Coffee Connections: Breakfast With Tampa Entrepreneurs

One day each month, Mark LoPresti drives more than 25 miles from his home in Belleair Beach to South Tampa for breakfast. The entrepreneur and product developer is a regular at Bootstrappers Breakfast, a monthly gathering of business owners and startup founders centered around conversations, connections, and for some, coffee.

The group first met at Oxford Exchange on Kennedy Boulevard a little over a year ago. Four or five people showed up, according to LoPresti. Most recently, 16 entrepreneurs assembled in the upstairs dining room at Datz on MacDill Avenue for Monkey Bread, breakfast and business chat on Jan. 29.

"This is the most potent breakfast meetup -- things actually happen as a result with this group,'' says Joyce Michele, an entrepreneur in the insurance industry who attends Bootstrappers Breakfasts because "I find energy invigorating.''

"One, connections can be made here; and two, it's perfect for people who are actively seeking a mentor,'' she explains. "It's really the who's who and what's what of Tampa Bay entrepreneurs. These are people who have actual projects in the works, and they discuss real solutions to issues that they may have encountered.''

A Meeting Of Minds

Bootstrappers Breakfast began in Silicon Valley as the brainchild of evangelist Sean Murphy. The group is entirely run through, where attendees can RSVP, engage with each other and leave feedback or suggestions after the monthly gatherings. The Tampa Bay Area Bootstrappers Breakfast chapter held its first meeting in January 2013, facilitated by organizer Ramesh Sambasivan.

"It's a free sounding board for entrepreneurs,'' says Sambasivan, who also founded the Tampa Bay chapter of CoderDojo in 2013. "People are asking questions, discussing ideas and helping each other out.''

Each Bootstrappers Breakfast begins with an intro round, where every attendee gets one minute to describe his or her business. Sales pitches are discouraged.

For the remainder of the time, the group becomes a sounding board for business solutions. Several conversations occur simultaneously as entrepreneurs mingle in smaller circles and make connections. Meetups begin at 8:30 a.m. and officially last an hour and a half, but attendees often linger over discussions well past 10 a.m.

"Careful nurturing'' keeps the breakfasts from veering into sales pitch territory, LoPresti notes.
"It's not networking for the sake of networking. The sharing process is a meeting of the minds,'' he says. "This is the most unique meetup for entrepreneurs that I've attended in Tampa.''
Entrepreneurial Diversity

Some Bootstrappers Breakfast attendees are seasoned entrepreneurs who have founded multiple startups. Others are still finding a groove in the self-employment niche.

Attendees come from a wide range of industries. Take, for example, Rick Moody, CEO and owner of Dodgeball2You, a patent-pending mobile dodge ball arena system, or Neil Cosentino, a retired U.S. Air Force pilot and community activist who has long spearheaded efforts to reopen and convert the Friendship Trail bridge for recreational use. Both find value in attending Bootstrappers Breakfasts.

"You never know who you are going to meet here who has experienced the same problem in their business,'' says Moody.
Meanwhile, Mary Kay independent consultant Alicia Jenkins attended the January Bootstrappers Breakfast to make connections. "I love helping people, and I think the ideas discussed here are transferrable between industries.''

Matthew Johnson, COO of BBZ Software in Tampa, says that Bootstrappers Breakfasts provide a focus group for discussing ideas and products in development. "It helps to understand why someone might think something is beneficial,'' he explains.
Johnson, who attended the University of South Florida, is currently working on a web-based application for a process to go paperless.

Serial entrepreneur Saravana Pat Bhava attended January's gathering to discuss his latest venture, a mobile application called Pikmykid. The premise is simple: streamline the method of student dismissal from schools.

"Time is wasted, and it's ineffective,'' Bhava says of the current dismissal system. "There are 55 million students in the school system. With Pikmykid, dispatchers will be able to use a tablet for a comprehensive solution.''

Pikmykid requires no money or hardware from the school system, Bhava notes. The app will be beta tested in four Hillsborough and Pinellas County schools in spring 2014 and is expected to be released nationwide after testing.

Startup Culture Is Beginning To Permeate

The atmosphere at the Bootstrappers Breakfast is bustling, full of high-energy idea exchanges. With strong entrepreneurial types present, how does the breakfast conversation remain balanced?

Sambasivan explains, "It's a combination of careful curating and being diplomatic -- because everybody does have something of value to offer, it's just making it work in this setting.''

He credits other Bootstrappers Breakfast moderators in cities around the world for "paving the way,'' but notes that the "unique culture of Tampa'' lends itself to the idea.

"Startup culture is just beginning to permeate in this city,'' Sambasivan says.

The next Tampa Bay area Bootstrappers Breakfast will be at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 26, at Datz. To learn more, follow this link.

A tip for would-be attendees?

"Don't sell us anything,'' says Michele. "These are very genuine interactions between business owners.''

Justine Benstead is a writer who spends her days walking her dog Chloe in her South Tampa neighborhood, drinking far too much coffee, tweeting, and taking photos with her trusty Nikon. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Justine Benstead.

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