Geeks And Drinks: Creating A Technology WaVE In Tampa Bay

The Tampa Bay region is known for many things. Internet technology entrepreneurship isn’t one of them -- yet.

It’s an extremely lucrative sector of the economy that Silicon Valley has largely owned going back to 1956 with the introduction of Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, in Mountain View, CA.

However, the Internet itself is the quintessential example of a “place-defying” “platform” technology; it’s the great enabler. Because of it, entrepreneurial endeavors can take shape anywhere and everywhere.

Internet technology is disrupting practically every industry that any economy has ever created. Disagree? Check out this WSJ piece by legendary Internet entrepreneur and investor, Marc Andressen. He makes a solid case. 

What exactly does this mean for you?

Well, with a credit card, an Internet-enabled computer and an idea, you are a few keystrokes away from launching yourbusiness dot com.

For those who’ve been in the entrepreneurial trenches, and for those who think they might like to give the entrepreneurial life a try, there’s Tampa Bay WaVE.

The name is a mashup of  “web” and “adventure,” and it actually works quite nicely, as it speaks to the early classification of financing designated for high-risk, high-reward startup companies -- previously dubbed: “adventure capital.”

The moniker turned out to be a bit too risqué for institutional investors types (backers of the funds), so the “ad” was removed, and the term “venture capital” is what we have left.

Enough history. After all, our world is one obsessed with what’s next, not what's past. Right?

In many ways, the meme of "next-best-thing'' colors our lives and incents the creation of new products and services -- the stuff of entrepreneurship. 

This “what’s next” economy requires future-oriented thinkers, and it wouldn’t hurt if they knew how to tinker digitally.

Given its playing field-leveling capacity, the Internet allows for the development of innovative products and services to be created, co-created, crowd-sourced and/or out-sourced, even in places that don’t have a robust entrepreneurial track record.

Enter Tampa Bay

The entrepreneurial community here is growing, both in size and spirit, as evidenced by the emergence of local college and university degree granting programs in entrepreneurship: SPC, USF Tampa, UT, and USF St. Pete come to mind (disclosure: I teach entrepreneurship classes at USFSP), startup-oriented events such as StartupBus, Startup Weekend, Barcamp Tampa Bay, and the recent launch of Gazelle Lab, a technology accelerator and early stage fund.

These programs, events and organizations are a welcome addition to the existing suite of entrepreneurial support services offered by traditional economic development entities such as Small Business Development Centers and tech/entrepreneurship incubation programs in the region.

The Birth Of A WaVE

Three years ago, Linda Olson, understanding that the founders of startup companies face unique challenge that are difficult (and expensive!) to overcome, spotted a gap in Tampa Bay’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. She realized that company founders didn’t have a place to go to connect, engage and learn with other founders, and, in true entrepreneurial fashion, without waiting to be anointed, she set her sights on remedying the situation.

A typical WaVE gathering involves experienced CEOs sharing best practices, serving as sounding boards and detailing experiences of every facet of their businesses, for example: marketing issues, customer acquisition strategies, fundraising tips, etc.

This intimate exchange is made possible by the psychological climate of trust and mutual respect for the “been there, done that” lumps received along their respective entrepreneurial journeys.

WaVE is not just for experienced CEOs. In fact, Olson thinks WaVE has a little something for everyone: “Whether it’s business development, technical development, site features, trends, customer acquisition strategies, etc.; odds are you’re just not great at all of it, yet.”

Serial entrepreneur, Enthusem founder, and WaVE executive board member, Steve Tingiris, agrees: “Anybody who has a vested interest in developing a web technology product/venture, whether you’re brand new, you’ve done it before, or even if it’s an exiting business, you can benefit from participating in the WaVE community. There’s a core group on the frontline of technology, and good things come out of those conversations; that’s exactly why I’m there.”

It’s Good For Novice Entrepreneurs

Brian Delaney is a self-taught computer programmer who grew up in St. Pete. He’s also the founder of Maxae, a software development company. 

“I’m a WaVE member because I’m interested in growing the Tampa Bay technology community; that’s why I do what I do,” he says.

In addition to his open data project: Palmetto API, he’s also launched a for-profit venture called “Ad Committee”, while also serving as a contract developer on projects such as the discount nightlife app “Out Tonight.”

Olson and her team have designed an early-stage, specialized program just for entrepreneurs like Delaney, called: “First Wave.”

The program exists for participants who either have an idea for a web app, or have recently launched a web app that is still seeking traction in the marketplace. The program is structured so that they get advice at every stage; product/market fit, customer acquisition, etc.

It’s Good For Grown-Ups

Not ready to give up that 9-5 paycheck? No problem. WaVE provides a place where people can get away from the grind and come for connection, answers and something to validate -- or perhaps challenge -- assumptions of what they are trying to build.

It’s Good To Attract Newcomers

Justin Davis, a recent import from Nashville, TN, has only been in Florida since June, but he was able to hit the ground running because he’d done his due diligence prior to relocating, and found WaVE online.

He’s not a member, but he’s currently working in their new co-working space (spoiler!).

Davis is the founder of Madera Labs, the user experience design company, as well as the technology community catalyst responsible for Tampa Bay’s first “Geek Breakfast'' (a monthly breakfast for tech and sausage enthusiasts -- and also for Tampa Bay’s first chapter of the Interaction Design Association.

He makes quick work (and it’s likely beautifully designed, too).

Asked what drives him to engage in the community with such passion and energy, he replies, “I believe that if we can all come together with a single mission to advance technology in a market like Tampa Bay, everyone wins from the rising tide. I’ve seen technology hubs emerge in non-traditional markets before, and I can see it happening here.”

It’s Good For Kids, Too! (Seriously).

Olson and other WaVE members will soon begin mentoring kids (13-18) from Boys and Girls clubs to help them choose a website idea and help them bring it to life.

“We think there is a lot of value in encouraging web skills and entrepreneurial thinking from a young age,” says Olson. “We’d like to work with academic institutions to help develop the local talent pool, to inspire kids to pursue technology career paths.”

WaVE has approximately 45 active members on the roster, three dozen companies launched (with a few in the queue), and they’ve just announced some exciting news: After three years of lean operations and no permanent home to hang their hats, they’ve landed some new digs to grow into in downtown Tampa, 401 South Florida Ave.

From a knowledge and resource-sharing standpoint, a shared space is highly important to ventures and their founders; having a go-to space means intellectual concentration, and not the kind that you lose, easily.

That’s where YOU come in…

It Takes A Village

In addition to making the entrepreneurial “ask,” the WaVE crew has teamed up with the Roosevelt 2.0 to throw a co-working kick-off party, dubbed: A Splash Bash to End "High Tech Homelessness'' on Thursday evening, Sept. 15. And guess what?

You’re invited!

Live music, food and drink, free valet parking and a worthy cause -- all from 6 to 11 p.m. at 1812 N. 15th St. What else could you ask for?

Tickets range from $10 to $30. Proceeds go toward outfitting the new space.

Come out and show some geekluv!

PS: if you want to be really awesome, the WaVE team would appreciate your old (nicely used) desks, chairs, whiteboards, etc. Bring ‘em if ya got ‘em!

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