With stints at two of Tampa Bay’s top tech companies — Tech Data and Nielsen —on his résumé, David Ponraj felt like he had what it took to launch his own company, Startup Space, in 2018. But feeling and doing are two different things, and Ponraj is the first to admit he had it pretty good in the corporate world, particularly at Nielsen, which he left to found Startup Space.
“I led innovation globally,” he says. “I was traveling around the world. But even though I was doing incredibly well, I didn’t have a sense of purpose. I didn’t feel like my life had any meaning.”
'It’s only when there’s a customer for your product that it becomes a real product. Until then, it’s simply an idea.' David Ponraj, founder and CEO of Startup Space
Ponraj originally envisioned Startup Space as an online community for aspiring entrepreneurs who weren’t ready to make the leap to a full-blown business incubator or accelerator program. In July 2018, he released a mobile app but within just a few months, after pitching Startup Space at a 1 Million Cups event in Denver, he realized he needed to adjust the concept.
“We were talking about a B2C platform,” he says, “but it was actually ‘B2B2C.’ We provide our clients with a platform and our clients use that to serve their end users.”
Startup Space has been a big hit with nonprofits and government agencies, which use white-labeled versions of the platform as hubs for information ranging from online conversations to resources, events, surveys, news and knowledge centers. The firm’s clientele includes organizations affiliated with the state governments of Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota and North Carolina, in addition to the University of Colorado at Boulder.
“A lot of governments and nonprofits don’t have the technology needed to be able to do their work,” Ponraj says. “And although the contracting phase is a little longer, if you’re able to manage your cash flow, there’s nothing like government work, because the same things that make it hard to get a government contract make it very hard to lose a government contract.”
Since making that pivot in late 2018, the company’s revenue has tripled every year, allowing Ponraj to hire 15 full-time employees and 10 contractors. “It’s only when there’s a customer for your product that it becomes a real product,” Ponraj says. “Until then, it’s simply an idea.”
Ponraj's success, in part, can be traced back to his mentor. That's his mother, who among other things taught her son to be humble, listen, make people feel special, find a win-win and work harder than everyone else.
With that in mind, Ponraj landed his first customer during that fateful trip to Denver, before he even had a pricing structure in place for the type of “B2B2C” contracts that would end up being Startup Space’s bread and butter.
“She asked me, ‘What is your price?’” he recalls. “I wasn’t ready … I just wanted to have a client. So I simply said $100. She said, ‘Done. I’ll buy a whole year, upfront.” So, she paid me $1,200 upfront. And today, that same platform, we sell for $420,000 per year.”
— Brian Hartz
Name: David Ponraj
City of residence: Dunedin
Employer: Startup Space LLC
Title: Founder and CEO
Years in the area: 17
Marital status/children: Married, one child
Alma mater/degree: University of South Florida, M.B.A.
What community group or organization are you most involved with? Feeding Tampa Bay
What's the weirdest job you've ever had? Music concert organizer
What's your top tip for being productive? Focus on the top priority. Eighty percent is good enough.
If you could have a side hustle, what would it be? Playing music in local bars/restaurants
What's your favorite off-hours activity? Tennis
Have you gone to the movies in 2021? If yes, what did you see? Black Widow
What's the top item on your bucket list? Go to a rock concert.
What's your favorite podcast? "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me"
Where is your happy place? Tennis court
Describe yourself in three words. Happy go lucky
Who is your mentor and why? My Mother. She taught me how to talk to people and how to influence outcomes.
What are the biggest lessons you have learned from your mentor? Be humble; listen; make people feel special; find a win-win; work harder than everyone else; be committed and willing to sacrifice to achieve greatness; be kind and give people chances.