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Entrepreneurs, start-ups take center stage in Tampa and St. Pete

TAMPA – Matt Kennedy took Gary Vaynerchuk's Flip Challenge in 2017.

"It's finding things around your house, things on clearance, and (posting) them on EBay and making some money," he said.

Kennedy, 37, of St. Petersburg, had a job installing car stereos at the time. Engaged with a newborn son, he followed through with the challenge and eventually invested in crypto-currency mining machines, which he now buys from a manufacturer in China and sells online through his company, Antminer Marketplace.

Tuesday evening, Kennedy drove across the bridge to the Tampa Theater to see Vaynerchuck speak at the Tampa Theatre, as the keynote to Tampa Bay Startup Week. During the Question and Answer segment of the program, Kennedy stood up to thank Vaynerchuk for inspiring him to change his life.

"As of last week, I was able to hire my dad and get him out of a (bad) job," he told the crowd of 1,000 other practicing and aspiring entrepreneurs who packed the theater.

A best-selling author of books like Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook and The Thank You Economy, Vaynerchuck's booking was a key component to help fire up the Tampa Bay's startup community, said Gracie Stemmer, a co-lead organizer for Startup Week.

"We shot for the stars," she said.

More than 4,000 people have registered to participate in this week's events in Tampa and St. Petersburg. The schedule includes networking sessions, hands-on trainings, a pitch competition and a local startup showcase. The event has doubled in size over last year.

Wearing a black "Put in the Work" T-Shirt, skinny jeans and sneakers, Vaynerchuck spoke and took questions for about 60 minutes, answering direct questions about marketing strategy, speaking to the importance of kindness and empathy, and warning that the economy may have tough times ahead.

"It's been 10, 11 years of pure prosperity," he said. "When it's good, everybody's a hero and when it's bad, people go work at a bank, or McDonalds."

"My ambition here is not for all of you to go home and start your own business. My ambition is for all of you to understand why I'm so happy and it's because I figured myself out." he added. "Put yourself in a position to succeed. You'll always loose when you try to force something."

Independent filmmaker and Tampa resident Bryan Williams, 25, said that he has been a fan of Vaynerchuck since he found him online in 2016.

Many local entrepreneurs are also in the spotlight this week, including Laura Egocheaga. Just 23 years old, she founded Divibe Tech, a digital marketing firm that she said earned six figures in 2017.

"Now I'm trying to get to seven," she smiled.

On Tuesday afternoon, Egocheaga spoke to about 600 600 people about her book, The Small Business Guide to Social Media Marketing. She said Vaynerchuck, Grant Cardone and Alex Becker have been major influences on her career.

Contact Alli Knothe at