Linda Olson is well aware of the technology industry's geographic status quo.
She knows that if she tried talking to a tech start-up entrepreneur about moving to “the Bay area,” they'd probably assume she meant California.
But Olson wants to change that. “I want people to refer to San Francisco as 'the other Bay area,'” she says.
Taking Tampa to the top will be tough. But she insists that there are reasons to believe it can be done.
Olson's involvement in Tampa's technology scene is a direct by-product of her latest entrepreneurial endeavor. She's the founder and chief executive officer of WOMbeat, a Web-based company that recommends businesses to its users based on their friends' recommendations.
Through WOMbeat's development process (WOM stands for “word of mouth”), Olson has been able to identify local resources that could help her complete her project. “The talent is there.” She points to incubator organizations such as STAR TEC and the Tampa Bay Technology Forum.
At the same time, other pieces seemed to be missing. Most notably, she found that Tampa Bay lacked an organized network to help Web-based entrepreneurs connect with each other.
So she took the next logical step, and created one.
Tampa Bay WaVE, which stands for Web Venture Entrepreneurs (with an “a” for good measure), is a networking venue started by Olson in July 2008. Today, 33 members attend regular meetings to discuss their latest Web-based projects.
Review readers might recognize some of the attendees' names. There is Allen Clary, creator of Jibidee.com, and subject of a June 2009 article. Jibidee helps users electronically organize their homes and businesses.
And there is Kevin Hale, a co-designer of the Web-based information application called Wufoo, who was mentioned in last week's issue for his recent presentation on product value. Wufoo's client list includes companies such as
Best Buy, Sony, Panasonic, Amazon.com, and Microsoft.
When they meet, the group is able to collectively take on issues that are often faced by online entrepreneurs, such as website development and product feature decisions.
It's a unique focus that other business development organizations often have trouble targeting. Even with the significant number of incubators out there, “There was a hole among all of that,” Olson says. “Nobody was helping us build
Web-based products.” That focus on product building is an important distinction for WaVE members.
These days, almost every company has some sort of Website; it's a convenient portal for contact information, press releases, and background information. But Web venture entrepreneurs approach the Internet in a whole different way. For them, the Web site itself is their product — not an avenue for selling their product.
To that end, the forum has helped Olson identify some key tips for young entrepreneurs looking to start their own Web venture.
For one, while many Web entrepreneurs will receive plenty of advice on building a business plan, Olson recommends keeping the initial focus on the Web site's design. “You build a great product first,” she suggests, “and then you build a business around it.”
There's also a more universal lesson for innovators seeking help in getting their idea going: the importance of building relationships with those individuals that have your long-term interests in mind. “You need a partner — not a vendor,” Olson says.
As the collaboration continues, the successes of other WaVE group members bode well for the organization's future.
Ian Ippolito, founder and chief executive officer of Rent A Coder, has been listed on the Inc. 5000 for three straight years; Steve Tingiris, founder of Enthusem.com, has been invited to a highly selective national demo presentation in San Diego.
Even with all the success, it's unlikely Tampa Bay will overtake San Francisco in the minds of technology entrepreneurs. But the possibility may be closer to reality than most people think.
— Alex Walsh