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Business Observer Thursday, Feb. 12, 2009 12 years ago

Eye for Innovation

Charles Armstrong has taken a flair for design and created a new product development and design firm in Tampa.

Charles Armstrong has taken a flair for design and created a new product development and design firm in Tampa.

Charles Armstrong became senior art director for Spark, a Tampa advertising firm, in 2003. But over time, Armstrong's design work was leading him in a different direction.

“It became clear that my greatest value was innovation,” he says.

So in April 2006, Armstrong, 28, created Spark Labs, a product development and design firm, in a restored home in Ybor City. Spark Labs creates its own products, such as the multiblade MagKnife and electric cord-fastening Cord

Cuffs, and designs them for others.

Entrepreneurship runs in the family. Armstrong's dad helped launch pharmaceutical and biotech startup companies.

After graduating from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Armstrong looked at cities with growing economies that were also personable. Tampa fit that description for him as a good place to live and work.

“Here, people hold doors open,” he says. “That went a long way for me.”

After narrowing his choices to San Diego or Tampa, he picked Tampa. It was a better real estate bargain, even though running a user-experience and product-development company makes sense in California.

Spark Labs has several clients in California and more venture capital is out there, but Armstrong is happy to be getting more noticed in Tampa.

His biggest CEO lesson is being able to quickly judge what people are worth his time.

“The amount of hours I work daily is ridiculous, but to get everything done, the only way is to not invite distractions,” Armstrong says. “I have to network, but being able to determine who is a distraction and who is worthwhile is very important.”

His vision: To produce great products and designs, but keep the staff small.

“It's very, very hard to find good talent,” he says. “It's only matter of time before they want to do their own thing. It's virtually an exercise in futility. So being small works out just fine. We're absolutely content not being this goliath in the spotlight. It keeps the business simple.”

And if you're thinking that Armstrong is an overly idealistic young designer, only driven by art and having fun, think again.

“I'm a capitalist at heart,” he says. “Any decision is financially driven.”

Product development for Spark Labs includes its own intellectual property and doing product designs for others. Clients pay for Spark Lab time, as a retainer or hourly and also sometimes offer an equity stake. Of its six main outside clients, Spark has an equity stake in two.

The work includes research, and design for the product, the brand, related materials and marketing.

Privately held, Armstrong wouldn't reveal revenues, but says the firm is covering its costs because gets paid in cash as well as equity. Like many startups, the first two years involve investing in people and equipment.

Armstrong sees his age as an asset.

“The difference with my age, as an asset, is that it says that I am very motivated and deserve the success that I've achieved,” he says.

When you are in the innovation business you have to be patient, because the world moves slower than you want it to, Armstrong says. That's why he has six or seven projects going at all times.

“As soon as someone doesn't get back to me, I'm onto something else,” Armstrong says.

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