In his final Startup Tampa Bay video as a @HillsboroughFL Commissioner, @MarkSharpeFL discusses his successful EDI2 program and how it has helped the local tech ecosystem grow in both activity and visibility.
A few recurring topics came up in this video that are worthy of additional discussion:
- Finding startup resources in Tampa Bay
- Branding Tampa Bay as a active & growing tech ecosystem
- Availability of investment capital in the region
When I moved to Tampa full-time about 12 years ago, finding connections in the tech ecosystem was not a simple task. There were legacy technology business networking organizations and various corporate vendor-related events, but very little in the way of collaboration between people that actually had hands-on experience in developing technology products. My joke at the time (and for many years to come) was that when it came to technology events, Tampa was a “content-free” zone. There were networking events for swapping business cards and plenty of companies that were good at procuring and using tech, but not much in the way of innovation or the exciting new products that were dominating the tech press and big tech conferences. This was not entirely true, we did have notable tech companies like Open Networks, Blue Ocean, Fortress Technologies, Z-Tel, Syniverse, and a few others that actually made products and employed people that were creators of new and interesting tech. But, vendor-centric networking events passed as the focal point of the community and the technically inclined mostly kept to themselves, built their products, and looked elsewhere for inspiration or collaboration.
Fortunately, a lot has changed and we now have a plenty of activity that is engaging for the technically inclined. Although, still in its infancy we have the makings of tech ecosystem that can support early-stage formation of high-growth ventures. Unlike a decade ago, finding resources and credible people is much easier yet I still hear the complaint that it is hard to get engaged. My response to this quandary is usually “…are you sure you are in tech, have you heard of the Internet?” Resources are there for the finding, plenty of tech-friendly events are scheduled almost every week, several annual and quarterly events are in the press, and we have even reached the point where local politicians use the word start-ups on a regular basis. It’s not rocket science, but you have got to put in at least a little effort to discover what is out there and how it matches up with what you need.
Treat tech community engagement like you would in preparing for a job interview. Follow these simple rules:
- Do your research. This includes organizations, partners, companies and most importantly people.
- Google is your friend – use it to map out your list of resources and top thought leaders
- LinkedIn is your secret weapon – use it to research, connect, and learn from group discussions
- MeetUp is your social calendar – no risk, no cost events for every possible area in tech or business
- Be prepared to articulate your value to the community and those you meet. Volunteer for anything you can just to learn and get exposure. Give before you get, it is the unwritten rule of ALL tech communities.
- Follow up. Don’t be a pest or spam a list asking for advice and don’t send LinkedIn / Facebook invites to every one you meet, that is just creepy. If you do make a meaningful connection, it is OK to follow-up with a short, focused email. A good topic of engagement is asking what other events or groups the other person thinks would be good to explore. If your connection is active on Twitter, follow them there or join a LinkedIn Group that they follow and you might just learn something without having to ask.
Branding Tampa Bay as a Tech Hub:
Branding is the buzzword that agencies, politicians, out of work news people, and others flock to in order to seem relevant. Hailed as the cure-all to being underrated or overlooked, branding to most people is what we used to call PR. But, as anyone that has worked for a firm that spends millions to build and defend a brand knows a brand is something you earn and not simply something that you slap on the outside of a package or feature in advertising because you wish it were true. Branding is not a Silver Bullet and those that treat it as such frequently find themselves a lot poorer and not much wiser for having bet the farm on big promises and fancy slogans. Lipstick on the pig is just that, a cosmetic approach with no lasting benefits and a really bad aftertaste.
Complaints that Tampa Bay is branded too often as a nothing more than tourism, retirement, and real estate ignore the fact that for a long time we were pretty much overly dependent on those industries and everything from our parochial business culture to our aging infrastructure proves that point. We have plenty of past tech wins to be proud of in the region, but traditionally there has been a lack of sustainable product development that gives people (locally & nation-wide) a sense us of having a credible and sustainable tech ecosystem.
For those actually in the tech industry, just keep building and shipping products. That is the most efficient means for attracting the right kind of attention to our ecosystem. For those on the outside looking in (government, non-tech business community, social & networking organizations, academia, etc.), realize that Tampa Bay has a history of tech wins and try to understand that this is not a quick-fix marketing campaign. It took other regions decades to build their tech cred and they all did it the same way, building and shipping products. It’s not about branding, business plan competitions, demo days, incubators, or attracting outside venture capital. If we keep building products that attract global customers, we will be one step closer to being recognized as a tech hub. If we keep building cool stuff that attracts talented people to come work on new projects, we will be one step closer to being recognized as a tech hub. If we start to focus more on STEM education that generates more talented people, we will be one step closer to being recognized as a tech hub. If expand our focus beyond pure research and strive for a higher level of commercialization that generates real products and real jobs, we will be one step closer to being recognized as a tech hub. Credibility, it is how you build a kick-ass brand.
Similar to the above rant on Branding, investment capital is earned not coerced with marketing, incentives or best of intentions. Investment capital is not philanthropy, government grants or prize money, it is a bet on success that is based on some level of anticipated execution and the ability to turn an idea into a product that captures marketshare.
The on-going whining about lack of capital is nothing new, nor is it unique to the Tampa Bay region. Plenty of aspiring tech regions plead for outside capital and on the surface it looks like everyone outside the recognized tech meccas are being ignored, but that is not entirely true. Companies here in Tampa and around the country that are actually delivering a product that solves a problem for real customers are finding their early-stage investors. Florida is not known for early-stage tech investors and what passes for early-stage or organized angel investment here vs. other markets is often quite different. Some of that is based on risk tolerance of local investors, some based on limited investor savvy in tech markets, and some of that is based on the lack of an ecosystem track record or inexperienced management teams here vs. in other markets.
The fact that seed level money is flowing into some local early-stage companies is not heralded in nicely crafted press releases, but it still happens when the circumstances are right. That doesn’t mean that every new start-up is destined to find an investor, not all successful firms are angel backed or venture funded. If you do the math on the number of firms that actually raise outside capital (in good markets and in slumps) you will see that it is a very small percentage of the total number of early-stage companies. Rather than spending valuable time and resources chasing unicorns, most start-ups tap into a more readily accessible source of capital called customer revenue. This type of capital accomplished two very important goals, validation that you are on to something worth building / selling and it provides the trickle of funding needed to improve your ability to deliver.
Fostering a start-up culture that is obsessed with perfecting their investor pitch and raising money vs. just solving a problem and selling a product is damaging to an ecosystem’s growth. At the very least, it builds a sense of false hope and misguided activities. It also opens the door to bad actors that prey on the insecurity and misguided aspirations of start-up founders that are new to the game. The perceived investor void often gets filled with everything from brokers promising to find you investors for a fee to outright hucksters offering to development and management services in exchange for a large chunk of equity. Not only do the start-up founders need to learn the profile of a snake oil salesman, but so does the local press that is unfamiliar with tech investment and is easily taken in by the promise of a new found source of capital or startup coaching and business mentor services.
What’s an Emerging Tech Ecosystem to Do:
Relax, if you are a techie, freelancer, student, or anyone else looking to get involved in the local tech scene you have plenty of opportunities to engage with great people who can help along the way. There is not one big front door, comprehensive map of resources, or single tech organization that can fulfill all your needs or tell you what to do. Plan on putting in a little work, attend events, ask good questions, and take great notes. Even if you feel new to the game, you have something to give. Volunteer your time, attend workshops that are outside your comfort zone, research stuff you don’t fully understand, become a great listener, and learn to ask meaningful questions. If you are already a startup founder or part of a startup team, just keep building your product and validating your market. I know it is tough work, but when you have a chance to breathe, engage the rest of the ecosystem to help where they can. Nothing helps strengthen your odds of success more than a strong community of like minded people who are genuinely committed to building great products. And if you have the chance expand your team, there’s plenty of good talent here, so hire local if you can.
So be thankful that our area is awash with opportunities to engage – everything from monthly events in Startup Digest, MeetUps, StartupGrind, Startup Weekends to annual events like BarCamp Tampa Bay and Ignite! Tampa Bay and even weekly drop-in events like Tech Talk @BuddyBrewCoffee or 1Million Cups in St. Pete. Above all, learn to use Google and LinkedIn to confirm everything you hear and everyone you meet. Whether this is your business or just a hobby, there is no excuse for not doing your research and learning from other people’s experience. Tampa Bay is well on its way to being an credible tech ecosystem, but like trying to teach a kid to ride a bike, it takes time, effort, a lot of encouragement and the occasional skinned knee.