Want a peek behind the curtain at local tech firms? Join Homebrew Hillsborough

The reason Jack Berlin and his wife moved to Tampa in 1990 is because, in his words: “We thought it was the best place in the entire country to move to. And I think I was pretty close to being right on that.”
The problem, he admits today, is that during his first five years in town, Tampa was little more than “a high-tech desert.”
The area had little to offer for anyone in the tech industry. And although it’s come a long way since then, Berlin believes it still has a long way to grow.
Today, Berlin is the founder and CEO of Accusoft, a thriving software imaging company with 150 employees, all of which got its spark when Berlin started “playing around with this digital imaging stuff” and it evolved into “a hobby that got serious.”
“I got together with a couple of guys that I knew were coders,” Berlin explains, “and we started building our own products. I put down my Visa card. I call it a Visa start-up.”
Several tech entrepreneurs with their own start-ups were among those who recently converged on Berlin’s expanding Accusoft domain for a networking meet-up called Homebrew Hillsborough. They were there to discuss their respective specialties and draw on each other’s experiences, including those of people like Berlin who have experienced the ups and downs of the tech industry and know a thing or two about how to be resilient and successful.
“As advocates, we support the whole tech economy,” says Jennifer Whelihan, Economic Development Manager for Hillsborough County, which helps sponsor Homebrew, “and part of that means being able to provide opportunities for some of the private-sector larger companies like Accusoft and others in Hillsborough County to connect with some of these younger or newer tech start-ups to keep that conversation going.
“Homebrew Hillsborough is that.”
And if the turnout for a tech-related event like Homebrew is any indication, the industry has come a long way since Berlin arrived here more than 25 years ago.
“It’s not a high-tech desert anymore,” he says. “There’s a lot of great companies here now.”
From humble beginnings, Homebrew joins mainstream

Homebrew literally got its start in area coffee shops like Buddy Brew and Jet City Espresso two years ago, all as part of an initiative by the Hillsborough County EDI2 (Economic Development Innovation Initiative) which has invested more than $4 million in the area tech economy.
As it did from its beginning, Homebrew continues to meet on the last Friday of each month, but instead of rotating from one coffee shop to another, the meet-ups now move from one area tech company to another, a feature that distinguishes it from other area networking functions.
As the most recent Homebrew host, Accusoft was able to showcase its expanding Tampa offices and preview its latest product, OnTask, a web-based imaging application that helps to eliminate business inefficiencies by automating and managing the workflow of digital documents.
“I think what makes this (networking meet-up) unique now is it’s being hosted at different company locations,” says Renz Kuipers, who launched his own tech start-up before becoming VP of business banking for Regions Bank. “For example, if I’m a tech developer or software developer, being able to actually hear what’s going on at Accusoft and meet people inside, this is a great way to do that.”
And the diversity of talent, experience and products among those attending makes Homebrew as much a mentoring program as a networking opportunity.
“We have about 25-30 techies -- technologists -- whether they’re in the development or programmer role,” Whelihan says, “or maybe they’re CEOs of companies, or they’re involved in some ESO (Entrepreneur Service Organization) support roles. It could be financial, it could be marketing or anything along those lines to support our entrepreneurs.”
As the Homebrew brand suggests, coffee -- along with other breakfast items -- is provided during a meet-and-greet prior to the main event. The format that follows typically includes:
  • A featured speaker; in this case Mark Sharpe, director of Tampa Innovation Alliance
  • Introductions of each of the attendees, who briefly describe what they and their company do
  • A presentation by the host company
  • Time to network
  • A tour of the facility by the host company
“This is just a great place to hear what’s going on in the tech community and meet other tech companies,” says Kuipers, who attended some of the first Homebrew events in early 2015. “It has grown since then to include more companies that are established in town. They’re starting to show up, and not just people in startups.”
Mike Ritchie, Development Director of Germinal Resources, says he has attended various networking events around town over the years, but none that resulted in any business.
“It’s mostly (been attended by) people like me that either are direct competitors or they do another niche than what I do, and so it doesn’t translate into anything,” says Ritchie, who was attracted to his first Homebrew because it was a meet-up not limited to those in the tech field. “It’s nice to meet people besides just engineers. There were some marketing people there and some people from the county, so that’s kind of neat.”
The result: Ritchie says he made two connections at Homebrew which he hopes will result in business. 
What others are saying:
“Attending the monthly gatherings provides me with the opportunity to get to know these (tech) folks better and learn more about their organizations.  Rotating the meeting locations seems to bring new faces so it's a great opportunity to meet new people as well. … Not being a tech person, I have the opportunity to meet area innovators, learn their language and get a peek into trends.”
– Pam Garron, outreach coordinator for Tampa Bay Community Network, which provides video and audio training classes; a regular attendee since the first Homebrew
“Most of (the networking meet-ups), you go into a room and there’s probably 20-X people there, and you kind of just walk around and mingle. … But it doesn’t mean you’re going to meet everybody, it doesn’t mean you’re going to know what everyone does. There could be that supplier you need over in the corner but you’ll never meet them because you’re not going to meet everybody. … So, going around the room (at Homebrew) and having everyone introduce themselves was a huge benefit because now you kind of listen out for things that you might be in the market for. … that was a big benefit.”
– Fred Mastropasqua, president of ClearlyAgile, which provides custom software solutions; made two connections at his first Homebrew visit
“I thought it was neat to see more of a tech-specific kind of area because I’m usually more in the diversity inclusion kind of networking events. This was a little different for me. I did get to meet a couple people … and hopefully it does turn into a successful network for me.”
– Scott Fontechia, employment specialist at USF Learning Academy Employment Services; first-time Homebrew attendee

Upcoming events
Feb. 21: Trep Talks, 6:30 p.m. at the ECC, 2101 E. Palm Ave., Tampa; a panel discussion for Tampa-area tech companies
Feb. 24: Homebrew Hillsborough, 8:30 a.m. at AgileThought, 2502 N. Rocky Point Drive, #900, Tampa; pre-registration is requested.
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Read more articles by Andy Smith.

Andy Smith is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.