In just over two years, Tampa’s Embarc Collective has redefined what it means to be a business incubator. CEO Lakshmi Shenoy reflects on the organization’s journey so far and what lies ahead.
In early September, Embarc Collective, a Tampa-based hub for startups, welcomed its 100th member company, making it the fastest-growing organization of its kind in the state. Launched in March 2019 as a core component of Water Street Tampa, Embarc is led by CEO Lakshmi Shenoy, who was personally recruited by none other than Jeff Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning and, along with Bill Gates, one of the primary investors in the $3 billion, 50-acre Water Street Tampa project.
Embarc operated virtually for the first nine months of its existence. It moved into a $10 million, 32,000-square-foot space at 802 E. Whiting St. in January 2020 — right before the pandemic forced it to go virtual once more.
“We have been more operational within the pandemic than without,” Shenoy says. “We did a ribbon-cutting in February 2020 and then March, obviously, is when the pandemic hit. We reverted to our 2019 mode of operation from March until June of 2020. And then we reopened the space in June with the COVID protocols that are normal to us now.”
What’s not typical, however, is how successful Embarc has been at nurturing startups from bare-bones concepts to venture-capital darlings. Collectively, its members have raised some $107 million since March 2019, with firms such as Ideal Agent, BlockSpaces and TrustLayer leading the way.
Making Embarc's rocket-like success even more impressive is that as a nonprofit, it takes no equity stake in the companies it serves. It's also doing it in a market that already boasts numerous startup support organizations, such as Tampa Bay Wave and the Tampa Bay Innovation Center. On top of that, its member companies continue to pay $150-$465 per person, per month, for a membership —even after the businesses are up and running and preparing to go to market.
Embarc Collective, in partially explaining the success, defines itself by what it’s not. “We are not a co-working space, accelerator or incubator,” text on the company website reads. “We are a new kind of support model, one where your company's experience at Embarc Collective is customized around your priorities to help your growth.”
‘We’re a collective of builders striving to build. It’s not an accelerator where you go through a process and there’s a determined outcome. It’s not a competitive landscape.’ Doug Hill, founder of Real Random
Doug Hill, founder of Real Random LLC, a tech company that helps large enterprise clients secure data networks, says, “I wouldn’t be where I am without Embarc.” His seven-year-old company, an Embarc member since the beginning, March 2019, has launched a pilot program to generate a proof of concept for its product, a cloud-based system that generates random security keys to keep hackers at bay.
“It’s been a tremendous experience,” Hill adds. “There’s all the programming they offer, the coaching, the impromptu conversations, networking with other members. When you say, ‘107 member companies,’ you think, ‘Wow, that’s a lot.’ But then you multiply that by an average of four (people) per company, and you can see that starts to become a very large network.”
Prior to landing at Embarc, Shenoy worked in New York and Chicago. She knew very little about Tampa Bay before answering Vinik’s call. “I didn’t have any connectivity to this region,” she says. “I was totally new. I had to really embed myself to understand the startups that were growing in this area. And what was really clear to me was the diversity of experiences of people who are building tech or tech-enabled companies in this area.”
As she settled into her new role, Shenoy conducted surveys she says revealed a need for a different kind of business support organization, one that offered more customized solutions for members and wasn’t time-based or built around a set agenda, like some business accelerator programs.
“That very much is at the root of the coaching program we have at Embarc Collective,” she says. “It’s completely based on milestones companies already have prior to coming into Embarc. We coach against those milestones rather than coach them on a curriculum.”
Embarc’s coaches — or executive advisors, as it calls them — include Steve Parkis, a former vice president at mobile gaming giant Zynga, as well as Disney, where he founded Disney Online Studios, and Ryan Schneider, president of Vacayou, a travel company focused on health and wellness. Its board includes Vinik and Brian Murphy, founder and CEO of ReliaQuest, one of the most successful homegrown tech companies in the region.
“That’s a great representation of the experience we’re trying to build here,” Shenoy says. “You get to benefit from top operators coming into our space and giving you their playbook, as well as benefiting from the density of other startups you’re building alongside. That combination of coaches and experts and peers is the magic of what we are building.”
That emphasis on the wisdom of the crowd, a term coined by Aristotle, is what entrepreneurs like Hill find so appealing about Embarc Collective. He says members freely share fundraising techniques rather than keeping such information to themselves.
“As an avid reader, I’ll see something and think, ‘That might benefit so-and-so’s company,’ and I’ll send it to them in a Slack channel," Hill says. "We’re sharing information, sharing a network. We’re a collective of builders striving to build. It’s not an accelerator where you go through a process and there’s a determined outcome. It’s not a competitive landscape.”
The pandemic has undoubtedly been the biggest challenge for Shenoy and Embarc Collective. The organization was set to move into its new headquarters when the crisis hit, forcing a return to online meetings and phone calls as the only way to do business. Despite not being able to carry out its original vision of becoming a centralized hub for face-to-face learning and networking, Shenoy says the organization’s leadership embraced the opportunity to innovate.
“As a team, we have not taken the mentality of, ‘Oh, why is this happening to us,’” she says. “Instead, it’s ‘how do we figure out a way forward?’”
That shift in mindset was key as Embarc’s member base swelled much faster than expected — not exactly growing pains but still a surprise that needed to be dealt with.
“We anticipated being busy,” Shenoy says, “but we reached 100 member companies several months earlier than we had planned to. But it's just months; we’re not talking years.”
With its seven conference rooms, three event spaces and wide variety of private offices and open work areas, physical space is not the limiting factor to scale up Embarc, Shenoy says. Rather, it’s coaching. Currently, the organization has eight executive advisors; some are employees, others are contractors. But at the rate Embarc’s membership is growing, more will be needed.
Shenoy says Embarc looks for highly specific qualities in coaches it hires. It seeks to bring on people who know how to navigate “the micro wins or the micro challenges” that come with entrepreneurship.
“As a startup community, we are often very focused on the public milestones we share to signify success,” she explains. “The reality of building a startup is that there’s a lot that doesn’t get talked about, and you need a community, you need coaches, to help you through those — someone to talk to when a co-founder relationship goes south, or a client gives you a whole different set of facts than you were expecting, or maybe the fundraising process isn't going as planned.”
Hill and his team at Real Random participated in the Tampa Bay Innovation Center’s accelerator program, but he says Embarc Collective occupies a truly unique space within the region’s startup community, and he applauds Vinik’s commitment to making it a reality.
“I don't know of any other programs or organizations like Embarc Collective,” he says. “Maybe some exist, but I'm not familiar with any. And Mr. Vinik, that guy committed himself to excellence. I think he said he went to 85 different innovation centers in the United States. He wanted to create something for entrepreneurs that could grow over time and be a crown jewel for Tampa.”
(Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct a typographical error in Doug Hill's quote about Jeff Vinik visiting innovation centers around the country.)