Instant entrepreneurial ecosystem: Just add $$$!
On March 26 the most prestigious startup accelerator in Silicon Valley, known as Y-Combinator, held its “demo day,” in which its latest class of startups took the stage to present their business plans. More than 500 — 500! — investors crowded the room, clamoring to get in on the latest high-growth investment opportunities. If we held a similar event in the Tampa Bay area to showcase a handful of our most promising local startups, how many investors would attend, checkbooks at the ready? Experience dictates: precious few. Alas, probably none. Very few startups find investors in the Tampa Bay area. As a direct result of this lack of funding, many good ones have packed up and headed west where they have thrived and garnered millions from investors. Far too many unfunded Tampa Bay area startups have simply died on the vine.Admittedly, Silicon Valley’s raging startup culture constitutes the gold standard, so comparisons to our region may justifiably be seen as inherently unfair. We’re not Silicon Valley; that is true. Frankly, we’re not weird enough. In Silicon Valley, they value the crazy new thing more than they value the reliable old thing. And, well, we don’t. We in the Tampa Bay area don’t trust the crazy new thing until it’s so close to being the reliable old thing that it qualifies as just about the opposite of what you’d call a startup. Silicon Valley is mostly progressive. The Tampa Bay area is, by and large, pretty conservative. Not so much for us with the risk tolerance. Come home to your family in San Francisco and announce that you’re quitting your day job to start a company and you’ll probably get kisses and hugs and congratulations. Try that here, and the kisses and hugs may be in short supply for a while. Silicon Valley also venerates failure as an essential component of the entrepreneurial school of hard knocks. We don’t. Fail there and you’re more valuable. Fail in the Tampa Bay area and you’d better steal out of town in the dark of night with your tail between your legs. OK, fine. There are some troublesome threads woven into the fabric of society here that militate against a thriving startup culture. Despite these drawbacks, can we build a community devoted to the success of our startups? So, it turns out we have almost already done so. The Tampa Bay area has enjoyed an enormous bloom in many components of its entrepreneurial ecosystem over just the past year or two. Our fabulous universities are pumping out entrepreneurially minded graduates at a high rate. Where empty offices and cigar factories once lay fallow, we now have all manner of co-working spaces and startup accelerators; a couple of weeks ago, two notable ones launched on the same day! We have economic development organizations and private groups of plain old concerned citizens mustering programs to cultivate, educate, and encourage budding entrepreneurs. We have Startup Bus, Startup Weekend and BarCamp. We have more mentors than we know what to do with. We have more Meetup groups than one can possibly track. We have dozens, if not hundreds, of eager entrepreneurs with the skills and intestinal fortitude to turn their ideas into huge commercial successes. They are in the starting blocks. They are champing at the bit. Potential job creators, one and all. Make no mistake, the Tampa Bay area’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is very nearly completely coalesced. What we lack is one thing, and one thing only. We lack a motivated stable of early stage capital investors. We lack money. Hey, rich folks! Every big, successful company you’ve ever heard of was once an unfunded startup with an uncertain future. Wouldn’t you like to get in on the ground floor of the next Apple, Facebook or Groupon? The opportunities for doing so abound here in the Tampa Bay region. Just say the word, and we will line them up to pitch to you. All day long. Next time you’re thinking of ponying up for the latest real estate project or restaurant chain or community bank, consider peeling a few percentage points off that money and investing it in a startup company here. Will there be risk? Oh, you betcha. Eight or nine out of 10 Tampa Bay area startups probably will fail. The solution? Invest in all 10. Then invest in 10 more. Because there also will be enormous returns. Every city in the U.S. that has managed to corral a meaningful portion of its high net-worth citizenry to financially undergird local startups has enjoyed significant gains in high-wage job growth, quality of life and economic vibrancy. Just ask the folks in Austin, Boulder and Raleigh-Durham. Yes, it may be a struggle at first to hold your head high at the country club once word gets out that you’re fooling around with these crazy startups. But ultimately, your friends will stop clucking their tongues and will begrudgingly admire you again. Because you will have helped turn the Tampa Bay area into a place where entrepreneurship thrives, where jobs are created, where the American dream is realized, where smart folks with good ideas make all of our lives a little better. Your legacy will be to have sponsored the region’s economic future. And also, you’ll probably be mind-bogglingly rich.
Brent C.J. Britton is a Tampa lawyer and entrepreneurial advocate. He can be reached at