A global networking group known for its lack of structure has delivered some concrete opportunities to Gulf Coast businesses.
A diverse contingent of entrepreneurs and small business owners in Sarasota and Bradenton has been gathering regularly to talk shop, life and being better at both.
But this isn't the standard chamber power networking lunch event. It's called BarCamp, though it's only occasionally held at a bar, and it isn't a camp. The oddly named group is instead based on the unconference concept — a session where there's no set speakers and no agenda.
The 350 or so BarCamps worldwide, including ones in Fort Myers, Tampa and Orlando, tend to have a few unconference events a year that focus on technology, both in topics and attendees. BarCamp Sarasota organizers, though, make it a point to reach out past that, with topics like education and economic development.
“One of the best things about BarCamp is we do more than technology events,” says Tracy Ingram, a local Web developer and consultant who co-founded BarCamp Sarasota last year with three other like-minded entrepreneurs. “This is also for people who might not consider themselves a techie.”
BarCamp Sarasota events include networking luncheons, educational speaker events and after work happy hours. Events are geared toward entrepreneurs who work in any field but want to know more about the latest in technology and software.
The loosey-goosey atmosphere, however, belies the group's reach. Hundreds of people attended some of BarCamp Sarasota's recent events, for example, and the group has picked up sponsorships from several local firms. Its website, www.bcsrq.com, has a place to post help-wanted ads and a portal to find freelancers for technology-themed projects.
BarCamp Sarasota was founded as a for-profit enterprise, but organizers are in the process of registering it as a nonprofit. It's funded through sponsorships.
Sara Hand, another BarCamp Sarasota co-founder, says the group is essentially a starter point for small business owners and entrepreneurs to find two things they constantly covet: financing and good employees.
On the financing side, Hand, recently appointed president of the Sarasota chapter of the Gulf Coast Venture Forum, laments the lack of big-time venture capitalists and angel investors in the Sarasota-Bradenton market. That motivated Hand to bring BarCamp to town.
“There's cool stuff happening all over Sarasota, but because we don't have a unified presence, we don't get the funds,” says Hand. “We don't want to be the redheaded stepchild to the bigger places in Florida.”
BarCamp's name and origin stem from Silicon Valley. That's where a group of tech company employees launched the first event in 2005.
Legend has it, according to a few BarCamp supporters and event attendees, that the people who founded the first BarCamp event were rejected from a hipper event across town. So they 'camped out' somewhere else and called themselves the Bay Area Rejects.
BarCamp Sarasota events aren't as defiant. “BarCamp helps business owners understand the possibilities of what technology can do,” says Ingram. “There's no other way for people here to meet like this.”
The BarCamp Sarasota 2011 Spring Technology Festival is scheduled for April 30 and May 1. The event, a mix of panel discussions, conversations and demonstrations, will be at the G.Wiz Science Museum in downtown Sarasota. For more information go to www.bcsrq.com.