Last month, I spent three days in Tampa digging into its startup culture. It started with a boat ride through downtown with Mayor Bob Buckhorn during his last days in office. We could visually see the change that has occurred over the last decade.

Tampa, like any city in Florida, has to counteract the perception that it's mostly retirees and real-estate investors. Go to one Lightning game and you'll realize it's not. It has invested heavily in the Riverwalk, an arena district in Sparkman Wharf and a free trolley that takes you through downtown. 

Billionaire Jeff Vinik is investing heavily in Tampa, and not just in new downtown hotels for when they host the Super Bowl in 2021. The owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning is also investing heavily in the startup ecosystem.

Tampa Has Its Challenges

The perception is that there isn't enough capital or proven success stories in the area. What I would say about the latter is that billion-dollar unicorns aren't the greatest predictor of future success. Tampa doesn't have a unicorn of its own but it's building the support system to create one.  

Capital definitely exists in Florida. Tampa's Ballast Point Ventures manages $360 million. Magic Leap being able to raise $2.3 billion in the state has changed perceptions. 

The key is getting investors to shift from what they know to where the startups are. Marc Blumenthal and Tom Wallace knew this was an issue in Tampa so they started a hybrid of venture capital and crowdfunding called Florida Funders. 

"Over 2/3 of the capital committed to our fund and the money invested in our current portfolio came from real estate, car dealer, heath care and other 'non tech' investors and many of them had not made a tech investment before Florida Funders," said Blumenthal.

Like other emerging cities not on the coasts, tech capital is still an issue here but Blumenthal and Wallace, through educating the investor base, have bridged the gap and made Tampa, at the very least, competitive with non-conventional hubs like Columbus, Charlotte, Denver and Atlanta. 

The second challenge is the support system for entrepreneurs. This didn't exist, at least formally, in Tampa ten years ago. 

Linda Olson, founder of Tampa Bay Wave, has done the quiet work of helping over a hundred startups get funded over the last five years. Her non-profit has solidified the base building block of the Tampa startup ecosystem that didn't previously exist. 

And Tampa is in the process of tackling the next part of that ecosystem. Lakshmi Shenoy was the Vice President of Chicago's 1871 tech hub, UBI Global's #1 incubator in the United States. Jeff Vinik hired her to be CEO of his answer in Tampa, Embarc Collective, an innovation hub. Shenoy has a proven model and a very rare opportunity. 

Embarc won't open its doors until this fall. Shenoy, hired in late 2017, has 18 months to learn about the area, make strategic connections and build the ecosystem before they even start. That's a rare and fantastic opportunity with startup ecosystems. But Vinik is confident in Shenoy's proven model and what lies beneath the surface in Tampa. 

Shenoy in this time has already interviewed 500 startup founders and other stakeholders locally as well as surveyed 300 other community members to assess the region's startup needs.

How to Navigate Tampa as an Entrepreneur

There's an opportunity here. Florida ranks fifth nationwide in venture capital dollars. Shifting them to tech and startups will be your challenge.  

Create a startup that is only one degree of separation from the current investment portfolios. If you know people invest in real estate or finance then go create a Redfin real-estate tech competitor or something in Fintech. Make the transition easy for investors. VR may be a leap, pun intended. 

You won't be able to do it alone. You'll need help. 

Jody Haneke grew and revenue-funded a successful digital experience agency, Haneke Design, long before there was access to capital in Tampa. Susan O'Neal, built the app, Dabbl, which creates better advertising experiences for consumers and has been able to secure investment from Silicon Valley and all over but remain in Tampa.  

Finally, chat with Brian Murphy, CEO of cybersecurity firm, ReliaQuest, a Tampa company that works with many large companies across the country. He's been able to attract and retain talent, which has been key to the company's growth and may help you navigate that space when you need. 

You'll have to work a little harder to get noticed and find the right capital here. But the advantage will be an entire wave of people pushing you to succeed because they know your success is their success. 

Published on: Mar 27, 2019