Tampa Bay Startup Week top takeaway: We are ready

There was something a little different about Tampa Bay Startup Week 2018.
 
This year, the fourth for the event, Startup Week was about more than the organized discussions -- which were full of insightful panelists and engaged listeners -- and it was about more than startups, launched or still incubating, whose founders hoped to bolster awareness, or perhaps interest an angel.
 
What stood out more than anything? 

Momentum. 
 
As in bigger energy. Bigger crowds. More events. More innovations. Fast company. Smart connections. Transformational change on display in a big way for the local startup community and tech ecosystem. 

Thanks to large-scale efforts like Water Street Tampa and the new St. Pete Pier, and smaller but still significant projects like the revitalization of Tampa’s Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park, the landscape of the area is changing – on both sides of Tampa Bay. 

And as Tampa Bay Startup Week 2018 attendees explored local event locations, made new connections, shared ideas for collaborations and exchanged contact information, excitement in the air could be felt beyond the walls of local venues.
 
It was a rite of passage, of sorts -- the year that Tampa Bay stopped trying to establish itself as a hub of entrepreneurship and innovation and in the process proved that it has found solid footing.

“We always say that we’re a young community. But at this point in the community’s life, we’ve gotten to the point where all of the resources are there. They may be newly there, they may not be as mature as an Austin or a San Francisco, but everything is there,” says Gracie Lee Stemmer, Tampa Bay Startup Week’s returning co-lead organizer. ''Sometimes old conversations still linger, but we’re done with the excuses. We have been doing this for years, and we can connect you with resources.”

A sense of growing pride in Tampa and in St. Petersburg, the two host cities, was evident in the hoards of geo-tags and hashtags that followed attendees around during Tampa Bay Startup Week 2018 (February 12-16). 

People didn’t just head to a panel and then head home. Instead, many came for the day, often choosing to rideshare, bike or walk. 

They lingered over lunch at the Chase Base Camp in the CAVU event space after panels, or they retired to the recently opened Hall on Franklin and the even newer Armature Works for post-panel dinner and drinks. 

They tweeted and snapped about #tbsw18 from 7 a.m. until well after dark. Many attended events every day, instead of one-and-done.
 
Perhaps most telling: they traveled back and forth between Tampa and St. Pete, willingly, for several days in a row.

Why Startup Week? Think community connections

Tampa Bay Startup Week 2018 is part of a TechStars series, which takes place across the world in cities from San Francisco to Barcelona. The weeklong program, sponsored by Chase for Business, brings together thousands of entrepreneurs from around the city and state each year. And each year, the event’s reach expands to include entrepreneurs, students, business owners and angel investors from far away cities and states.
 
The 2018 event included panels on 14 tracks that ranged from Health Technology to PR/Marketing to Hospitality. Panelists covered a diverse array of fields and subjects, from “Instagram for Brick and Mortar Entrepreneurs” to “The Psychology of Marketing.”

Stefanie Jewett, founder and CEO of Activvely, traveled to Tampa from Atlanta, GA to participate in Startup Week panels and events. Jewett, a former CNN journalist, designed her app, Activvely, as a sort of Tinder for platonic fitness buddies.
 
As a female member of the startup community, it wasn’t long before Jewett began to notice flaws in the way women CEOs and founders communicate with each other.

“Women are so scared that there’s not enough success available to all of us, so we hold our connections and resources and information tight. We don’t make introductions because we are afraid there’s no room,” Jewett says. “But there’s room for all of us. We’re all hustling.”

So, Jewett and friend Kiki Roeder founded Startup Sisters USA to help reinforce and bolster support and shared successes for women in the entrepreneurial community. After launching in 2017, they decided to extend the group’s reach to Tampa, where Roeder lives and works within the startup community.
 
“I started Startup Sisters because I wanted an environment where women were intentionally connecting -- not just throwing business cards at a wall, but intentionally coming together,” Jewett explains. “How do we help each other’s brands? How do we support each other?”

Startup Sisters sponsored their inaugural local event during Startup Week: a panel of women-led businesses who hit over $500M in revenue.

“Women are so happy and eager to connect with one another. We really believe in collaborating. The more that we can all know each other, the more we can grow the community,“ Jewett says. “I will be your cheerleader.”

The group leans toward tech startups, but women from any industry are welcome to attend low-cost events and meet panelists, as well as other attendees.

Millennial makers, influencers encourage Tampa’s growth

Alessa Solien and Ben Bradley, a Tampa couple who met at a Social Media Day event several years ago, attended panels and marquee events throughout the week. Solein, a social media manager who is branching out on her own this year after running a social account for Fabrik South Tampa, says her biggest reason for attending Tampa Bay Startup Week is to learn more about branding and running a business. 

“I am going to start out doing digital marketing, content creation, social media -- hopefully for beauty brands,” Solien says, “as well as growing my own brand, so I’m excited about some of the panels this week.”

Bradley, a videographer who owns the local business Right Hand Films, initially attended events to show support to friends in the startup community, but found himself so inspired that he began setting up meetings with potential investors for a future project.

“I originally came to support Alessa, to check it out, but I was inspired to set up some meetings of my own,” Bradley says. If all goes well, a new app for the “foodie market” might be in the works.

Meanwhile, Trent McAree and his brother Kyle run a smoothie bar out of 60 square feet in Davis Island’s small retail district. The shop, Fit Bowl Co., has been open for about ten months, and the brothers are almost always behind the counter to serve up custom bowls and smoothies.
 
“The community is very supportive -- we get a lot of loyal regulars,” McAree says.
 
McAree attended Tampa Bay Startup Week for two reasons: one, to get a little exposure for the shop, and two, to attend some of the hospitality track events. The company participated in the opening night Startup Showcase, and McAree was able to connect with many locals who hadn’t yet heard of the shop.

“My goal is to reach more locals through exposure, and ultimately, I’d like to meet someone who has some experience in this type of venture and can either serve as a mentor, or as a VC.”

McAree’s top takeaway: realizing that many investors are “looking for an entrepreneur, even more than an idea. They’re looking for someone to invest in. I want someone to invest in me, not just my idea. I have lots of other ideas.”

Top entrepreneur’s advice to Tampa: “Talk to each other”

A sense of momentum surrounding the Tampa business scene was certainly evident on a warm, clear Tuesday: a line of almost 1,000 hopefuls stretched around the city block where Tampa Theatre is located in downtown Tampa. A big name in the tech world was coming to speak, and hordes of future founders, would-be business owners and successful CEOs came out to learn what they could.

Serial entrepreneur and investor in companies like Twitter, Uber, and Venmo, Gary Vaynerchuk is a household name in the startup world. Don’t know him? Think of the best TED talk on success that you can, and sprinkle in some colorful language. Actually, make that quite a bit of colorful language.

Vaynerchuk’s energy is reminiscent of a stand-up comedian mixed with a mega-church pastor who really wants to connect to the audience. 

Walking out to a standing ovation and chants of “Gary-Vee, Gary-Vee,” Vaynerchuk immediately pointed to the hard work that goes into orchestrating and pulling off a weeklong, volunteer-led event, and asked the crowd to applaud the team of around 40 volunteers with equal enthusiasm.
 
His advice to Tampa’s founders and financiers from the stage of the newly refurbished historic landmark: “Talk to each other. There’s nothing I can tell you from this stage that is as useful as connecting to five people you meet here tonight.”

The keynote ranged from cautionary notes on pursuing capital over happiness and emphasized Vaynerchuk’s belief that the Internet is only in its infancy. The overall message: be kind, know yourself, and put yourself into a position to success.
 
“I’m not about entrepreneurship, I’m about all of you achieving self-awareness and figuring yourselves out, because that’s always going to be the path that gets you to a happy place quickest.”

A few wise words later, Vaynerchuk was gone. But after the talk, as people spilled out into the streets, the Gary Vee effect appeared to be working. The crowd swelled with enthusiasm and hope, and while Vaynerchuk’s practical advice hung in the air – “most of you won’t build a million dollar business” – the excitement of being a part of something growing, something big, was even more palpable.
 
“We have created a community where you can come in and say what you need. It’s not a cliquey community. If you come and say what you need, someone is going to connect you -- most of the time to multiple different people -- for that resource,” says Stemmer. “We’re done with the excuses. Put in the work and you’ll see the results.”

That's what creating momentum is all about.

Techstars Startup Week Tampa Bay is funded in part by Hillsborough County Economic Development, one of several underwriters of stories in 83 Degrees. To suggest additional story ideas, email 83 Degrees. To subscribe to our free weekly e-magazine, follow this link.

Read more articles by Justine Carlisle.

Justine Carlisle is a writer and social media manager who lives in the sunny Hyde Park neighborhood of Tampa. She grew up in New Jersey and then Florida, graduating from the University of South Florida with a BA in English. She aspires to become a Jeopardy! champion and enjoys reading, kickboxing, taking her dog on long walks, and photography. Follow her on Twitter at @JustineinTampa. Justine enjoys telling stories and writing profiles about Tampa Bay's emerging technology and innovation news scene and entrepreneurs.
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