By Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist
In Print: Sunday, December 18, 2011
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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.
. . .
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.
Some movers and shakers in the regional startup scene
Founder of Tampa Bay Wave
Why: Nonprofit's captured a "cool" factor, lots of buzz in young entrepreneur network. About 60 members. Offers common space in downtown Tampa for startups.
Quote: "This is not just about job creation, but driving and inspiring more people here for higher-wage skills that companies need. We want to provide a clearer path for our fellow citizens to pursue entrepreneurial ventures if they want."
Founder and CEO, Red Vector, online education firm, Tampa
Why: Serial entrepreneur and senior leader in Tampa Bay Technology Forum entrepreneur network.
Quote: "It has never been a less expensive or better time to start a tech company. You can go out and get what you need through the cloud (online services). You do not have to invest in expensive hardware or software. That is a big difference. I am hopeful we will have some very successful tech startups come out of this area that go on to do great things."
Chair of entrepreneurship program, director of University of Tampa's Entrepreneurship Center, UT's Spartan business accelerator
Why: Street cred, making a mark even though here only a few years.
Quote: "Our ecosystem needs informality and the ability to change. Add too much structure and you get bureaucracy. We want to create a coolness factor to attract entrepreneurs to stay here."
Co-founder of Gazelle Lab business accelerator at University of South Florida St. Petersburg College of Business
Why: Serial entrepreneur, Silicon Valley veteran, massive Rolodex.
Quote: "What needs to happen next? We must not get discouraged in the short term. Take the long view. There is so much wealth here. We need some of that capital to get interested in entrepreneurship."
Tampa director of University of South Florida Center for Entrepreneurship; chair in entrepreneurship, USF College of Business; also professor titles in USF's College of Engineering and College of Medicine
Why: Serial entrepreneur, major credentials, longevity (one of his students was Daniel James Scott, who now runs Gazelle Lab at USF St. Petersburg).
Quote: "The biggest challenge we face, and it is not unique to Tampa, is finding financing sources for early-stage companies. It's really difficult and it's more problematic in this tough economy than at other times. The challenge is: How do companies go from having five or six people to 20 or 50 people?"
.up Support system
Key pieces of Tampa Bay's entrepreneurial ecosystem
Tampa Bay Wave, Tampa: Grass roots nonprofit network for entrepreneurs. Visit tampabaywave.org/.
Center for Entrepreneurship, University of South Florida Tampa College of Business. Princeton Review ranks the graduate program No. 19 among top 50 entrepreneurship programs.
Entrepreneurship Center, University of Tampa. Promotes business startups. Visit ut.edu/entrepreneurcenter/.
Gazelle Lab, University of South Florida St. Petersburg College of Business. Young, 90-day crash course in starting a business, offered twice a year. Must apply. Visit gazellelab.com/.
Degree in entrepreneurship, University of South Florida St. Petersburg College of Business. New undergraduate program. Visit usfsp.edu/cob/undergraduate_studies/entrepreneurship.htm.
Tampa Bay Technology Incubator, University of South Florida Tampa: Supports high-tech development. Visit usfconnect.org/Incubator.asp.
Tampa Bay Innovation Center, Largo: Fosters high-tech jobs, supports startups. Visit tbinnovates.com/.
Entrepreneur Network, Tampa Bay Technology Forum: Networking group for startups and young tech companies. Visit tbtf.org.
Career and Entrepreneurship Center, St. Petersburg College: Includes new "entrepreneurship certificate" program. Visit spcollege.edu/cec/academics.html.
BarCamp: Brainstorming weekends on technology ideas. Visit barcamptampabay.org/.
Startup Weekend: Launch a startup in 54 hours. Visit tampa.startupweekend.org/.
Florida Venture Forum: Building a pipeline to venture capitalists, investors for Florida startups. Visit floridaventureforum.org/.