So, as you might have picked up from my post yesterday, I’m familiar with the temptation to make fun of startup culture. Though tech nerds have always been funny, they've become bigger targets now that tech is huge business. There are just so many hangers-on and crude imitators, those who parrot the language and self-consciously mimic the moves, motivated by the greed that turns startups into Wall Street cash through a mix of hype and funny math that practically satirizes itself.
But if you strip away those trappings and bad actors, there is still a positive spirit at the core of today’s entrepreneurial culture. I’m about the farthest thing from a business guy or even a capitalist, so it has taken me a while to accept it, but there is both a generosity and a creativity that drives people to create something new and solve real problems — even if the solution is designed to make money.
To take the most obvious example from this weekend, a team headed by a longtime consultant to small businesses trying to land government contracts is here working on a way to build a database of advice on completing and submitting calls for project proposals. It’s a service that, were it to become reality, could save governments money, get better services to the public, and spread the wealth of government spending more broadly.
In fact, Startup Weekend Tampa itself is an entirely volunteer-run project, spearheaded by people whose aims are at least partly altruistic. Jesse Curry of Haneke Design is a volunteer mentor for the weekend, and he told me he wants to foster more startups so that Tampa can retain more people interested in building a walkable urban core. Plenty in government and the nonprofit sector have worked towards the same goal, but it’s not something they can accomplish without the people and jobs to bring it to life.
Curry also repeated an observation I’ve heard from others — that a lack of investment capital for technology startups has been a major obstacle for their growth in Tampa Bay and Florida more broadly. Tampa Bay has been the starting place for many tech companies that chose or were pushed to move to hubs like Austin or San Francisco to get funding. Around here, our entrepreneurial success stories are Outback Steakhouse and Hooters.
So, there are a lot of factors that go into building a tech economy that would in turn support a richer culture and more livable city. But sitting in on Startup Weekend Tampa has shown me that one thing Tampa Bay is not short on is talent. The teams here have lots of ideas and good insights — but most impressive to me has been their work ethic. Startup Weekends are 54-hour marathons from Friday night to Sunday afternoon, and the teams here have been working straight through. I certainly haven’t been able to hang for the duration, and I’m just sort of bumbling around asking questions.
Some of the hardest workers are the too-small pool of developers — the people who are actually able to build the web pages and apps that form the core of most of the weekends’ proposed products. “I feel like we’re the last people to choose a team, because there are so many good ideas, and you want to choose something where you can really make a difference in 54 hours,” said Gregg Halferding of Green Bar Labs. Halferding is part of the team building Rainmaker, the app (known only yesterday as The Job Buddy) aimed at making it easier for teenagers to connect with entry-level local job listings. As of Saturday at about 1 p.m., Rainmaker already had a slick-looking web portal and a rudimentary app (to see some of their work, follow them on Twitter @tbrainmakerapp).
If that amount of progress in a day is impressive, check this out — some of the startups already have customers. The team behind the Pitcher Perfect pitch coaching service spent a few hours giving their own pitch to other teams, offering to help them get ready for the final round of presentations on Sunday. They netted a solid twenty bucks — which might not have paid for the cost of all those post-it notes, but hey, even dwarves started out small.
Startup Weekend Tampa wraps up today at 5 p.m., with a round of competitive presentations. A final winner will be named, and the teams will head home for some well-deserved sleep. It’s hard to say which of the groups will continue their projects after the weekend, or whether any of them will grow into successful businesses. But most of the attendees told me that their main motivation was learning, and there’s been plenty of that to go around.
Bonus Glossary: BizSpeak Bonanza!
I may be writing about startups, but I don’t know jack about the business world. Here are some terms I’ve figured out that may come in handy the next time some chatterbox in a Ruby on Rails T-shirt corners you at the bar.
Pivot: It turns out our first idea was terrible. Here’s another one!
Minimum Viable Product: We will soon be connecting cancer patients with lovable companion puppies. For now, they can sign up to receive puppy-related texts directly to their smartphones!
Business Development: Boy, it’s a real downer when you realize you have to actually go out and sell the cool thing you’ve built.