menus for smaller restaurants? Gazelle Lab, says Ross-Munro, 31, gave Teburu "laser beam focus" after being scattered among many projects. Adds Ross-Munro: Tampa Bay's challenge for startups is its thin support network for entrepreneurs. Gazelle Lab's efforts may help change that.
Red Hawk Interactive
Founders: Sean Davis, left, Aubrey Goodman
What it does: Another reason to cut the cable? Online services to assist growing demand for watching TV over the Internet via providers such as Net-flix, Hulu and others.
The buzz: Davis, 44, used to be a digital innovation strategist for Cox Target Media. Now he's leveraging that expertise with Red Hawk after recently fine-tuning its business model. Providing services to a fast-changing industry like TV over the Internet is not for the timid. "I love it," says Davis. He hopes for a big score on Demo Day. "I have more customers than I can satisfy."
Founders: Bret Tobey, above, Renz Kuipers, Matt Galvin
What it does: Online middleman between auto owners seeking good, value repairs and auto repair shops seeking new customers. Over time, business would develop a database of the best repair shops for the money.
The buzz: Bret Tobey, 40, had planned to relocate to California by this month before taking a leap of faith and applying to become a Gazelle Lab startup. In 2000, Tobey — who grew up in the Tampa Bay area — left for California because Tampa Bay's economy was ill-prepared to support entrepreneurs. Now back and about to present at Demo Day, he sees new life and hope for business startups here.
Founders: Dustin Holbrook, Jerry Lamb, shown at left, "Mr." Smith (who has a day job and can't go public just yet).
What it does: Online business provides pay-for-performance sales, starting with a service that links property owners and property managers. Firm gets a small fee for each sales lead.
The buzz: Trio comes across as more seasoned than some of the other startups. They like the business idea of charging small finder's fees (in volume) to hook up property owners and property managers. If that template works, they can duplicate it in other markets, like assisted living and health care. Lamb, 49 and a real estate veteran, will handle the pitch on Demo Day.