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Tampa Entrepreneurs Develop BuzzMe App

Imagine that it’s 5 o’clock and you just remembered that today is a friend’s birthday. What do you do other than admit you forgot? You could call, post on Facebook, send her a text, or do something really cool, like buy her a martini at a local restaurant. You don’t even have to be at the venue to make it happen. And neither does she.

Thanks to BuzzMe, a new startup by Tampa entrepreneurs Nathaniel Waring and Philippe Theodore, users can browse a venue’s drink list or menu (pre-loaded on the app) from anywhere in the world, select and pay for the item they want, and then send or “buzz” the surprise to a friend. The recipient can redeem the gift whenever they happen to be at the venue. BuzzMe takes a small commission on each order.

What’s in it for the venue? “It doesn’t cost the restaurant or bar anything to participate, it gives them great visibility and they’re getting a sale from someone not even in their place of business,” says Waring. “It’s absolutely risk free.”

BuzzMe launched in June and so far, says Waring, about 15 local places are participating as are several national liquor brands. 

“I get pitched every day about different marketing ideas and this is one of the best,” says Alex Steppacher, Florida sales manager for Russian Standard Vodka. “People ages 25 to 35 are very social media-oriented. The brand exposure for us could be tremendous.”

Waring’s goal is to sign up 100 bars and restaurants in the Tampa region by fall, eventually expanding to Orlando and Gainesville and then to other areas around the country.

Writer: Janan Talafer
Sources: Nathaniel Waring, BuzzMe; Alex Steppacher, Russian Standard

USF College of Business, DTCC Partner To Further Workforce Development

With the rapid growth of Tampa Bay’s information technology industry creating a need for a highly skilled technical workforce, businesses and academia have an opportunity to work together to create synergies. The USF College of Business and DTCC created a partnership with that goal in mind.

DTCC recently hosted College of Business Dean Moez Limayem as a guest speaker for their START Business Professional Network (BPN). START (supporting, training, advancement, recruitment and retention of talent) is one of many BPN’s, which provide opportunities for DTCC’s employees to train, mentor and network with their peers. START focuses on beginning to mid-career level professionals.

Limayem focused his talk on trending topics relevant to DTCC’s employees, including analytics, cyber security and how to manage large data sets. The presentation was not only heavily attended by DTCC’s local employees, but was also broadcast to other offices such as London and New Jersey.

"From a motivational standpoint, the positive energy in the building was great," says Eric Miller, managing director for DTCC Tampa. "Hearing about just in time topics is very helpful."

Limayem also met with senior technology professionals at DTCC to discuss programming languages and other skills they seek in new graduates, allowing USF to enhance curriculum with workforce-ready programming.
Future plans for the partnership include internships and classroom case studies.

Partnerships like these help develop the right pipeline of talent from Tampa Bay universities to allow students to graduate with not just a degree but additional training needed to hit the ground running at local companies.

"One great thing about the Tampa Bay community is that everyone is partnering together," says Miller. "It’s a very collaborative approach between the business community leaders, the education leaders and the elected officials. I can’t say enough good things about what our region is doing to drive the right common efforts."

Writer: Megan Hendricks
Source: Kasi Martin, Eric Miller, DTCC

Webjet Grows, Adds 15 Jobs In NoHo In Tampa

Tampa-based online travel agency Webjet is adding 15 jobs over the next year. The company is seeking experienced travel agents and customer service staff members to accommodate their bustling growth and growing customer service needs.

In 2009, after building a successful career in sales, travel and global business operations and additionally helping to transform Australia’s Virgin Blue Airlines from low-cost carrier to world carrier, Germany native Mathias Friess partnered with Webjet Australia -- the largest online travel agency in Australia and the Pacific -- to form a joint venture that would bring a division to North America.

For Friess, whose wife Carren Rieger-Friess was a Tampa native, the decision was easy. Webjet opened its North American headquarters in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Tampa in April 2010 and soon became among the top 10 online travel agencies for airfare purchases in the United States.

Coupled with a proprietary technology algorithm and a strategic mix of search engine optimization methods, Webjet's goal is to bring low-cost international travel fares to the Americas while providing pristine customer service and support. And the company’s philosophy is straightforward:

Simple online booking with no surprises.

"We put the price first. Our technology finds airfare that others may not find. We find you a way which is convenient, but most importantly gives you a price advantage," says CEO Friess.

Webjet has also established an innovative customer education platform via Google+ Hangouts, collaborating with students, bloggers and customers to share expert advice to those travelling abroad.

"Everyone is on social media. We may as well have certain topics and customer groups -- talk to them and give them our expertise. We have it, and we’d like to share it. Travel is emotional -- you want to be helped with qualified people," says Friess.

The company recently expanded into Canada and Mexico, both new sites which are managed from the Tampa office, and additionally signed an agreement with Kayak, giving the company more growth.

Within three years of its stateside launch, the Webjet team has grown from 9 to 20, recently relocating its offices to North Howard Avenue.

"We knew there was going to be growth moving forward, and we do expect to see substantial growth in the next year," says Friess.

For information on hiring opportunities and business partnerships, visit Webjet’s website.

Writer: Kaye Brown
Source: Mathias Friess, Webjet

Tampa Convention Center Increases Green Efforts, Saves Money

The Tampa Convention Center (TCC) recently joined over 15,000 organizations (49 in Tampa) to become an ENERGY STAR PARTNER, a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy that encourages companies to use energy efficient practices. Among other things, the partnership encourages companies to improve their energy efficiency by 10 percent or more.
"Our facility decided that we wanted to do a better job of being a good partner, not only in the community but also to the environment," says Eric Blanc, director of sales, marketing and convention services for TCC.

During the last year, TCC staff looked at ways to make the 23-year old building more efficient. They started by moving from a standard method of observing energy usage after the fact to a new system that allows them to monitor the electricity used on a real time basis. This allowed internal programs and controls to be put in place to help control electrical usage, such as only running air conditioning in areas that are occupied and decreasing use of escalators when they are not being used. Overall, these efforts led to a 10% decrease in electrical costs over the last six months.

TCC also has an agreement with TECO that allows them to buy back electricity during peak periods, diverting power they would be using to other areas of demand. Additionally, they underwent a $1 million project to retrofit the lighting system in the exhibit hall, using a federal grant to replace outdated lighting with high efficiency LEDs.

They are also active in recycling, going beyond the traditional plastic, paper and aluminum. For example, shows that use building products donate leftover supplies to local charities such as Habitat for Humanity. They also donate extra convention supplies such as pens, tote bags and books to Teaching Tools for Hillsborough Schools, which provides these supplies to public school teachers for use in the classroom.

The ENERGY STAR partnership is one step in TCC’s long-term efforts to become a LEAD certified facility.

Writer: Megan Hendricks
Source: Eric Blanc, Tampa Convention Center

Tampa Begins Mobile Payment Option For Parking

Those who work, live or play in downtown Tampa can now pay for on-street parking through a mobile phone app. Can't find your car? The app will help with that as well.

The City of Tampa recently launched a pay-by-phone option through Parkmobile. Customers register with Parkmobile for free and download the app, available for iPhone, Android, Windows and Blackberry. Drivers can then scan a QR code near their parking space and pay for the amount of time desired. There is also an option to pay with a flip phone using a toll free number.

You can receive text message alerts and reminders when your parking session is near expiration. The app has the added benefit of walking you back to your car if you can’t find it.

Three years ago, the city replaced the traditional coin-only parking meters with networked meters that provide the option to pay with cash or credit card at one of many stations. Use of on-street parking has increased since.

"People are taking advantage of the flexibility they have to a greater degree," says Irvin Lee, public works director for the City of Tampa.

The system came at no cost to the City of Tampa because the infrastructure was already in place. Parkmobile charges users a $.35 convenience fee per transaction, which is waived now through September 30, 2013.

"We think this is a great match with the tech-savvy community that exists in Tampa," says Lee. "We believe folks will like this and it will take off."

Eventually, the City plans to expand the program to all parking garages. Parkmobile is also currently available in St. Petersburg.

Writer: Megan Hendricks
Source: Irvin Lee, City of Tampa

BambinOz Grows, Adds 3 Sales Jobs in Tampa

Baby travel accessory designer BambinOz of Tampa is growing steadily, adding a new three-member sales team to grow retail partnerships, drive brand awareness and increase market penetration for existing product distribution.

The company’s first product was the PortaChair, a lightweight fabric portable high chair with fully adjustable shoulder straps, fit for children from age 5 months to 2½ years. Soon after, BambinOz designed the Instant Heat Bottle Warmer Pack with a reusable heat source for warming bottles in any scenario.

"We recognized the need to have safe, practical, well-designed portable feeding products that got the job done. Our products and company serves a really important need; parents really want something that they know is going to work, is functional, looks nice and is innovative," says Tampa Entrepreneur Carren Rieger-Friess.

Since its launch, BambinOz has seen tremendous growth, recently expanding distribution and products into Canada and Indonesia. In late 2012, the company launched the Anywhere Chair, a version of the PortaChair developed for mass market appeal and market penetration.

"We have grown into the markets that we serve, and we’ve really expanded the types of stores that we’re selling at within the U.S.," says Rieger-Friess.

A former Wall Street strategy consultant and Tampa native, Rieger-Friess launched BambinOz in 2007 after moving to Brisbane, Australia with her husband and encountering difficulty finding safe, clean and suitable high chairs and feeding products that would accommodate traveling families and babies on-the-go.

BambinOz began selling its products in the U.S. in 2010, and within three years developed stateside partnerships with Seedlings, WalMart.com and Uncommon Goods. The company was also recently featured in SkyMall, with exposure to more than 40 million travelers.

BambinOz’ long-term growth plan includes further increasing market presence, capitalizing upon geographic expansion opportunities and driving product awareness to traveling and on-the-go families as well as the broader consumer market.

The company has additionally linked up with United Cerebral Palsy to provide solutions for special needs children requiring core support.

"We’re looking for opportunities to show families that this is very useful and something that everyone can have. We get a lot of parents who are looking for things that are just a little bit unique and a little bit different, and that’s what we’re really hoping to serve," says Rieger-Friess.

For more information on open positions, contact Rieger-Friess at this email address.

Writer: Kaye Brown
Source: Carren Rieger-Friess, BambinOz

Verizon Adds 100 Sales Reps In Downtown Tampa

Verizon is opening a new national customer retention center in downtown Tampa and adding 100 full-time customer-contact representatives dedicated to the company’s landline products and services.

The company’s new sales representatives will provide after-hours sales and customer support functions for FiOS Internet and FiOS TV in 12 states, including Florida and Washington, DC.

"We want to be accessible to customers when they want to reach out. Our current employees do a marvelous job of serving the customers and getting results; we are confident that the 100 we hire will do the same," says Harry Mitchell, director of media and public relations for Verizon.

The new customer retention center will be housed in Verizon’s existing downtown Tampa office and will complete its launch in mid-September 2013 once the hiring process and training is complete. Customer-retention services were previously handled by an outside contractor.

Verizon's decision to bring services in-house was based in part on Tampa’s talented workforce and the valuable labor pool that results from the local educational systems, colleges and universities.

"There is a very good labor pool and available workforce, and there is good news happening in the area," says Mitchell.

"Verizon’s expansion in Tampa is an indication of how we are successfully growing our economy and why we are leading the state out of the recession,'' says Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. "I appreciate Verizon’s ongoing investment and look forward to welcoming 100 new employees to our downtown core."

For information on hiring opportunities visit Verizon’s website.

Writer: Kaye Brown
Sources: Harry Mitchell, Verizon; Bob Buckhorn, City of Tampa

USF School Of Public Affairs Provides Flexible Options For Working Professionals

For today's busy professional balancing a fulltime job along with family and other commitments, continuing education can sometimes be unattainable. The University of South Florida (USF) now offers a Master of Public Administration (MPA) Degree completely online, as a flexible option for those wanting to enhance their credentials.

Some students travel up to 125 miles round trip to complete coursework in the traditional program on the Tampa campus. The new online program provides savings in the form of transportation costs as well as flexibility. The 36-credit hour program is also shorter than the on-campus equivalent.

"It provides another opportunity for advancing yourself, your career and your knowledge on a flexed schedule," says John Daly, director of USF’s School of Public Affairs.

Applications are still being accepted for the first cohort of 25 to 30 students, to begin in August.

The degree is geared toward mid-career employees working in public service, but can also be applicable to those in the private sector.

USF currently offers 26 fully online programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and was recently ranked 25th by the National Center for Education Statistics in the 2013 “best overall” list of online programs.

USF is also collaborating with Pinellas County government to offer a cohort of its Graduate Certificate in Public Management to government employees and the general public at the Pinellas County Government Training Center in Clearwater. The first cohort for the 18-credit hour certificate program began this month with 17 students.

The flexibility and convenience of programs such as these make higher education more attainable, a goal of the Graduate Tampa Bay (GTB) initiative. GTB aims to increase the number of Tampa Bay residents with college degrees, which would in turn enhance the economic vitality of the region as a whole.

Writer: Megan Hendricks
Source: John Daly, USF School of Public Affairs

Toffee To Go Grows, Adds 30 Jobs In Tampa

Tampa’s popular chocolate maker, Toffee to Go, is hiring 30 new employees, adding warehousing, cooks, sales support, customer service, retail shop associates and packaging assistants to accommodate its booming holiday season.

It all started with an intimate network of family and friends enjoying the mouthwatering chocolate treat from the Schalk family kitchen.

In 2002, the small, family-based business went live and decided to share their sweet handcrafted treasure with the world.

"We started out by giving it to our family and friends who we cared for and wanted to give a treat. They continued to say,  'You have to sell this!' " says Taylor Schalk, director of development.

With six current employees, Toffee to Go has grown 21 percent in 2013 alone, recently adding a new director of development as well as a new sales manager.

"We’ve always made an incredible quality product. We’ve become a community of toffee buyers," says Schalk.

The company’s growth is a result of bringing a creative new edge to its marketing mix. By creating key customer touch points and product education resources via their website, email newsletter and social media, customer and wholesale engagement grew while creating a new world of branding opportunity.

"What’s cool about Tampa is that everyone in the Tampa Bay community works together. Everyone here has big roots in the Tampa area, and everyone supports each other’s business, which is very unique to our city," says Schalk.

Featured at the Republican National Convention in Tampa in 2012, Toffee to Go’s initiatives include strengthening and growing corporate and tourism business channels by sharing the value of a local company with strong dedication to the community.

"It not only shows a local company but also gifting a wonderful treat to tell a little bit about the area," says Schalk.

For information on hiring opportunities, business partnerships or sweet treats, visit Toffee to Go’s website.

Writer: Kaye Brown
Source: Taylor Schalk, Toffee to Go

Crisis Center Of Tampa Bay Teaches Parents How To Counsel Children

The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay and USF are collaborating to study an innovative approach to treating trauma in children.

Children who have experienced trauma such as loss of a loved one, violence or a medical event traditionally receive one-on-one counseling from a trained professional. In a process known as Step Care Research, parents are taught how to counsel the children themselves. The results are cost savings and a deeper parent child relationship.

The program is based on the same model of cognitive and behavioral therapy and is designed to provide children with the skills and abilities they need to cope.

The Center is currently in the second year of two three-year research projects studying this technique, on children ages 7 to 12. A total of 100 families will be involved in both projects.  

Study results show that parents working at home with their child over six to eight weeks have 80 percent of the same effect as happens when a child undergoes professional counseling in a traditional 12 to14 week program. Results are measured by improvement in behavioral and emotional issues over time.

A second, and perhaps equally important, outcome is an enhanced parent child bond. "Parents are saying, 'this has been the best thing that happened to me and my kid,' " says David Braughton, president and CEO of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.

Next steps are to continue the study on a wider scale to further validate the approach, resources and materials used and then to advance the practice to other institutions. "Hopefully it will become one of those best practices to be used around the country," says Braughton.

The potential impact is tremendous. The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that for every child being seen for sexual abuse there are 15 who need treatment. The Step Care Program could expand treatment options and make them more available for the families who really need them but are not able to afford one-on-one counseling.

"For what it costs to treat one family, we can treat 10," says Braughton. "The long term benefits are immeasurable."

Writer: Megan Hendricks
Source: David Braughton, Crisis Center of Tampa Bay

RMC Property Group Merges With Ross Realty, Adds 15 Jobs

Commercial real estate services provider RMC Property Group and real estate property management firm Ross Realty Group joined forces this June, creating an expanded portfolio of services and opening the door for 15 additional property management, accounting, marketing, brokerage and administration team members.

The newly merged team plans to open a new office in the Westshore district by September 2013, moving the former Ross Realty Group from its Clearwater offices to enhance and increase team collaboration.

The former Ross Realty Group’s investment sales and leasing team has now become RMC Ross Realty; the firm’s property management team has joined RMC’s property division and will effectively operate under RMC Property Group.

"There is a synergy there which enables the combined entities to grow. The more opportunities come around, the more you’ll need to hire people and resources to get the job done. That’s the ultimate test -- to continue to grow," says RMC Property Group's President Susie Rice.

As RMC evaluated their operations, client offerings and existing business relationships, they saw an opportunity to expand by creating additional lines of business to accommodate growing customer needs.

"RMC’s business goal was to find another company to grow with and expand our business lines. We have clients that want us to handle more services for them," says Rice.

The recent merger allows RMC to incorporate the addition of three new lines of business: brokerage services, investment sales and tenant representation. The combined entities now manage more than eight million square feet of office and retail space.

"Our goal is to provide the best service and more services to existing and future clients, take our years of experience in the market, collaborate to grow the business, and add more services," says Rice.

As the team and leadership further acclimates to the merger, forward initiatives include additional collaboration, leading to new lines of business to effectively create additional firm growth and workforce additions.

"It’s been a really nice ride, and it is just really exciting for our entire team," says Rice.

For information on hiring and unique business opportunities, visit RMC’s website or call 813.960.8154.

Writer: Kaye Brown
Source: Susie Rice, RMC Property Group

Computer Mentors: Youth Helping Youth Bridge Digital Divide

Computer Mentors is increasing the skills of Tampa’s workforce while making an impact on local youth.  

The mission of the nonprofit, grassroots organization is to put technology in the hands of underprivileged youth while encouraging them to consider information technology as a career path.  

The group's main program, the STEM Corps High School Program, is a service learning model. After earning a certification, teens perform technology projects for other nonprofit organizations. Past projects include a website for Green ARTery, a neighborhood-based initiative to connect walkways and other green space in Hillsborough County, and a video for Positive Spin, which provides family support systems.

According to a 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Commerce, home computer and Internet use are strongly associated with household income. Almost half of households in the lowest income category did not have a computer, compared to 4 percent of those in the highest income category.

"There really still is a digital divide," says Ralph Smith, founder and executive director for Computer Mentors. "It hurts the country and hurts our area. Internet and computer power are very important to help kids have access to education."

Computer Mentors’ civic justice corps (CJC) program helps former juvenile offenders complete their GED and enter into a computer technology field. Participants recently worked with Community Stepping Stones, an afterschool learning center for at-risk teens based in the Sulphur Springs neighborhood of Tampa, to refurbish computers donated by the Patel Foundation. They also installed software and provided basic computer training.

"Tampa is becoming a well-known technology hub," says Smith. "Computer Mentors is trying to enlarge the talent pool for our companies to be able to grow here in our area."

Writer: Megan Hendricks
Source: Ralph Smith, Computer Mentors

Convergence Consulting Group Grows, Adds 7 Jobs In Tampa

Convergence Consulting Group (CCG) is rapidly growing, surpassing its annual growth goals significantly and adding 7 new business intelligence consultants and administrators to its 50-member team.

"We set a goal to grow 30 percent year in and year out, and we’ve exceeded that. The last few years have been over 50 percent. In the first five months of this year we were at 28 percent growth already for this year. We plan to continue doing that -- we’re ok with exceeding our goal," says Todd Davis, CCG’s manager of recruiting and retention.

The CCG team has outgrown their existing offices and is all set for a September move to a new 7,600-square-foot office featuring a new cafe and technologically advanced collaborative workspaces.

CCG specializes in creating comprehensive and focused enterprise business intelligence and data warehousing strategies for companies throughout Tampa Bay and the Southeast U.S., partnering to access and interpret mission-critical information necessary for strategy implementation.

As companies mature in business intelligence solutions needs, properly extracting, organizing, evaluating and interpreting vital data that accumulates over time is critical in defining new strategies and creating future business growth opportunities.

"Our goal is to be the premiere provider of business intelligence and data warehousing in Tampa. I think we’re well on our way to being that," says Davis.

In 2001, CCG started with a team of five partners, implementing a controlled growth strategy as project needs arose. Over the past three years, CCG has grown from 9 to 50 employees.

The company’s growth model includes a healthy balance between reactive and proactive hiring: the evaluation of project needs while considering the overall team needs. The firm attributes its growth to a focus on quality and internal business culture.

"We’ve never had to do a layoff, and our turnover is very low. There are a lot of things we do strategically to maintain that," says Davis.

CCG is now gearing up for 3rd quarter growth, surpassing the current tally to support and accommodate new and existing client projects.

"We’re recruiting heavily now with several more in the pipeline," says Davis.

For information on career opportunities, visit CCG’s website, email your resume or call 813.968.3238.

Writer: Kaye Brown
Source: Todd Davis, Convergence Consulting Group

Awesome Tampa Bay Engages Community In New Pitch Sessions

Now the Tampa Bay community will have a front row seat to the people, projects and organizations that make the region awesome.

Since 2011, Awesome Tampa Bay has been providing quarterly $1,000 microgrants to support projects that make the region a better place. Whereas in the past the decisions were made during a selection meeting with nine trustees, the group is now choosing grant recipients using a Shark Tank-style pitch session. The top five applicants will pitch their idea to the now 12 trustees in a public format. They will then receive feedback on what they can do to improve their idea. Although the grant will still be awarded to one recipient each quarter, the pitch session will allow everyone involved to benefit from the connections. The first session will take place August 22.

Awesome Tampa Bay is also joining other similar organizations around the world to participate in "Awesome Day in the World" June 27 with a Mid-Summer Awesome Party. The free community event from 5 to 7 pm at Curtis Hixon Park in downtown Tampa will celebrate the vitality and richness of the region, asking people to communicate what they like best about Tampa Bay and what could be done to make it even more attractive.

"Awesome Tampa Bay gives us the platform to celebrate the great, bright spots in our community and encourages people to take risks in order to make the community great," says Rafaela Amador, dean of awesomeness for Awesome Tampa Bay. "Every quarter we find a way to say 'yes' to making the community better, $1,000 at a time."

Writer: Megan Hendricks
Source: Rafaela Amador, Awesome Tampa Bay

Tampa Company Creates App For Online Giving

Companies can now involve their supporters in their charitable giving decisions, promote their favorite charities and increase social media engagement -- creating a community win:win:win.

Lots of companies make charitable contributions each year, with varying methods of determining where to allocate the funds. A new Facebook app called CharityVote allows companies to involve their customers and other Facebook fans in these decisions. Companies determine the amount they want to donate and create a contest involving five of their favorite charities. Facebook fans then vote on which charity should receive the money, with each receiving a portion of the donations. Since fans have to "like" the company page in order to vote, the app increases the company’s social media reach.

"It's kind of like a feel good app," says Charise Strandberg, social media marketing manager for Celestar Corporation, the app’s creator. "People like to vote on something they support. The fans of the brand feel good about what they’re doing, and they have a say-so in who actually wins."

The app provides the added benefit of increasing exposure for the charities in the contest as well as creating a community spirit, or giving network, for the company and its supporters.

The first organization to use the app was the Tampa Bay Storm. Fans selected between three charities during a weeklong contest: Southeastern Guide Dogs, Exalted Warrior Foundation and Warriors in Action. All three charities attended a Tampa Bay Storm game, where the funds were distributed to the winner, Southeastern Guide Dogs.

Whereas other charity apps are focused on individuals donating directly to the charities, CharityVote is also unique because it can be used by any company or brand.

Writer: Megan Hendricks
Source: Charise Strandberg, Celestar Corporation
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