Not Your Average Speakers: It's All About Success, Tampa Bay

Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, Mo Kasti of the Center for Transformation and Innovation in Tampa, and entrepreneurs Ken Evans and Linda Olson of Tampa Bay WaVE tackle the topic "Nurturing Innovation: Creating Primordial Ooze For Startups'' as part of 83 Degrees Media's November "Not Your Average Speakers'' event.

Here are some of the best points made at the November 14 event at Hillsborough Community College in Ybor City.

On Economic Development

Ken Evans: Small is the new big. Focus on small, quality products and projects. With small you can leverage, you can scale. Even if 80 out of 100 small companies fail, the 20 that succeed will make a huge difference in the economy. We have to get out of this mindset of go big or go home. Let's work on the little things that matter to startups. 

KE: Encourage a culture where people want to share ideas, want feedback and want quick input as to the likelihood of success. We need that peer level of networking. And we need to applaud risk taking.

KE: Economic development should go after talent, not companies. Talent creates ideas, products and companies. That is economic development at the grassroots level.

Mo Kasti: Compare economic development to baseball: "Give up on the idea of winning by a homer. We need to win by multiple singles.''

MK: When scrambling to attract a big company, everyone shows up to participate. Create that same energy around entrepreneurs.

KE: It's also about knowing who the customer is or the client is. In the tech community, it's not an organization, it's the individual entrepreneurs. Economic development needs to realize that. If they're focused on big or the wrong metrics, they can't get what the community needs. If they focus only on adding W2s or big office space, nothing's going to change. 

Linda Olson: It's our responsibility to educate some folks in leadership positions why nurturing startup companies is as important as traditional economic activities.

Ken Evans: A sign at the UT swimming pool, says it all: "You perform how you practice.'' The same is true for economic growth. Economic development must practice growing companies to sustain economic growth.

KE: Thriving communities focus on attracting and growing companies that make things -- product companies. Why? Product companies seek customers. Fill needs. Find solutions to problems. Product companies can scale beyond their local neighborhood and provide level of sustainability. If product companies thrive, service companies will also flourish.

Mark Sharpe: Government likes org charts. They like to see clear lines. We do get frustrated when the tech community or any community fights. we don't want to see fighting. We are traditionalists. We're still figuring out our old computers. I'd like to see government more dynamic and flexible. Healthcare is going through massive transformation, but we're not seeing it yet in government.

On Creating A Culture Of Success

MK: Culture is created by leaders who get to define what it is and how it works. It starts with individuals coming together to make it happen.

MS: Government has to put partisan politics and provincialism aside to recognize that we're all in this economy together. What's good for the city, is good for the county.

MS: The public is no longer satisfied with the status quo. It's like a rugby match, a scrum. We all have to push back.

MK: It comes down to leadership. Do we as a community have the commitment to work on the things we can control regionally?

LO: Tampa Bay WaVE is in the process of pulling together bigger, larger space in downtown Tampa. It will be part incubator, part starter. The space happens to be located in downtown Tampa, but it won't be Tampa-focused. I keep hearing that someone else is doing something similar in Pinellas as if it's a threat. I say, "Fantastic!'' That's a good thing. Tampa Bay WaVE is mostly focused on tech companies. They need resources of multiple organizations. We all should focus on startup companies with the biggest potential. It doesn't matter who gets credit.

KE: We've got to get out of the mindset of local. We're part of a global economy. It's not all about local. Create a culture that rewards people for solving problems -- not just local problems.

On Leadership

MK: Vision without action is a dream. Action without a dream is a nightmare.

LO: We all need to put on a different set of goggles. Instead of focusing on why things can't work, focus on why things can work.

MK: We as a community haven't defined where we are going. We're still comparing ourselves to other places. For what does Tampa want to be known?

MK: Understand that just because you've become a leader, you're not done. You have to step up and reach back to bring others along. One of the aspects of great leadership is developing others.

On Tampa Bay's Brand

KE: We have to build self confidence in ourselves as a community. Lots of companies have roots here -- TradeEx, Open Network, Fair Warning -- by all measures huge successes. Wikipedia started here. We should be proud that those companies started here even if they aren't still here. The idea that we can do this -- innovate and grow companies -- has to be part of culture. Building confidence and pride should be the priority as a community instead of spending a lot of money trying to rebrand ourselves. Rebranding is a fool's errand.

MK: Let's talk about the successes. Why not deliberately be known for success. Consistently talk about success stories. We have to be able to think we can win it, whatever it is. ... You have to think and act like you already won the game. And that you can win more. Leaders need to ask the people around them, what can I do to help you?

MK: Imagine the day when the headline is "Tampa Bay is known for success.'' ... If you want to be successful, this is the place to be. I don't know of a city that has branded itself around success. Make success our brand.

LO: When you think of Silicon Valley, you think of individual success stories. We should be focusing on successful companies, successful entrepreneurs. Recognize that some need to do it 2-3 times to get it right. That's OK.

MK: We don't talk about successes enough. When you start with the premise that you're going to fail, you've already lost.

On Infinite Opportunity

MS:  We ought to be investing in our universities. We need to do more to help public education system. Smart people want their kids in great schools. Successful communities need great transportation systems.

KE: Every failure moves us a little further up the scale. We don't reset to zero. Risk-taking / failure helps build the critical mass of who we are as a community. Read Brad Feld's book on startup communities. Entrepreneurs are going to take you out of the valley of death. Universities are feeders. Government is a feeder. Something we've been really bad about is defining what we want from government. Boulder, CO is a success now because people helped each other. The role of government there is different. The role of entrepreneurs is to step up and help their peers.

KE: The tech community is messy. It's not one neat organization. If one organization has been blessed, true techies will run from that. They don't want to be part of that kind of community. To thrive, tech companies have to feel like they're supported here. Not so now. Government wants to find one clean entity to deal with, but it doesn't work that way.

LO: The tech community gets along better than some observers think. What we need is for government officials to be more accessible. Mark Sharpe is very accessible, but few others are. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn makes himself available. He's been going out to Barcamp, Startup Weekend, Tampa Bay WaVE. He doesn't perceive that we don't get along because he's out there seeing that we do. i can cite more examples of working together than not. 

KE: Media wants it clean too. They have a natural tendency to want to go to one source. Media isn't comfortable with messy either. But there are lots of people doing lots of things, many in just-in-time relationships. Media has to work harder to find them.

MK: Entrepreneurship is messy too. It's the nature of it. So what? Live with it.

On Startup Capital 

MK: Companies need to articulate what solution they offer. Entrepreneurs have to acquire customers, the money will come. Don't let lack of initial capital stop you.

MS: I'm hopeful that we can do more to attract capital. Right now, entrepreneurs think they have to leave here to get capital. I'd like to see more accelerators, more Brad Feld thinking, more tech stars.

LO: Big investors will go where there is density of entrepreneurs. They don't want to fly into Tampa just to see one company. In Silicon Valley, startup companies can knock on doors of large corporations and find a willingness to work with them. Whereas here, some of the larger companies have more of a traditional mentality that if you haven't been in business for 20 years, you're too risky. There is a failure to recognize innovation and quality.

MK: Government now gives favoritism to minorities (set-aside programs). imagine the day when preference is given to successful companies. That's part of the culture we have to build here.

KE: If the big guys in town, the TECOs, the Sykes, the Jabils, the Tech Datas, etc. felt they had a dog in the fight, they might be more open to trying local companies and supporting entrepreneurs.

Investing Passion / Parting Thoughts

KE: Innovation as a new brand would be the death of innovation. True innovators would hate that. So be careful about talking innovation. Instead, talk about substance.

LO: We don't need to focus on one big win. That's like saying we won't root for a baseball team unless they're in the World Series. We should be celebrating every win, and not focusing on failures.

MS: Encourage successful people to be part of our community. Build more coffee shops, more brew pubs, more places where people can gather.

MK: It's all about leadership. Culture will follow. We ought to be talking about why we want to be innovative. At the end of the day, we're trying to create a better quality of life. Our bigger purpose is to bring everyone together. Leaders learn the orthydox and win with the unorthodox.

Audience Reaction

Kostas Stoilas: Much of the provincial thinking between Hillsborough and Pinellas is gone; we proved that with the RNC. I can think of lots of examples of working together. Remember too that Central Florida is ranked #4 in the nation for creating tech jobs. We have the potential to create a great hub. Stop talking about these things that we've already overcome as if they are still problems. We need to direct attention to changing mentality.

Kunal Jain: I'm an immigrant who moved here 2004 and started my own startup without capital. In my opinion, community and media can play significant roles. Media should focus on solutions, rather than individuals. If a company gets $5 million funding, the media should focus on what that company is doing not on the individual who got the money or the fact that he got the money. Tell those stories, spread the word around and people from all over the globe will be attracted.

Event Sponsors

The November event was moderated by Guy Hagen of Tucker Hall and underwritten by Tucker Hall and MOSI Tampa. Logistical support came from Hillsborough Community College, Edit Suites and the team at 83 Degrees Media.

Diane Egner is publisher and managing editor of 83 Degrees Media and chief organizer of the "Not Your Average Speakers'' series. To become a sponsor of NYAS events, suggest topics for future events, offer a venue to host an event or provide feedback, contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Diane Egner.

Diane Egner is an award-winning journalist with four decades of experience writing about the Tampa Bay region. She is a member of Leadership Florida and the Athena Society, and serves on the board of The Institute for Research in Art (Graphicstudio, the Contemporary Art Museum, and USF’s Public Art Program) Community Advisory Council and the StageWorks Theatre Advisory Council. A graduate of the University of Minnesota with a BA in journalism, she won the top statewide award for editorial writing from the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors while at The Tampa Tribune and received special recognition by the Tampa Bay Association of Black Journalists for creative work as Content Director at WUSF Public Broadcasting. Past accomplishments and community service include leadership positions with Awesome Tampa Bay, Arts Council of Hillsborough County, Alpha House of Tampa Bay, Florida Kinship Center, AIA Tampa Bay, Powerstories, and the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. She lives in South Tampa, is the mother of two adult daughters and grandmother to two amazing grandchildren, and travels whenever possible with laptop in tow.