Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Eager entrepreneurs aim to shake up the Tampa networking scene

Skip the chicken dinners. Pass on old-style meet-and-greets. An energetic group of young Tampa entrepreneurs are out to change the way networking is done.

  • By
  • | 5:00 a.m. April 5, 2024
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
The Tampa Entrepreneurs' "Full Throttle" networking event, held March 14, 2024 at the Motor Enclave's venue.
The Tampa Entrepreneurs' "Full Throttle" networking event, held March 14, 2024 at the Motor Enclave's venue.
Photo by Jim Stinson
  • Tampa Bay-Lakeland
  • Share

Joe Staiber cracks a big grin, when, at a recent business networking event he's asked the most basic of business networking questions: Do you have a business card? 

"Oh, we don't use business cards," says Joe Staiber, 25, while overseeing his March 14 networking event at the tony Motor Enclave's event center in northeast Tampa, by the executive airport. "We use Instagram."

Instagram as a business card? It's just one way this young group, Tampa Entrepreneurs, separate themselves from other business organizations and networking events — as they attempt to disrupt the old ways of business gatherings. Tampa Entrepreneurs is a nonprofit. 

Surveying the size of the crowd at the Motor Enclave in mid-March — a crowd of at least 700 people — they might just succeed in disrupting networking culture, at least in Tampa.

The night and its theme were billed as "TE Full Throttle," a networking event "set to turbocharge Tampa's business landscape." The event offered free rides around the Motor Enclave's locally famous racetrack. And there were plenty of exotic cars, a growing staple of their events.

But the event stressed the cars were a feature, not a main attraction. What the group says was the goal was "an unparalleled opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals," to explore potential collaborations and to immerse in an atmosphere of innovation.

And the overall philosophy is to create networking where people meet other businesspersons that one "can do business and life with," says Staiber.

That's what many attendees are doing. Some of these young entrepreneurs brought dates or their significant others. And some attendees have told Staiber they come to meet the type of young men who eschew video gaming and instead have real life goals and ambitious business plans.

One sponsor, a CEO of a Tampa pest control company, gives a more conventional reason for attending: Tampa Entrepreneurs bring out "earners" and homeowners, not just young people in apartments or condos. They are happy to do business and inquire about termites and such.

Yet he admits it also feels like a party, or a club event.

"They've definitely created a hybrid event," says John Harlow, CEO of Tier 1 Pest Solutions of Tampa. "But it's still business."

From a dorm room

The Tampa Entrepreneurs group is young, ambitious and just wants to have fun — while networking in a new way and in person.

Staiber notes while online and social media is valuable — Staiber has 310,000 TikTok followers and 2 million likes, along with 3,200 Instagram followers — old-school, pre-pandemic, in-person events are still money, he says.

For now, the only thing the group does is hold quarterly events — "for now," says Staiber. Most attendees in March were young entrepreneurs. The event was free and open to all.

Staiber is high-energy. And like Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates, he also has a story that started in college but ended by dropping out after computer-related success from a dorm room.

Staiber was 17 when he was college freshman, working out of his dorm room using e-commerce. He had discovered drop-shipping while at Millersville University, in Southeast Pennsylvania, and soon had no free time, making lots of cash. (About $100,000 that semester, he says.)

Sometimes, he would stop attending class for days while he worked on his e-commerce business. One of his professors called him and told him to drop the class or he would fail. Staiber says he was not failing at all, and doing well, but the professor noted attendance was 30% of the grade.

Businesspersons Joe Staiber and Ryan Horst, co-founders of Tampa Entrepreneurs, a nonprofit organization seeking to create fun, quarterly networking events.
Photo by Mark Wemple

That's when Staiber realized his future: He might end up working 9 to 5 in a corporation and no matter how successful he was, part of his worth as an employee was facetime in the office. It didn't sound logical or attractive to him. He wanted to be his own boss.

"That was a catalyst moment for me," says Staiber.

Staiber went on to become a public speaker on e-commerce and was asked to handle digital work for companies. He soon became his own agency, which he runs now. And he's battle-tested by a few failures, he admits, such as losing a few bucks on crypto.

Staiber was not satisfied with the possibilities of Philadelphia, and was attracted to Tampa after examining it. It's a story many of the young entrepreneurs also have. Harlow too came from somewhere else, Dallas, after starting a pest control company there.

But the Boston-area native missed the ocean. Harlow researched Tampa and it had everything he wanted, from oceans to sunshine to a customer base that needed pest-control help. Harlow soon planted his business of pest fighting in Tampa, and he found customers through the young entrepreneurs group. 

Not just talk

One challenge for Staiber: some audiences at a few of his 15 or so speaking engagements struggle to believe "a kid" like him has had so much digital success .

But consider this: His team raised $100,000 when Tampa Entrepreneurs only needed $90,000 to put on the quarterly networking event at the Motor Enclave. (Food was actually a bigger expense than the venue rental, he notes, kicking out the numbers like an accountant.)

Staiber and team did it with the help of sponsors, some of whom had approached the founders at their networking events. One of them was Harlow, who says he always recoups his investment at the events.

Harlow says he met co-founder Simon Lerner before the first event in 2023, at a house party of sorts. Harlow was working hard and knocking on doors — and Lerner invited him to the event.

Lerner has more than 20,000 Instagram followers and word got out about the business house event. His networking house party kicked off what would become a quarterly attempt to top the last one.

Another Tampa Entrepreneurs co-founder, Ryan Horst, 29, is head of a Tampa-based cryptocurrency consulting firm. He was at the Motor Enclave event, where he spoke about Bitcoin, crypto mining, decentralized currency and more.

He too uses Instagram as a Rolodex of sorts, and has more than 7,800 followers there.

Later, Horst spoke with the Business Observer, saying he advises clients in Dubai, Argentina and Lithuania on cryptocurrency.

The young group felt they had no real impact on the Tampa area business community. But there was an opportunity, says Horst, a Tampa native, and they realized the house event succeeded in presenting an opportunity to network in ways the Chamber and the Economic Development Council likely would not.

"There was a gap here in Tampa," says Horst. "People are attracted to unique experiences."

By the third event, they landed a biggie: The team raised about $50,000 and rented a hangar at Tampa International Airport. This was the event that appeared to change things.

The hangar was loaded with nice jets and hot cars. And, again, food and drinks. A few business cards were exchanged and many more Instagram follows followed.

But then a question arose: How do we top this?

On March 14, they likely succeeded, booking the Motor Enclave's event center, attracting scores of well-dressed young people and the occasional thirtysomething or fortysomething. Present were hot cars and those rides around the track.

Watching over the crowd from the second floor, it seemed to Staiber that one thing was true: a strategy he shares with the old-school networking groups, that networking in person is fully back after a couple of years of post-pandemic caution.

"We moved so far away from in-person networking." he says, "I think we are going to go back to the way things used to be."

This story was updated to correctly reflect that Ryan Horst was not vaping at the event.


Latest News


Special Offer: Only $1 Per Week For 1 Year!

Your free article limit has been reached this month.
Subscribe now for unlimited digital access to our award-winning business news.
Join thousands of executives who rely on us for insights spanning Tampa Bay to Naples.