Building bigger, better startups starts with talent

A lack of funding sources is the common lament among startup companies that opt to leave the Tampa Bay region rather than get creative about growing their local business. So common, in fact, that those engaged in helping launch and sustain startups take to social media regularly to express fatigue over hearing about it. 

So it was refreshing and empowering to hear the conversation from 83 Degrees Media’s “Not Your Average Speakers’’ who gathered Feb. 5 at The Iron Yard in St. Petersburg.

All four and the moderator, Daniel James Scott of the Tampa Bay Technology Forum, say they’ve experienced success by focusing on finding and retaining the right kind of talent  — talented people who fit with the company's culture, whether you have to recruit locally or broaden your search. 

83 Degrees hosted the 16th NYAS event as part of Tampa Bay’s first Startup Week, which featured a slew of other activities throughout the Tampa Bay region specifically designed to attract thinkers, doers and makers.
Panelists included Brian Burridge, an instructor with The Iron Yard; Sarah Perrier, owner at popular local business Kahwa Coffee; Elton Rivas of Jacksonville, One Spark crowd-funding festival director; and nonprofit Realize Bradenton Executive Director Johnette Isham. 

The topic: “Big and bigger… how to grow your startups from here.”

It comes down to culture

Sometimes companies simply don’t have the talent pool to pull from locally, Burridge says. When that happens, he says companies must seek out “the best of the best talent” to maintain diversity and develop the right fit for the company’s culture.

The Iron Yard’s internal slogan is “home for dinner,” a nod to maintaining a boundary between work and personal time.  

“It’s a selling point,” Burridge says. “It helps lure people.”

For Rivas at One Spark, talent recruitment and retention means valuing a culture fit as much as a technical skillset.

“People want to do meaningful work,” he says. But if there are people on board who don’t meet the standards? Rivas recommends pulling the plug, and quickly. “Get rid of people who don’t fit the culture.”

Isham takes the hiring process a step further with “the three F’s: food, fun, and flexibility.” For her, a culture where employees enjoy non-work engagement, like sharing occasional recipes or enjoying food together, is critical. 

At Kahwa Coffee, finding lasting talent is a task that requires investing retail employees with a sense of ownership in their roles. Engaging and empowering management to run their stores is one way that Perrier works to make employees feel connected to the brand. 

“Personality is big. You can train people on their skills but you can’t change their personality,” Perrier says. “You can’t be afraid to let people go if it’s not working out.”

Building the business

One Spark’s Rivas tells a rather riveting one-liner: his very first job was selling mangos on Miami street corners with a friend named Manny.

When the cops showed up, asking where they’d gotten the fruit, Manny took off running. 

The moral: “Pick your business partners wisely,” Rivas says with a laugh.

Going into an entrepreneurial business or building a startup from scratch can be risky or time-consuming. The plunge into an entrepreneurial endeavor requires a certain ability to take a leap of faith, Perrier says. “You have to have that, and most entrepreneurs do.”

Part of the reason startups can be so risky is the oft-discussed aspect of early stage funding. One audience member opined, “Everybody knows that every venture in the world comes down to one word: cash. You don’t have cash, you don’t have a business.”

Leaving a legacy

St. Petersburg-based Kahwa Coffee is in talks to expand to the Sarasota and Jacksonville markets. There are six locations in the Tampa/St. Pete area.

“We’re still gonna be local – maybe Florida-local, but not ‘down the street’ local,” Perrier says.

The company’s coffee shops were always meant to be an open gathering space, with a feeling of welcome, Perrier says. “People can make connections in the community. We want to bring that same feel to different neighborhoods.”

Meanwhile, the One Spark crowd-funding festival is set for April 7-12, 2015, in Jacksonville, Florida. One Spark brought in $300,000 in their first year and over $1 million in 2014. Funds primarily come in through sponsorships and event operating income (read: selling lots of beer during the festival), but Rivas plans to put more of a focus on economic byproduct in hopes of securing some additional funding moving forward. 

Rivas sees the organization continuing to grow and attract millennials and the next generation behind them.

“There’s data somewhere that says that between 40-60 percent of those folks will at least start their own business multiple times,” Rivas says. “If One Spark is fortunate enough to be a way that they start and engage and it’s a platform that can scale, that would be amazing.”

Over at Realize Bradenton, Isham is focusing on engaging civic conversations, creating an arts walk destination, and exploring metrics for future endowments or projects. Realize Bradenton is also working on a catalyst project for the Village of the Arts for a mixed-use urbanism space.

The Realize Bradenton mission to create a vital downtown environment where people want to live resonated with attendees.

“Even with modern tech, millennials – and all of us – want to be connected,” says attendee Jean Wurdeman. 

“What millennials are looking for in their work lifestyle, that’s what baby boomers are looking for as they age,” says Gasparilla Interactive Festival Executive Director Vinny Tafuro. “The workplace balance.”

For The Iron Yard, which opened a St. Pete location in fall 2015, expansion to more campuses in more cities is a focus. Locally, the St. Pete school plans to add a third teaching track in web design, along with existing 12-week courses in Ruby on Rails and front end engineering.

The local team is also working to help graduates from the school’s Sept class to find careers.

“We want to change the face of education in this country,” Burridge says. 
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Read more articles by Justine Benstead.

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