Startup Florida: Riding The Innovation Highway, Tampa Bay

The SXSW interactive, music and media festival is a ridiculous intersection of technology, creativity and entrepreneurship. Tens of thousands of people flock to Austin TX for two weeks in March to shamefully promote their latest and greatest undertakings, and also to soak-in and process new and interesting concepts and trends that are emerging from other walks of life. These are the earliest of the early adopters, and they're all here together, en masse. The hipster-geek half-breed wardrobe is on full display; flannel abounds and mustachioed men in skinny jeans are everywhere.

This is the visual standard fare for SXSW, yet there is a special breed of SXSW attendee on display, too -- one so bold that he/she does not even purchase a highly regulated SXSWi "badge'' to attend the pricey conference. In fact, this individual cruises South Congress Street, prideful, with a different kind of badge -- a unique, blue badge that reads: "StartupBus 2012 Crew.''

Brain-drained and wandering the closed-off streets of Austin, blue-badge people immediately recognize each other. They spot each other from a distance, and almost instantly light up and say: "startupbus!'' and then proceed to ask each other the same initial question: ''Which bus did you in come on?'' From there, entrepreneurial trials and tribulations are discussed in passing, and promises are made to connect online.

The men and women are buspreneurs, and they've come in from 11 different cities/regions in the United States (there was also a bus from Mexico!). Qualifying individuals are quite likely to be deft at one or more of the following: programming computers, designing things that look and feel beautiful, or applying creativity and "hustle'' toward the implementation of novel ideas.

Making Cool Things Happen

Startup-types are notorious for running upstream, and these are the strongest swimmers of them all -- even if they haven’t realized it yet in their professional lives. They endure the chemical-laden stench of a motor coach restroom cleaning cocktail (#protip: if you are riding, make sure to lock down a space for your team near the front or mid section of the bus), T-Rex syndrome from typing too long in an elbows-tucked-tight, motor coach seating arrangement, spotty 3G and wifi -- which can be particularly annoying when you've finally landed that business development phone call with a bonafide executive you're trying to pitch from the road.

At the same time, somehow, against the odds, most of the teams effectively clarify their challenge (despite a mildly annoying yet impressively consistent lack of general direction provided); they ideate, they develop and they deliver. Simply put: They make cool things happen. 

From there, they pitch, again and again. It turns out, the "pitch'' – the angle that you present your ideas to a group of experts -- has a LOT to do with the way that it is received. A well-crafted and well-delivered pitch might earn you funding on the spot, while something less polished might earn you a thumbs down from the panel, or worse, an f-bomb from the likes of outspoken Venture Capitalist Dave McClure.

The intense nature of the competition has a funny way of separating the wheat from the chaff.

The people who get on board with something like the startupbus are willing to undergo the stress, pressure, ambiguity and domain-general extremes necessary to perform under conditions that most others would simply not accept. It's physically and mentally exhausting, and it stretches a person in unique ways.

Competing With The Best

Douglas Smith, team lead of the highly lauded second-place finishing Florida team, BumperCrop, thinks of it as an "Iditarod race for entrepreneurs -- you challenge yourself and must become one with your team to succeed.''

He's spot on. Any significant riff within a team is certain to spell doom, and the clock is always ticking.

Ben Child: a interactive web and mobile designer who made the trip down I-4 from Orlando to join the Tampa Bay crew thinks the startupbus experience is just one piece of the puzzle.

"I'm really happy and incredibly proud that Florida was able to do so well in the competition, but this should only be a catalyst for further development and innovation,'' says Child. "Florida needs more presence in, and exposure to, events like startupbus in order to stay competitive in the startup market. With the student talent pool, institutional resources, and investment funds available to Florida, there is no reason we shouldn't be competing with Silicon Valley annually.''

StartupBus visionary Elias Bizannes is a larger-than-life "big idea guy,'' who's equally comfortable working for a West Coast venture capital firm (Charles River Ventures) as he is throwing down a pint or laying a big hit on a rugby field. He's also demonstrated a real knack for building community.

"It changes people's lives,'' Bizannes says. "That alone is what motivates me. It just so happens those people are entrepreneurs who have the ability to improve the quality of life for us all. There is nothing more satisfying than knowing I'm enabling a future like that.'' 

Greg Ross-Munro, a finalist in last years competition as well as the conductor (and savior) of this year's contest takes a slightly different tack.

"I’m selfish -- I love startups and the startup culture,'' Ross-Munro says. "My company (Source Toad) builds products for startups. The more Tampa becomes a startup place, the better it'll be for me.''

Playing To Learn

Lists are lame, and yet they are still effective, so here's a Top 10 "key learnings'' list from Startupbus Florida, 2012.

    •    To win this competition, you are welcome to ignore all of the rules as long as you've identified a large, addressable market; have at least a "clickable demo'' of your product to show off; and can demonstrate "traction'' in the marketplace -- meaning that others are at least as excited about this as you are.

    •    Come to SXSW with a plan, and do your best to stick to it. Some of the best contacts you will make in your life are likely roaming the streets and conference hallways, trying to get their gigs, too. Do your homework ahead of time and you'll be ready to connect when the time is right. Be mindful of transit (cabs are unreliable) and lodging constraints, these can result in lost productivity. Lock down somewhere to stay well in advance. AirBNB is a go to resource because EVERY single commercial offering will be a price-gauging scenario.

    •    People do interesting things at 60 mph on the highway. And if someone warns you not to look, do not blame him or her when the image is burned into your memory.

    •    If you are literally next in line to go onstage to deliver a two-minute pitch that you've rehearsed for the last 24hrs, and all of the sudden, the format of the event changes to a 30-second format -- step aside and let someone else go first (a sacrificial pitch lamb) -- while you tweak your pitch down to its very essence, "customer,'' "product,'' and "framework.'' Discuss nothing else unless asked.

    •    Baton Rouge LA is working hard to develop its entrepreneurial ecosystem; LSU entrepreneurs and technologists are eager to partner with other teams and institutions, and their Southern hospitality remains second to none.

    •    It was said last year, and rings just as true in 2012: "Be open and inviting to everyone at SXSW, because the two most interesting people you may meet all year could be the folks standing in line with you at food truck somewhere.''

    •    The "Bat Bar'' on East 6th Street has a third-floor attic space that is ideal for intellectual musing with startupbus community thought leaders while the rest of the bar is drinking and dancing downstairs.

    •    The venture capital community is always looking for TALENT. Yes, your ideas are beautiful, unique snowflakes, AND at the same time, they are merely a manifestation of a team's continuous creative output. It is the ability of a team to continually solve problems and create value that makes them "investable,''  as opposed to a single stroke of brilliance that presents itself in the form of an aha(!) moment.

    •    Robert Scoble is a prolific tech blogger, a closet party animal, and a genuinely nice human being who is willing to let you carry his luggage to his SUV in exchange for feedback on your pitch.

    •    Florida can run with the heavy hitters (San Francisco, Boston, New York, etc.). -- as evidenced by our visit to the finals in 2011, and our 2nd place finish in 2012 -- and if we can tighten our internal team coordination and enhance our regional outreach/fundraising efforts, we are capable of continually showcasing the region as talent-rich and innovation ready. 

    •    (Bonus: He who has the personal wifi hotspot has the gold).

Wrapping It Up

In summary, startupbus is something that we must promote to the best and brightest technologists and entrepreneurs that Florida has to offer. It's a win-win. Participants accelerate their individual growth and Florida begins to earn respect in the startup world. Every major market in the country aspires to be its own version of Silicon Valley, and in order to move up the ladder in terms of national recognition for our capacity to innovate, playing a meaningful role in an international community of digitally skilled badasses like the startupbus community, is an opportunity that should not be missed.

This contest makes people better in a hurry and helps to establish what David Kelley, founder of IDEO, might refer to as creative confidence. Quite frankly, there’s nothing else like it.

Nathan Schwagler teaches creativity in entrepreneurship at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where he is responsible for the integration of creative thinking skills into entrepreneurship curricula. A graduate of SUNY Buffalo, he earned master's degrees there and at USF. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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