One of Tampa Bay's most transforming business trends in years is emerging amid this difficult economy. It can be described in two words. Entrepreneurial ecosystem. It's not my favorite phrase. Try saying it three times fast. But the words capture the momentum behind a new regional infrastructure for people who want to start businesses here and — just as important — keep them here, adding jobs as they grow. "It's like seeding the fields," veteran entrepreneur and University of South Florida Center for Entrepreneurship chief Michael Fountain says of propagating new businesses. "Some will take root." Why do we care? Because Tampa Bay has malnourished its entrepreneurs for too long. Regionally, we need larger numbers of new companies with smarter business ideas, quality management and better access to capital. Tampa Bay's economy is not built on Fortune 500 headquartered companies. It is a mix of back-office operations of distant corporations, mid-sized companies and an enormous number of small businesses.
Gov. Rick Scott and our own regional economic development groups focus heavily — with mixed success — on luring jobs, typically from other companies based in other states. Why not complement that strategy with a stronger culture to help businesses start and grow here? It makes economic sense.
Encouraging entrepreneurs is not some overnight fix. It won't produce dramatic numbers of new jobs quickly.
"You have to take a 20-year view," says serial entrepreneur Marvin Scaff, one of the veteran quintet behind the Gazelle Lab business accelerator that this year kicked into gear to help area startups.
Well, here's my own 20-year view from writing for decades about the Tampa Bay business scene: If this emerging regional entrepreneurial ecosystem proves real and sustainable, it may deliver a critical injection of fresh ideas, enthusiasm and new jobs into our sluggish economy.
Sure, some entrepreneurs have prospered here for years. Others have left for greener, friendlier metro areas. So the arrival of an infrastructure that helps startups gain traction here and acts as a community support system is an exciting prospect.
Given time, more startups here mean more and better jobs. It means a more dynamic business culture that will appeal to young and talented people who every day are asking: Should I stay or should I go?
Tampa Bay is still losing that demographics battle. We remain a net loser of sharp, younger adults to places like Denver, Dallas, Austin and Seattle — places where they sense better career opportunities and, frankly, find more people like themselves.
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So what exactly is an entrepreneurial ecosystem?
It's a core of people in this region experienced in how to start businesses. It's people willing to share that knowledge, drive, discipline and connections.
It's people like Linda Olson, whose Tampa Bay Wave group, now a nonprofit, has become one of the chief gathering places for folks with early-stage startup ambitions.
It's people like Michael Fountain, kind of a father figure of entrepreneurial experience in Tampa, who has run USF's successful Center for Entrepreneurship in Tampa for more than a decade.
It's people like Daniel James Scott and Bill Jackson in St. Petersburg, who are driving forces behind training potential entrepreneurs through the USF St. Petersburg College of Business. Scott helps direct the new-this-year Gazelle Lab, an intense 90-day program for competitively picked business startups. And Jackson heads the new entrepreneurship major for USF business students.
It's people like lawyer Brent Britton, chairman of law firm Gray Robinson's emerging business and technology practice in Tampa. Britton combines a West Coast hipster style with legal experience on how startups must organize to be most efficient and most attractive to venture capitalists.
And it's people like Tom Wallace, a senior statesmen of Tampa Bay tech startups and a founder of his latest firm, Red Vector. He's increasingly lending his expertise and influence to further the entrepreneur network via his work at the regional group known as the Tampa Bay Technology Forum.
Rebecca White, a relative newcomer to the area, heads the University of Tampa's recent plunge into entrepreneurship. The UT professor and entrepreneur sees a surge in startup interest in the Tampa Bay area tied to this long stretch of bad economy and higher unemployment.
"It's more important today than in prosperous times," she says. "We are in a position where people who did not see themselves as entrepreneurs increasingly want to take responsibility for their own lives and careers."
White and Wallace want to see some Tampa Bay entrepreneurs deliver a home run or two. They want a few startups to grow to significant size, gain fame and generate investor wealth to put this region on the map.
That type of success should attract more investors and venture capital here. Startup financing has been and remains hard to find in the region.
In May, a Tampa startup called Wufoo, a maker of forms and survey documents, was sold for $35 million in cash and stock to another company called SurveyMonkey. That news heartened area entrepreneurs with their own dreams of success. The bad news is the buyer of Wufoo moved the business to California.
Tampa Bay wants the next generation of startups to stay here, whenever possible.
"What will be the tipping point for Tampa Bay?" White asks. Making this region a cooler place for young talent would help, she says. And that means getting this region's act together on quality public transportation and raising the bar on the our educational system.
There's another key piece of the business startup culture missing in Tampa Bay: the notion that it is okay to fail.
Business failures, White says, are sometimes more valuable to an entrepreneur than success. The Tampa Bay business community still needs to learn not to write off budding entrepreneurs because they failed.
"If you are not failing," says Wallace, whose many startups included Tampa's BrainBuzz.com a decade ago, "you are not taking enough risk as an entrepreneur."
Robert Trigaux can be reached at email@example.com.