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Tampa Bay Entrepreneur's Dilemma: Launch It, Love It And Then What?





"Exit.'' In general usage, it's a relatively mundane term. For an entrepreneur, it means something much, much different.

An entrepreneurial exit is the sum of an incredible amount of time and energy dedicated to tirelessly following a vision, executing (and often recalculating) a plan, and daring to build something great.

A high-risk, high-reward, high-stakes endeavor that's not for everyone, the entrepreneurial porridge turned out to be "just right'' for Tampa Bay natives Chris Campbell, Ryan Campbell and Kevin Hale, the founders of Infinity Box and Wufoo.

The specifics for their success are certainly complex and beyond the scope of this story, however, it can be summed up this way: They became candidates for an entrepreneurial exit because they solved a problem for the rest of us.

Because of Wufoo, it's easy to build online forms.

Sounds simple, right?

Before Wufoo, it was a huge pain in the butt, and the average Internet user (yeah, I'm lookin' at you) would struggle mightily to capture data from other users.

There is value in removing pain from user experience -- in this case, building online forms -- and the Wufoo team is being rewarded handsomely for easing this ''pain point.''

The popular online survey platform, SurveyMonkey, recently purchased Wufoo for $35 million. As in dollars.

Yeah.

One disappointment for some in the Tampa Bay region: The terms of the acquisition requires them to exit Florida as well. (Insert sad faces here).

As a result, there has been a lot of chatter about whether the acquisition and subsequent relocation of Wufoo is a "win'' for the Tampa Bay region.

Buzz On Win-Loss Question

The "win'' question started out in April as an informal post on my Facebook page congratulating the Wufoo team. Soon after, members of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Tampa Bay region began to weigh-in.

Interesting positions on both sides made digging deeper seem like a good idea.

Tampa Bay's academic entrepreneurship programs felt like a good place to start; after all, they train entrepreneurs for a living.

As a graduate student studying entrepreneurship at USF Tampa, I learned early on that if I did not know the answer to something, it was more often than not an early a.m. cup of coffee away, assuming Professor Michael Fountain was on the other side of the booth.

So I asked Fountain about Wufoo's departure: "Is this a win for Tampa Bay?"

In short, his answer was no. Despite being happy for the team, Fountain described the relocation to California as a net loss for Florida.

"For Wufoo, the move makes sense,'' Fountain says. "They are looking to grow and for people and organizations that are going to help them be successful. The acquisition makes sense for Survey Monkey for the same reasons -- and they achieve economies of scale by avoiding running a bi-coastal operation.''

Why does this happen?  

"It's tough to compete in large, highly visible verticals without corporate and VC (venture capital) infrastructure in place to support local growth and acquisition,'' Fountain says.

If that's the case, might the Tampa Bay region be better suited to compete as a sleeper industry?

"Yes, I am hearing rumblings from students and from partners in the community about the web application and mobile application development; they are under the surface, quiet and gaining momentum.''

That's exciting news for Tampa Bay!

"Hopefully this serves as a wake-up call; we are growing high-value acquisition targets.''

UT's Center for Entrepreneurship Director Rebecca White describes the situation as not particularly clear-cut.

The upside: "It's good to have a demonstrable history of being able to spawn or birth acquisition targets. We need to celebrate these things so that we can think of ourselves as an entrepreneurial ecosystem.''

The challenge: "How to retain the learning? It's a loss of highly skilled intelligent folks. If the individuals are Tampa natives, perhaps they will bring back and give back to the community -- so it doesn't have to be totally negative.''

White says it truly takes a village to raise a firm, and that Tampa must foster its entrepreneurial community -- research institutions, corporate partners and investors. The money, science and business must come together.

Relatively new to the Tampa Bay region, she says she's excited about the business acumen here: "We've got several good universities producing the business folks and some fabulous science as well.''

Across Tampa Bay at USF St. Petersburg's Sustainable Entrepreneurship and Innovation Alliance, Daniel Scott, associate director and co-founder of Gazelle Lab, an early stage investment fund and business accelerator, views the acquisition as:

"Generally, good. Any success is success. The exposure is fantastic, especially if it helps to create a pipeline that other companies can follow ... to scout for talent in Tampa Bay.''

"Unfortunately, it's a loss for the ecosystem in that the experience and programming talent is now 3,000 miles away; Kevin Hale won't be speaking at the next Barcamp,'' says Scott.

Creating Critical Mass

Peter Radizeski, co-founder of BarCamp Tampa Bay, describes the group this way:

"BarCamp puts all the right people in the room and allows for conversations to happen that wouldn't otherwise happen. Ventures are launched there.''
 
OK, so what does Radizeski think: Is the Survey Monkey acquisition of Wufoo a win for the Tampa Bay ecosystem or not?

"It's a talent loss. The ecosystem has a hole in it. These guys are immensely talented,'' says Radizeski.

The transplantation of Wufoo from Tampa to Palo Alto, Radizeski says, reinforces the belief that you can start your company here but you'll eventually have to move, so why not move first especially if that move could help you get going?

"That said, I'm so happy for Kevin and the rest of the team; they were picked up by a really cool company.''

The debate seems to be anchored in the understanding that an ecosystem requires a critical mass to strengthen.

Radizeski cites Spark Labs, a local technology company, and recent winner of the Tampa Bay Technology Forum's CoolTech 2011 Judges' award for TourWrist, as an example: "They're in great shape! They just need growth capital.''

Charles Armstrong, Spark Labs founder and CEO, is in the trenches. What's his perspective on Wufoo?

"Thrilled for them; they just couldn't get what they needed here,'' Armstrong says.

"Companies leave Tampa for cash and executives who can help them scale,'' Armstrong continues. "In exchange, they get an exit strategy and some control of the company. So what we need (Tampa's entrepreneurial ecosystem), is a fund and some executives.''

"For Tampa, the acquisition of Wufoo is a win for 2 reasons: First, it's great to be able to show the rest of the tech world what Tampa is capable of, and second, it's good for our own town internally as a wake-up call to see what we can do differently to retain them.''

Attracting Investment Capital

What could Tampa Bay do more of to help companies like Spark Labs stay in Florida? (See StartUp Weekend Tampa.)

"Help provide a more conducive environment for companies to stick around,'' Armstrong says. "Right now it's like trying to farm on fallowed land. The missing nutrient is having the right strategic capital.''

Armstrong's concerns are nothing new to Linda Olson, founder of Tampa Bay WaVE, a networking and mentorship program for founders of web tech companies.

For Olson, the Wufoo story spurs a larger conversation between grassroots players and people in positions of influence.

"The community has stated a desire to become a technology hub, however, cash needs to be put in place of talk to support web venture investment,'' Olson says

When asked the "win or loss'' question, Olson replies, "Huge win! Wufoo was not looking for funding. Survey Monkey raised a large round at the end of 2010 and went out acquisition hunting. We're sorry to see them go -- they're great guys -- and at the same time, we're thrilled to see a Tampa Bay company and former WaVE venture achieve that success.''

Looking Forward

There's momentum in the Tampa Bay technology ecosystem. It's undeniable. Everyone involved believes it, and at the end of the day, what's important is that we tip our collective cap, and raise our glasses to the men and women who founded and built Wufoo.

Through all of the ups and downs inherent in their journey, they did it right, and there's certainly a place waiting for them in the burgeoning Tampa Bay entrepreneurial ecosystem for them when they're ready to come home.

Until that day, we'll continue building. After all, such is the nature of the entrepreneur.

Work hard in Palo Alto, folks, and enjoy your exit!

Nathan Schwagler is a freelance journalist, creativity expert and adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at USF St. Pete who will buy you a cup of coffee or a delicious pint if you promise to tell him something interesting -- on the record. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
 
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