What does it take to launch a successful startup? More than a village

Alex Abell

They say, “It takes a village to raise a child,” and for many startup entrepreneurs, myself included, the company is our baby. In order to protect it from harm and help it grow, you must make impossible decisions every single day about who to trust, what steps to take, and when to make crucial decisions to get your company to the next stage of development.  

Mentors: The More the Merrier

At Lunchpool, we recognized that the best way to ensure startup success is to not just let one village help raise your baby, but multiple. What does that mean? It means connecting with the different collectives, organizations, and individuals who form a vast network of people with goals which align with yours.

This connection with the various organizations is what makes us such fervent advocates of launching Lunchpool in Tampa Bay. Between the fast hustle, financial soundness, and generally airtight business acumen of Tampa, to the focus on the arts, sustainability, foodie culture and of course, taking a break on the beach in St. Petersburg/Clearwater.

A Tale of Two Cities

Hillsborough/Pinellas is the perfect blend of business and art that has already rocketed us to unbelievable early traction. The terms “diversity” and “inclusion” seem to be everywhere these days. It’s rare that you hear a presentation or a keynote without a well-intentioned CEO or other exec using these words to reference their company culture.

You can say the words as many times as you want, but until you start actually practicing what you preach, you aren’t going to have a thriving, buzzing culture in the company, community, or ecosystem you’re trying to build. One thing is for sure – these terms are more than just buzzwords in Tampa Bay, and it’s part of the reason we are one of the most attractive markets to grow your organization.

Our First Village – Techstars Crew – An organization dedicated to helping people ignite their passion for startup life

A Startup Hackathon Brought Us Together

Our journey as a startup happened serendipitously. Team Lunchpool was at a Techstars Startup Weekend event. Every member of the team had a corporate job, and we were all feeling the impending burnout of a world that doesn’t encourage employees to take meaningful and rejuvenating breaks.

The first village that helped us bring our baby into existence was the Startup Tampa Bay crew. Allison Barkley, Gracie Leigh Stemmer and team are so passionate about helping entrepreneurs get a taste of what startup life is like that they volunteer countless hours putting on events like the Startup Weekend Tampa Bay event we won and the Startup Week event that we placed in the Top 3!

Their hustle is infectious, and all their efforts show that there is an inclusive network of people who want to see others succeed.

Hooked Up With A Winning Pitch Template

To really highlight the level of support and collaboration at these events, just look to another competing team at the event that was being led by Jonathan Truong from Verapy. He stopped by to check out what we were doing, and shared a pitch template he had on hand and had used to place in a previous competition.  What other place than Tampa do you see competitors actively helping one another?

The Second Village – KnowBe4 – A Leading Cyber-Security Company with Tremendous Soul

Tampa Bay Times’ Best Place to Work

The second village that we interfaced with was the amazing team at KnowBe4. You want to talk about a strong culture? They recently won “Top Place to Work in Tampa Bay” for the fourth time in a row and it’s because they really embrace the principles of diversity and inclusion. At the startup weekend event, Kelly Barrena, their Director of Talent Outreach (Reach out to her on Linkedin – They’re hiring!), sat next to me before the initial Startup Weekend event even began.

She saw me sitting alone, and came to chat with me. She explained that her company was the premiere sponsor, and she wished me luck and even urged me to pitch an idea!

KnowBe4’s Impressive Executive Team

Soon after, I was coordinating with her to set up a meeting with her executive team at KnowBe4 to talk about our app. Having won first place, they were eager to give us advice on progressing our startup to the next level. We got to meet with accomplished entrepreneur, Stu Sjouwerman, to discuss how he grew his team from a dream to almost 700 employees at the time of this writing in a short number of years.

In that meeting with their Chief Product Officer, Chief Architect, CTO and CEO, they even offered to let us beta test our app with their company. It was like a dream come true.  

Survey Confirmation That People Want to Connect

We did some initial testing, and our hypothesis was confirmed – even the company with the strongest culture in Tampa Bay could still use some help getting people connected with one another and going out to lunch away from their desks.

The following weeks were a whirlwind of activity. Between juggling our professional commitments at our 9-to-5’s and working relentlessly on our app during our 6-11 (and sometimes later/earlier), we came across even more villages that would help us

The Hyperconnection Stage – Tampa Bay’s Multiverse of Amazing Entrepreneur Support Villages

Our First Attempts at Lunchpooling

Coming out of the original Techstar’s Startup Weekend event, we reached out to the judges of the competition to try lunchpooling with them. The first lunch we scored was with Brian Kornfeld. I met with Brian and learned that he is not only a verified rocket scientist, but also a passionate advocate of creating an atmosphere of innovation in Tampa Bay and Florida at large.

A true helper and connector, at our lunch in Tampa’s historic Colombia restaurant, Brian suggested we exhibit at his event with over 5000 attendees happening in a few short weeks, Synapse Innovation Summit.

The Power of Lunch Brought Us to Synapse Summit

We were featured as the top 8 most impressive booths out of almost 300 vendors. Brian would also become a trusted mentor and advisor, which led to a meeting with Marc Blumenthal and learning about the VC/Angel hybrid Florida Funders organization and how they are trying to transform the state to the startup state from the sunshine state.

We also lunchpooled with Steven Waskey from Atlas, who was a mentor at the Startup Weekend event. He was fascinated by the work we were doing, and agreed to meet after the competition for lunch at Zydeco in Ybor City. During that lunch, I felt an immediate connection and knew I could learn a lot from this CEO. He explained the importance of balance and how he saw himself as a “servant leader” who had to constantly earn his right to lead and direct his team to the next success.

Connecting and Riding “The Wave”

There’s the Entrepreneur cowork space and accelerator the Tampa Bay Wave – where Jr Griggs & Lindsey Brenner from Red Wall Marketing would help us score our first facebook live event. You might also know them as the immensely talented lead organizers behind Startup Week Tampa Bay in 2019.

The practice of lunchpooling also brought us our first trusted advisor, Dr. Richard Munassi, and we met with him at the Attic Restaurant that’s right above Tampa Bay Wave in Downtown Tampa.

That meeting we were also joined by Erik Maltais whose company had just secured a large deal with a Fortune 100 company. I asked questions about venture capital and startup journeys as he advised me of an amazing approach to equity splits called Slicing Pie. He also led us to one of our early media pieces with the prestigious Grit Daily publication.

Future Potential Villages – E2 Generations and Club Savor and Embarc Collective

Networking with Technology Professionals Versed in Startups

There was a chance call with Tyler Kelly from Pitch Madness and E2 Gens. Early on, when we were still trying to figure out who we were, and he immediately “got it”. He explained how our solution could help break down divisional silos and start building cultures of inclusion and unheard-of productivity – resulting in a truly connected workforce who know each other on a personal level.

From there we had a follow-up lunch with their marketing VP, Edward, won $5000 in credits in a drawing they did, and are currently working with their CEO, Kyle, in a consultatory capacity to ensure our tech plan is sound and set for scale.

Continued Connection with Local Business Leaders

I could go on and on about all the chance meetings and connections that doing business in Tampa Bay has allowed us to experience.  I could talk about Stacy Waite and how she introduced us to Roger Curlin from dining membership club, Club Savor, and how he is exploring ways to help make us more successful.

I could speak about Kiki Roeder and how she advised our co-founder, Pooja, on the importance of making sure the team has solid goals that they are working towards as well as how advisory boards work and their successes and pitfalls.

Since then, we have turned some of that advice into action. We have started having quarterly planning sessions one-on-one with our team. We are  making sure we’re all getting the most out of this amazing experience and learning and supporting each other along the way.

Additionally, I could speak on the meeting I had with Embarc Colllective’s Dan and Allie and about how they want to re-engage after our pilot. They also encouraged us to apply for the $100k Rise of the Rest Pitch Competition. The Embarc Team is building a collective and physical space to further this kind of serendipity and magic that Tampa is fast becoming known for.

Practicing What We Preach – The Power of Lunch Discovered at Rising Tide

Escaping the Dreaded Startup Slump

The magic we were feeling early on was followed by a hard-hitting slump. After some internal introspection, we realized we weren’t eating our own dog food. We were facing communication issues as a team, and engagement levels were dying down. We decided that we had to also have lunches, coffees, and breaks with one another to grow and learn together.

We really hit our stride when we started hanging out in St Pete and found a home with co-working space for innovators and change-makers, Rising Tide Innovation Center. Community manager, Ginger,  and Marketing & Operations Director, Brooke Beeler, have become fast Lunchpool friends. Brooke’s initial blog post gave the team a surge of energy that would propel us to prep for our initial pilot launches. It was at Rising Tide that I met with Bill at Isocrates and Jessica Moore and their digital first Friday events.

The Connections Keep Coming

I could go on and on listing the many individuals and organizations that have helped us since we started earlier this year. While I’m 100% sure I’m missing out on some of the villages or tribes that have helped us get to where we are today, I know that I will have an opportunity to help them all out soon! That’s the power of the network here: while some communities are “dog eat dog” Tampa Bay is very much a “dog feed dog” type of place.

It’s a community where people will connect you with others, give without wanting anything in return, and collaborate just for the sake of helping strengthen the community as a whole. I want to close by telling how this village of villages in Tampa Bay inspired us to embark upon a very different type of growth strategy.

Our Growth Strategy – In, Then Out

At Lunchpool, we plan to scale in a completely different way. While we ultimately want to grow to reach as many people as possible, we are focusing on maximizing our effectiveness at home first. We are focusing on sustainability and quality growth to benefit the communities and villages that have already helped us so much.

We want to completely saturate Tampa Bay and put it on the map as the place that really knows how to BREAK. From lunch breaks to breaking barriers, breaking old ways of doing business, and breaking through to the next wave of innovation. There really is no village of villages quite like Tampa Bay, and we look forward to showing Tampa Bay how powerful Breaking together can be.

The Powerful Connectors highlighted above

Other Powerful Individual Connectors

  • Merle Benny, 1 Million Cups St. Petersburg – Not only did Merle consistently urge us to pitch at her community event that happens every week at the St. Pete Greenhouse, she also has become a fast friend and ally. Her feedback and advice has been instrumental into our success.
  • Jeff Fudge, High Tech Connect – his high tech connect event is growing at a crazy rate and he let us come out and exhibit and pitch alongside companies like IBM and Jabra.
  • Ebony Vaz, Above Promotions – After Startup Weekend, we had lunch at The Bunker in Ybor and she hooked us up with not just one, but two opportunities to pitch our idea to powerful people of influence at Startup Week.
  • Lauren Coffey, Tampa Bay Business Journal – One of the first media pieces we had written was in the Tampa Bay Business Journal by Lauren. She has been such a friend to startups, covering the successes and victories in the community. She even recently got her own publication, Tampa Bay Inno.
  • Margie Manning, St. Pete Catalyst – Interviewing us onsite at Synapse Summit, the St. Pete Catalyst Team is highlighting early stage and experienced startups making real change in the area.
  • Carlos Hernandez, CarlosEats.com – a popular writer with a passion for startups and good food. He wrote an article about our mission, and showed us an amazing local spot for authentic Cuban sandwiches.
  • Vinny Tafuro, The Institute for Economic Evolution – Another passionate entrepreneur and radical local personality, Vinny has lunchpooled with us a few times now and is building a culture-shifting institute to change modern economics as we know it.
  • Phil Michaels, Tembo Education – Introduced by Vinny, Phil has a success story with origins similar to ours. Tembo Education brings education to students around the globe using mobile technology. A product of a startup competition, they’ve achieved great success over the last few years. Their CEO, Phil, gave us incredibly powerful advice on connecting with local markets.
  • Joelle Paban, Joelle Paban & Associates / EA Direct Connect – In a chance meeting while waiting in the lobby of Florida Funders, we connected with Joelle before she ventured off to start her own EA Staffing company. She invited us out to connect with a local meetup group of the coolest EA’s in Tampa Bay – many of top Tampa companies like Metlife, TECO Energy, and Bristol Myers Squibb.
  • Tracy Ingram, Intention Technology – A passionate advocate of the local startup community, Tracy is building a real life Star Trek Tricorder-like device. He told us about all the local government and other institutional resources available to a startup like ours. He showed us Innovation Partners and how we can get help finding and hiring top tech talent in the area. Sign up for the TechHire program to get help finding your next tech talent here: tampatechjobs.com
  • Tim Moore, Diamondview – Hands down, one of the best video production studio in Tampa Bay. Recently winning an emmy for a video project they completed highlighting the impact of PTSD, Tim and team are passionate about preserving team culture and we’re working on a top secret project with them in the coming months.
  • Brooke Boyd, Hype Group – Hosting us for a pizza party, we talked about how to break barriers in corporate environments. Another of our favorite agencies in the area, Brooke & Team have an aesthetic and appeal that is unrivaled.

And lastly, a member from beyond our local network, June Holley – whose free resources about network weaving have inspired and infused life to our core mission of connecting people.

There are definitely others that I’ve missed here, and my inability to record everyone is indicative of just how connected, collaborative and far-reaching the community of communities is within Tampa Bay. If you’re thinking of bringing life to your own startup, I urge you to consider raising your baby here if you want it to really thrive.


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