Local Talent Drives Startup Culture In Tampa Bay

There's a new Global Director on board the StartupBus. Digital media consultant, three-time "buspreneur" and Tampa resident Mitch Neff stepped into the role in late July.

Each March, buspreneurs ride to Austin, TX in time for SXSW. A handful of Tampa residents, including Neff, joined the second iteration of the SXSW pilgrimage back in spring 2011, when only six U.S. cities were involved.

The catch? The closest ride left from Miami.

Neff says, "We had a lot of fun that year, we kept in contact, and a community started growing around StartupBus. We really wanted to see it happen again -- but we wanted to see it here in Tampa.

"That was the year we all started to get together and grow StartupBus locally," Neff recalls.

Since then?

"Tampa's really become the southeast capital of StartupBus" over the past three years, says Neff. People fly from "all over" -- Baton Rouge, Miami, Atlanta -- to ride the Tampa bus, "but by and large it's a bus full of folks from right here at home."

Most recently, in March 2013, 32 buspreneurs rode to Austin from Tampa on one of six buses nationally.

"Tampa is one of the most active communities in terms of alumni," says Neff. "Very creative ideas are always coming out of Tampa. We're really impressed with the local talent."

Elias Bizannes, StartupBus founder, agrees. "I've gotten to know quite a few of the great people in Tampa, and it's becoming one of our main hubs of community membership."

Gaining Local Steam

StartupBus, which launched in San Francisco in spring 2010, has quickly grown into an international community of alumni with Tampa Bay leading the pack. The original bus route ran from San Francisco to Austin, TX, in time for the interactive portion of that year's SXSW conference.

The goal? To develop a startup from the ground up over the course of 72 hours, with people you've just met, all while traveling on a bus at an average of 60 miles per hour toward a destination where, if your product has potential, you will present it to the media and tech panelists who dominate SXSW.

Sound tough? It is.

"Being a buspreneur challenges you in many ways," says 2013 Tampa StartupBus conductor Susie Steiner. "You work under very stressful time constraints, with Internet and sleep restrictions and personal challenges."

So, is it worth the challenge? Steiner, who rode the Miami bus in March of 2011, played a support role for the Tampa bus in 2012 and became part of the national organizing team in 2012, says yes.

"You are forever a part of a community who will always support you, in whatever way they can," she explains.

Despite previous rejections, 2013 buspreneur and Tampa-based developer Michael La Plante "just continued to forge forward" until he was accepted on the most recent ride.

It paid off.

La Plante calls his time aboard the bus a "life changing event," though, he notes, "you really can't understand that in full capacity until you ride.''

For Bizannes, the active, 700-person alumni community is a "critical" component of the organization's growth.

Focus on alumni is part of what makes StartupBus "truly special," says Bizannes. "Every single person who works on StartupBus has been drawn from the community who volunteer their time."

Driving Results

Community connections are an integral part of the StartupBus foundation, but physical results are just as important.

"The products that are built" on board the bus "are incredible for the amount of time you actually have to accomplish it," says La Plante.

In 2012, BumperCrop, one of the startups launched on the Tampa bus, took second place in the SXSW StartupBus competition. This year, Neff notes, "several of the teams did well," and startup BriefSkate "went all the way through the competition and did really well."

Collaboration doesn't end at the last stop, either, La Plante explains. "Almost everyone who rode the Tampa bus has since stayed in touch, collaborated on projects, and have even formed some spinoff businesses as a result," he says.

Steiner, who is Startup Weekend Tampa lead organizer, agrees, saying, "The StartupBus ride allows for innovation and growth. Alumni return home excited and eager to make things happen on a local level." She credits the experience for giving alumni "that extra push they need."

Tampa alumni have already met to discuss plans for the 2014 bus.

"2014 will probably be one of the best years Tampa has ever seen," says Neff, the founder of Tribe Digital. But don't expect the same leadership to take charge: "We're very much wanting to make it an organic, local kind of thing. We really try to bring the community together with new ideas and new leadership -- it's kind of a rite of passage."

Down The Road

In coming years, StartupBus could include more opportunity for entrepreneurial college students to catch a ride.

Expanding the StartupBus to include opportunity for college students "is especially important here in Tampa," Neff emphasizes. "With all of the universities in the area, we want to be able to make sure that all of those students who are interested can participate."

"There is the possibility" of moving the ride out to mid- to late-June and developing a more custom event not centered around a trip to SXSW, though "nothing is set in stone," Neff adds.

Meanwhile, strong organizational devotion to helping the StartupBus community flourish led to the 2013 launch of a talent agency for alumni.

"Startups, huge tech giants, or local sponsors would all love to have access to the StartupBus alumni community," says Neff. "We have talent from all over the world, really. StartupBus Europe is in the third year, and we're hoping to launch -- believe it or not -- StartupBus Africa this year."

"That's all part of my role as Global Director -- to ensure a standardization wherever StartupBus goes, to coordinate all these regions while new regions are trying to launch, and to try to grow StartupBus," he says.

Who pays for it?

"There are many revenue streams involved. For the purpose of the events, the bulk of the cost is offset with sponsorships,'' says Neff. "We try to only charge buspreneurs what we must to lower the barriers to entry for talented and deserving people. Some sponsors have even asked if they could sponsor the full cost for a one or two buspreneurs if there is a need.'' 

"As you can imagine, it is not cheap to rent a bunch of custom outfitted motorcoaches and hire drivers to go all over a particular continent -- our fuel costs alone are outrageous,'' Neff continues. "Fortunately, there are some incredible companies like Rackspace and eLance that see the immense value in StartupBus and devote major sponsorships to making it happen."

Neff previously lived in Nashville for eight years before moving to Tampa with his family "as soon as I could."

"Tampa has made leaps and bounds in the last five or six years since I've been back. It's a really collaborative community. Everybody here really wants everyone else to do well," he says.

Justine Benstead is a freelance 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.

Read more articles by Justine Benstead.

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