America is full of companies who leverage their underdog status to sneak up on bigger competitors. Avis (CAR) even made a tagline out of it, "When you're only No. 2, you try harder." In an era where cities are steadily embracing private sector principles, this same adage applies. And thanks to the leveling effect of technology, the gap between historical winners and smaller, more nimble players is quickly narrowing.

Tampa, Florida is proving to be a perfect example. This week, Jeff Vinik, Tampa Bay Lightning owner and urban redevelopment entrepreneur, announced his intent to bring New York-based Dreamit to Tampa to launch a high-end business accelerator. Ten hot urban tech startups are coming as part of the package.

You may not think of this Florida city when you think of the hottest metros for startups. But if leaders keep at the current pace, that may change pretty quickly. Tampa is putting in the work to catch up to front runners like Austin and Nashville and there are some key learnings from their approach.

1. Expand Your Capability through Partnerships

Transportation issues are plaguing many urban areas. And it can seem completely asinine that more cities don't adopt some of the existing mapping technologies, like Waze. While other cities spend time listing all of the reasons they can't make it work, Tampa gets busy. In fact, they are the first US city to integrate Waze into city services. The city provides access to data on school zones, speed limits, parking garages and electric vehicle charging stations. In exchange Waze provides data on existing traffic conditions. The net net, residents are enabled to make smarter decisions.

Another mobility-based example includes the city's approach to their last mile challenge. While riding a bus may make sense on paper, most people opt out if the walk is more than a block long, especially in a steamy city like Tampa. But instead of throwing up their hands, Tampa leadership forged a partnership with Tesla. For $3, riders can ride in style to the bus stop and avoid the sweaty hike. Double bonus: This partnership is inspiring the local entrepreneur community to consider more unique solutions. Innovation begets innovation.

If a city government can overcome the "default to no", you can too. So ask yourself, what are the big roadblocks in your business that seem insurmountable given your size and resources? Are there ways you can address these through partnerships? If nothing comes to mind, think harder. It may be a non-traditional alignment and the most obvious answer in the world.

2. Encourage Risk Taking

"We have to bust up the paradigms, if we don't we will die. We will be like the dinosaur." This quote isn't from a corporate CEO and instead was said by Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn at a recent smart city policy event. "The cities that are going to compete in the future are those that are able to attract intellectual capital and that requires embracing disruptive technology."

Eighteen percent of Tampa's job growth is in professional and business services. Because people in this sector were not as familiar with how to evaluate the risks associated with technology, in the past city leadership took on a moniker of "risk allergic," according to Ned Pope, president of Florida NEXT.

But Hurricanes Katrina and Frances started to change all of that. In 2004 - 2005 insurers were fleeing Florida, leaving the state desperate to find a way to process insurance claims more quickly. The government had to quickly adopt new technologies in order to respond to emergencies. "But we shouldn't have to wait for a crisis to examine innovative solutions," says Pope. Tampa learned its lesson and today is looking ahead to disruptive technologies like 5G networks - the next generation mobile broadband that will enable a city-based Internet of Things.

What are the 'hurricanes' for your industry? And how can you anticipate game-changing impacts? What steps can you take to put solutions or partnerships in place ahead of time? How can you embrace those changes as potential competitive advantages? In other words, what would Tampa do?

3. Focus on the Customer and Make Your Technology Relevant to Them

No matter if you are a municipal leader or an entrepreneur, your technology is out of touch if it is not focused on people. Linda Olson, president of Tampa Bay WaVE explains, "There's no point in being a "smart city" or "digital city" unless you can explain how you're benefiting people by making the city safer, healthier, more economically prosperous, easier to live in, easier to work in--for everyone."

And while tech savvy urban dwellers get it, there is a rift growing between them and rural or even suburban people who don't understand the huge focus on tech. "You have to be able to translate the benefit to the people who are here," she said. "If we can have that culture where technology isn't scary, we have the ability to be an innovation driven economy that can help startups find critical early adopters and the capital to grow and thrive."

The equivalent for an entrepreneur is the early adopter syndrome. There will always be people on the tip of the bell curve who applaud your capabilities. But if you stop there, you could miss a huge segment of the market. They may need you to tell them the reason they should love your product or service.

A city, which has to serve all residents instead of a customer segment, doesn't have the option of ignoring a part of their "market." So what can you learn from this mandate? Is there a customer base you have overlooked? Can you dive deeper into those underserved users, understand their needs and adjust your messaging? Help them help you.

Tell the Story

Tampa's put a lot of effort to build all of the elements of a great entrepreneur story, but now they have to be focused on telling it says Dr. Rebecca White, Director of the John P. Lowth Entrepreneurship Center at the University of Tampa. Thankfully startup ecosystem champions are signing up for the job in addition to their full time roles.

Lucas Lindsey, Executive Director of startup incubator Domi Station is also the co-chair of Launch Florida. Ned Pope, president of Florida NEXT, a nonprofit encouraging entrepreneurship, keeps a day job at Nielsen. And of course the city's most well-known representative, Mayor Buckhorn, is doing his part by talking about how the government is changing the way it operates. "A digital city sets the table for (entrepreneurs)... to be successful, and then gets out of the way and gets government out of the way," he said.

The Uphill Climb

As with any underdog story, the ending is still yet to be determined. While there is plenty of heart and determination at work in Tampa, it will take more than that to rise to the ranking of a top tier tech city. Even Mayor Buckhorn admits that "We are not as nimble and adaptive as we ought to be."

Tampa will need at least one big win to emerge--a local company "done good" that attracts national-level attention. Plus with some work, the Waze and Tesla partnerships will be a sign of more to come. These examples are inspiring, but will do little to move the needle if they are a one-hit wonder. Let's hope that we continue to have great stories to tell about this emerging region and that complacency doesn't take the place of competitiveness.

Published on: May 10, 2017