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Mentors prepping six Gazelle Lab startups for stage debuts

Next month, entrepreneurs from six Tampa Bay startup businesses churning through a 3-month business accelerator called Gazelle Lab will each make their 8-minute company pitch.

The Nov. 17 venue is unusual: on stage at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. No Tony Awards are likely. But funding from a good-sized gathering of investors in the audience may be forthcoming.

That, at least, is the hope and dream. (Want to watch? Free Mahaffey tickets at gazellelab.eventbrite.com)

Since writing a column about the Gazelle Lab 6 this past summer, I've watched as each startup gained a seasoned mentor to inject more organization, discipline and, of course, experience. The goal? To empower the start-ups with the "right stuff" to make a go of it.

These six companies were picked from a field of nearly 100 applicants by a team of veteran entrepreneurs running Gazelle Lab. The Lab, part of a national entrepreneurial network called TechStars, is affiliated with the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Students in the university's college of business entrepreneur program are assisting the six companies.

For some perspective, I asked for insights from six seasoned mentors pushing to prep each startup for Nov. 17, known as Demo Day.

Mentor Ed Parker works with AutoIQ.

"The top challenge for Bret (Tobey), as founder, is not knowing what you don't know," Parker says. "Founders are handed a thousand-piece puzzle and told you have 15 minutes to complete the picture. Since founders only have 90 days to prepare and compete for the attention of the investors, their ability to prioritize tasks and manage time is key."

Parker is confident his start-up will be ready.

Mentor Marvin Scaff, a Gazelle Lab founder and a veteran of Silicon Valley start-ups, likes the "mental toughness" of Red Hawk Interactive founder Sean Davis. Says Scaff: "He has a relentless belief he will succeed and a raging fire of passion in his belly." Davis often gets up at 4 a.m. to ride 40 miles on his bicycle, Scaff notes. "He has done more before noon than most people do all day."

Mentor Dino Eliadis admits his own tough manner can cost him clients unwilling to face harsh reality. But start-up Leads Direct founder Brantley Smith requested Eliadis. Says the mentor: "Brantley felt that my no-nonsense style was what they would need to get through the program."

Mentor Daniel James Scott, who leads Gazelle Lab, recalls how the intensity of the Lab caused Jeff Baird, founder of Kngroo (formerly called CityQuest) to stumble while practicing his pitch. "Then he put his head down, took a beat and looked back up with a beaming smile on his face. It may be small," Scott says, "but that's how I know that Kngroo will work."

Mentor Betsy Bennett says start-up Teburu's challenge — its youthful and energetic founders — is also its strength. And mentor John Walsh says of his Dropost.it team: "I have not met with them once that they have not had an upbeat and can-do attitude. They understand they have to be at this 24/7 and they are."

Why chronicle these six start-ups fighting for funding and survival in a still struggling economy? Because now is the time when Tampa Bay needs new businesses to take root, spark the economy and, hopefully, add a few jobs and a fresh business enthusiasm along the way.

Because now is the time for a business accelerator like Gazelle Lab and its promising team to "graduate" its first-ever startups. Then Gazelle gets to go back and do it all over again.

That's the beauty of it.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

.fast facts

Gazelle Lab's 6 startups

AutoIQ: Tells drivers where to find cheap nearby gas.

Dropost.it: You can "drop" text messages in specific spots for folks to receive when they get there.

Kngroo (formerly CityQuest): Scavenger hunt by metro area, promotes local businesses.

Leads Direct Inc.: Provides online leads for property management, other services.

Red Hawk Interactive: Services aimed at Internet streaming video.

Teburu: Online restaurant menu ordering.

Mentors prepping six Gazelle Lab startups for stage debuts 10/24/11 [Last modified: Monday, October 24, 2011 10:17pm]
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