Sunday, Nov 23, 2014

St. Pete conference helps entrepreneurs launch businesses


Published:   |   Updated: June 10, 2013 at 08:18 AM

ST. PETERSBURG - Over the course of a weekend, Shannon Horn transformed from a preschool teacher to a tea party mogul, Doug Smith from a web developer to a community creator and many others from dreamers to budding business owners.

Startup Weekend, a nonprofit event, brought developers, designers, and hopefuls from all walks of life together to launch their businesses in 54 hours.

About 50 people with an idea for a new business venture came together Friday at USF St. Petersburg. After voting on the 17 best ideas, the participants split into teams and started working on websites, budgets and a marketing pitch to present to judges such as Christopher Steinocher, president of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, and Chris Cate, chief information officer for Valpak and Savings.com.

The teams with the best ideas won prizes such as an iPad mini, $1,000 from Apple for equipment, a full-page spread in The Social Media Monthly magazine or a proclamation from St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster. But for $99, or $50 for students, all had the opportunity to walk away with new ideas, business contacts and clientele. Many had never met before, but worked together to research and build a viable product.

"We have a very diverse community in the Tampa area and they're hungry, they have ideas and they want to make them happen," said co-organizer Ryan Sullivan, who moved to Tampa from New York to study entrepreneurship and applied technologies at USF. "This area is perfect for startups - what's better than having all of that and being a step away from the beach? ... If people are willing to come all the way from Atlanta to attend this event and work with us for the weekend, we should be willing to cross the bridge and work with each other."

Florida is an innovation incubator, according to 2011 and 2012 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity. An April report by business magazine FastCompany used that data to rank Florida as the most innovative state in the nation, second in rate of business production and third for annual revenue per startup. Sullivan said Foster told organizers he wants to keep more "cool and creative" startups in St. Petersburg. The city is looking to remove barriers for budding business owners, including reducing the costs to file for a business and finding available work spaces and resources, Sullivan said.

To start, the participants got legal help and advice from other local business owners who have found success, such as Exmo, a company that creates free mobile applications for event organizers.

Exmo began at a November Startup Weekend in Tampa, and a few months later created the app for this year's event, said cofounder Todd Goldberg, 24, a recent graduate from the University of Florida. He met his partner Karl White, 34, of Wales, the first day of the seminar, and together they created the winning product. Businesses started during Startup Weekend have roughly a 30 percent success rate, Goldberg said, and though many teams disband after the weekend is over, the pair found that the ideas they walked away with are still marketable.

"Coming in to the weekend I didn't have an idea about what I wanted to do or create and it was stressing me out," Goldberg said. "But then I realized I didn't really have anything to help me find out more information about the event and that helped me create Exmo.

"The startup community in Tampa is great, and from our first weekend we met about 10 companies that use our site."

Most of the ideas, such as a mobile application that allows people to report crimes they witness, are tech related, but not all. Julia Davis, 54, of Cape Coral, met Shannon Horn, 27, on the first day of the conference and formed the Tea Party Cottage, the only brick-and-mortar business idea pitched at the event. A kindergarten teacher in Riverview, Horn hopes to open a tea shop for girls' birthday parties that would take care of everything from hair and nails to the birthday cake.

"We have a little tea party place in my hometown near Chicago where they host parties out of a Victorian cottage and there's nothing like that here," Horn said. "I kept thinking back to my childhood and I had this idea. It's nice to hear from so many people that actually believe in me and believe that this could really work."

Doug Smith, a 27-year-old web developer from St. Pete Beach, came to the conference with an idea and left with a new company and a team of four people from across the state.

Tribespotter.com creates websites for up-and-coming artists, musicians or businesses.

"I want to do something that matters, something that I can look back at in 20 or 30 years and see that I've impacted the world in a positive way," Smith said. "Ever since I was five, I've always liked listening to people's problems and trying to solve them, and this is a practical way to do that. Making it work will take a lot of trust, but it's exciting to think that I came here Friday with an idea and I'm leaving Sunday with a new company."

adawson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-9851

Twitter: @adawsonTBO

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