Successful entrepreneurs swap business failure stories at new Tampa Bay meetup

Business success stories are told at pitch night competitions or startup company seminars across the country -- but these tales don’t always highlight the mistakes or mess-ups that can be part of being a successful entrepreneur.

Bridging the gap of that disconnect is the motive behind a new Tampa Bay area quarterly meetup: F*** Up Nights. (Yes, your mind filled in the gaps correctly). The ‘mess up night’ medium with an R-rated name aims to connect local entrepreneurs and small business owners in cities around the world with successful business leaders who aren’t afraid to talk about their failures.

“Failure is ingrained in the corporate culture of any company,” says Roberto Torres, who reinvented his career path within the last five years with a move from finance to fashion. 

“We reward baseball players when they’re batting 300. Three out of ten times, they hit the ball - so they swung and missed seven times,” Torres says. 

And like baseball players who swing and miss, he explains, “This is the essence of a company: taking big risks. If you’re gonna mess up, you’re gonna mess up royally.” 

Sharing stories of failure and success

One evening in early October, stories about failure rang out across a crowded storefront on Ybor City’s historic 7th Avenue. Three well-known members of Tampa Bay’s entrepreneurial community had taken center stage in the cozy confines of CoWork Ybor to discuss not how to build a business, but how to (inadvertently) destroy one. 

The three speakers -- Brent C.J. Britton, Chuck Papageorgiou, and Scott Moore -- were set to share “how they failed, and how they recovered,” explains Torres.

The first FUNTampaBay took place in the coworking space that Torres operates alongside The Blind Tiger Café, where coffee and tea from local businesses (Buddy Brew and TeBella Tea, respectively) are brewed by trained baristas, and a mini-boutique of Torres’ Black and Denim clothing and accessories fills out the back of the space. A mural of coffee in all the different states from bean to cup, created and painted by a local Tampa artist, stretches from floor to ceiling, intersecting with a sliding barn door that separates the café from the coworking space next door.

Hand-painted trolley wall art bearing the name CoWork Ybor can barely be seen above the heads of the standing-room-only crowd. Around 50 guests, ranging from business leaders to college students, settled in to hear from the night’s three featured speakers, munch on donated chicken wings or chips, and sip complimentary wine or beer.

How to fail at business (without really trying)

South Tampa’s Urban Body Clothing Founder Moore, who graduated from Virginia’s Radford University with a BS in Economics and Political Science, shares a story about learning to pay attention to detail when it comes to contracts.

Moore opened Urban Body Clothing in the SoHo area of Tampa in 2000, after spending 12 years in marketing with the International Gas Turbine Institute.

Britton, a corporate lawyer in Tampa Bay who graduated from the MIT Media Laboratory, says, “I give a lot of entrepreneurs a lot of advice about how to run a startup company. But whenever I run them myself, I manage to break a few rules.”

Britton’s startup company rules:
  • “Ideas alone are worthless businesses. Execution is everything.”
  • “Validate the market. Demonstrate to yourself that people will pay money for your product or service.”
  • “Don’t lead a startup on nights and weekends only. Entrepreneurship is not a part-time job.”
  • “You have to sell.”
A few key failures behind him, Britton learned which rule was most crucial to staying successful. “If I’m really being honest about my f*** ups, the one that really matters, that’s really most important: full-time required.”

Serial entrepreneur Papageorgiou, who also serves on the advisory board of the University of Tampa Entrepreneurship Center, describes himself as an “operator” who builds and turns companies around. Could be a five-person startup or a billion-dollar business; Papageorgiou has worked with them all.

The pattern that emerges from mistakes, Papageorgiou says, comes down to execution. For him, a major mess up is “the result of a bad decision, made poorly.”

Here’s “how to execute the perfect f*** up,” according to Papageorgiou:
  • Make the fool’s choice
  • Find data that supports your ideas
  • Let short-term emotions drive your decisions
  • Have expert’s arrogance.
After one mistake, Papageorgiou says, “two years of my life, several hundred thousand dollars, and the jobs of about 50 people” were wasted. “I spent the next two months in hiding.”

So how does one come back from making a colossal mistake? 

For Papageorgiou, the hardest thing to learn was to develop the “confidence that other people will do the right thing.” 

Looking back on past mistakes is valuable, Papageorgiou says. And after a really big mess up, he adds, so is taking some time off to drink some wine and heal the wounds.

Failure is big part of FUNTampaBay

“We always talk about people’s successes -- and that’s great -- but I’m more interested in knowing how they messed up, and what got them from that point to the point of being successful,” explains event organizer Maria Alithinos. “What was that journey like, and what did they learn from it?”

Alithinos, a University of South Florida alum with a background in PR and marketing, started the Tampa chapter of F***Up Nights, (or FUNTampaBay) after stumbling upon FUN events, which began in Mexico in 2012, while doing entrepreneurially driven research.

“I figured, let’s do it here!” she says.

FUNTampaBay is one of a number of events that invites members of the Tampa Bay startup community to comingle and share experiences; networking meetups, pitch contests, and tech talks take place on an almost monthly basis in the area. But none are dedicated to failure, f*** ups, and the informal atmosphere that the topic creates.

The event’s name has raised a few eyebrows, Althinos says. “But what else are you going to call it, Business Blunders Night?” she asks. “It doesn’t have the same feel.”

Look for the next FUNTampa Bay to take place in early 2016 in St. Petersburg.

Read more articles by Justine Benstead.

Justine Benstead is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
Signup for Email Alerts