Think the first day of school is stressful? Try the first day of an intense, 90-day mentoring program for six hand-picked business startups. On Nov. 17, each will have eight minutes to pitch their young firm's business model with passion and precision before a group of potential investors at St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater.
No coddling here. "It will be your own fault if you do not get funding on Demo Day" — when investors hear the pitches, says Marvin Scaff, a Gazelle Lab co-founder and Silicon Valley veteran.
"Passion is critical," warns Gazelle Lab founder Daniel James Scott, whose business accelerator program operates through the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. So is energy. "Investors are looking for boundless energy."
Even a little cursing, Scott admits with an example, probably doesn't hurt when trying to look fired up over a new business.
From a pack of about 100 firms seeking to be chosen this summer, Gazelle Lab selected six area startup businesses. Some of the seats in the room Monday are filled with young faces not long out of school. Their business plans mostly call for leveraging new types of online services for restaurants or auto owners or real estate firms and other companies.
There are two end games here.
Gazelle Lab, part of the larger TechStars mentoring and funding network out of Boulder, Colo., wants as many as possible of these six startups to succeed. By making the Final Six, these firms get the input of seasoned business professionals (there are 85 mentors on call). The firms also receive money: $6,000 per founder (so a company with three founders gets $18,000) from a Gazelle fund backed by high-net-worth individuals. The funds are to help support the startup over these next 90 days.
There's no better advertising for Gazelle Lab's future than a crop of thriving startups graduating from its business accelerator.
In addition, Gazelle Lab and USF aim to create a solid infrastructure to encourage more regional confidence in startups. Scott calls it a "pipeline for entrepreneurs."
A few of the six firms were started by "corporate refugees" who decided it was time to leave a steady salary, even in this economy, and pursue their own business ideas.
Sean Davis is one such refugee. After giving his notice at the local operations of coupon giant Valpak, Davis cashed in his savings to start Red Hawk Interactive. His idea? To offer new interactive services on Internet streaming services (where more people are watching TV and movies). Ty Mathen, who once worked at Stadium Toyota, decided he wanted to be his own boss and came up with the idea of Dropost.it. The app allows text messages to be triggered geographically.
In another seat, 25-year-old Leon McIntosh is busy during Gazelle breaks trying to coax an online restaurant menu to appear on a computer screen. He's with Teburu (that's Japanese for "table"), a firm seeking to provide smaller restaurants and chains with affordable and flexible online menu ordering capabilities.
First up? Clearwater's Gondolier Pizza. For starters, McIntosh says the chain will introduce Teburu's online ordering system in a few stores later this week.
USF St. Petersburg College of Business students will be assigned to each of the firms to provide additional help and to learn firsthand about start-ups.
Will these six all survive and prosper?
I can't tell yet, but I plan to follow these firms through their 90-day crash course in becoming a real business. Spending time with so many business dreamers Monday reminded me of a New York Times business story this past Sunday that quotes a tech consultant:
"In Silicon Valley, we are as a species wildly optimistic. But if we weren't, we wouldn't have so many entrepreneurs because no one who's being rational would ever found a company."
Let's hope every one of these Tampa Bay founders is wildly optimistic and certifiably irrational.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]