We Are Tampa Bay: It’s Up to You Now
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I first launched We Are Tampa Bay, then known as tmpby.com, back on April 21, 2010. A new version was launched at Tampa Bay Barcamp in September of last year. It has continued to grow in size, and has well over 300 registered members from Tampa Bay. Many of you have been anxiously awaiting the T-shirts to come in stock and others have been waiting to begin posting job ads. As you have seen, I’ve simply not had the time to finish up those features and get them online.

Focus

A personal goal for me for 2012 was to refocus my efforts and reduce the number of projects I was active in. I have a lot of interests and I got myself involved in so many projects that I was not able to put enough time and effort into each of them any longer. A few months ago I shut down another of my side projects, Peepnote.com after two years, for this same reason. I’ve slowly, one by one been reassessing my commitments, both personal and career, and reducing them to my most beloved interests and passions. I believe laser like focus, coupled with passion, determination, and perseverance are the keys to accomplishing goals, and have decided that in order to do so, there will be some casualties.

I’m sorry to say, We Are Tampa Bay is the next to go. It’s been great getting to meet so many of you, and I had grand plans for what could be done with the effort. But at the same time, my strengths and passions have to do with creating and delivering technical solutions to modern day problems and challenges. We Are Tampa Bay at this point is really a social project and more than anything needs a community manager in order to become all that it can be.

The Vision

We Are Tampa Bay has reached the majority of those in its target audience who are online. At this point, to really reach out to the local technology community, HR departments need to involved  to include those not currently as active online or with community groups and meetups.

The original vision and intention of the outreach was to showcase and highlight the breadth and depth of the technology community in the Bay area. I have long believed that the community is much larger than most of us realized, but there are a few challenges it faces that must be addressed in order for the community to be recognized for what it already is, and for it to grow even stronger and larger.

First, due to the layout of the area, we are very spread out, both in geographic location, but also with the types of companies we work for, and the technologies we use. Because of this we rarely interact with each other. I spent the first half of my IT career working for larger corporations in the area, but have worked for startups for the last four years. I’ve noticed that there are many in the corporate IT world that dislike that type of job and wish they could work for smaller, more personal teams on cutting edge projects. However, they are unaware that any opportunities exist in the area for this type of work. On the flip side, there are those working freelance, or for small startups, that would prefer the stability and pay of a corporate opportunity but are unsure how to proceed with making the change to this type of work.

The two types of workers run in very different circles, and would benefit from a greater awareness of other opportunities in the area, as well as from the experiences and perspectives of a wider range of their peers.

Second, there is a growing world of “startups” in the Tampa Bay area, as there are in cities all around the country. It’s the new “sexy” for IT and it’s very enticing. It draws a lot press and a lot of attention. However, it is not the only way Tampa’s technology community will grow and in fact I don’t believe it should be the focus.

Startups don’t grow a tech community in size, unless they are very large (Github, Twitter, Facebook, etc). The average startup is usually a small size team for several years before growth. Even startups like Instagram that are purchased for a billion dollars, only had 14 employees. They bring publicity but not jobs. Larger companies in the area like IBM, Verizon, Intercontinental Hotels, Nielsen, Brighthouse, etc, have a much greater impact on the area. We also have a huge collection of Internet agencies here, and continued growth in that Industry will bring more jobs than startups will.

I’m not against startups and small tech companies, and have worked for many (WOMbeat, TourWrist, MileyCyrus), including my current contract and side projects (PeepNote, Commendable Kids, We Are Tampa Bay). I hope more are started here, and that many of them can go on to be successful. But, it’s important that we as a community do not focus too much on the startup aspect and instead focus on growth from many different areas.

In summary, the vision of We Are Tampa Bay is to encourage growth in all these areas, bring current IT workers together with each other, and highlight the work these individuals are doing all around the Bay area.

It’s Up to You Now

I’ve invested a lot of time and effort into this endeavor for the last two years but in order to pursue my next projects with full commitment and intensity, I’ll have to say goodbye to We Are Tampa Bay. Because so many of you have been encouraged by the site and believed in the vision from the beginning, I didn’t want to simply shut it down without presenting the opportunity for someone to step up and become the community manager and take over the site.

I will be happy to turn it over 100% to someone who I believe understands the vision and wants to see it continue. There are a couple of conditions to my willingness to turn it over. First, it has to be someone I’m convinced will commit to it. Second, I’m going to be 100% off the project. This means I cannot continue to support it from a technical standpoint either. The site is currently in Ruby on Rails and hosted for free on Heroku. I have no problem with the site being redeveloped and relaunched using another technology, but either way, I will not be able to spend any time on supporting the current application. Lastly, it has to happen quickly. If someone does not step up who fits these requirements and wants to run We Are Tampa Bay by August 1st, I will be closing down the site.

So spread the word and discuss it among yourselves. Contact me with questions if you have any. Perhaps, We Are Tampa Bay will continue, perhaps not, but it was a great adventure that produced some wonderful memories for me.

Unify behind a vision you can believe in, and change the world
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These days it seems that everyone has their sights set on creating their own startup with their own idea. I think its why 37 signals has been unable to sell their successful and money-making Sortfolio site. Everyone thinks they have a better idea; a sure way to make Instagram-like billions or have their moment of fame and celebrity status.

I wonder how many will die having held out for their own ideas instead of joining forces with like minded individuals, and by the power of a unified and focused team, created something truly world changing?

“It is amazing how much people can get done if they do not worry about who gets the credit.” –Sandra Swinney

“Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” –Vince Lombardi

Your playing small does not serve the world
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Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others

Note: this quote has been falsely attributed to Nelson Mandela but is actually from Mariane Williamson’s ‘A Return to Love’.

The Coworking Challenge
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My definition for the current direction of coworking.

random strangers choosing to sit shoulder to shoulder with each other in distracting awkwardness, with the overwhelming feeling of obligation to engage in witty banter

It’s ironic, but through my entire IT career it was a constant complaint of employees when they got stuck in a room with or in close proximity to a coworker. The #1 reason to get promoted in the corporate world was getting your own office, whether for designers, PM, devs, etc. Now everyone wants to sit shoulder to shoulder with a bunch of strangers.

The problem with coworking is first and foremost the definition of work. Sometimes work requires collaboration. When it does, working closely with others is far more productive than remote work. But this requires you to cowork with the people on your actual project, not people working on a completely different project with a different company.

The opposite of collaborating, which is the bulk of most work, necessitates you being alone. It’s head down, get things done work. For this you need isolation. Coworking is a total fail for this kind of work. You can’t do pomodoro quality work when you feel obligated to socialize or collaborate. If you aren’t doing this type of focused work, well, you aren’t getting much done.

I think what most people mean when they say cowork, is socializing with peers during work hours. As much fun as this is, it’s not work. Save it for breakfasts, lunches, meetups, and after hours. There are enough distractions in a day as it is without sitting next to someone you rarely see who you enjoy talking to.

Back before there were coworking spaces, I frequently coworked with a friend at Panera Bread. This was back before anyone else was doing it. We were the only two there and using their wifi. We would frequently get asked about it by customers and employees. They were so puzzled as to what we were doing in a restaurant with our laptops. It was the glory days; the benefits of being a pioneer. No shortage of electrical outlets! Within a year, the plugs were impossible to get, the wifi was turned off at lunch and the fun was just gone. Though at least customers stopped walking by us staring in confusion and sometimes judgement.

During those early times of “coworking”, we actually worked. We would sit next to each other for hours without speaking. We stopped for lunch and talked only then, and after, dove right back into isolated work. I don’t see that any more. I see people gathering to do 50% work and 50% talk. That just isn’t effective. We’d be better off separating our social time from our work time. It would make us more effective at both.

I’ve been looking into another solution, in hopes of launching it in the Safety Harbor area, that would solve the desire for “coworking”, and the need to be around others, but remove the distracting nature of what occurs today. Hopefully I can find the right place and the funding to give it a shot.

PeepNote: The Rumble, the Startup, and now…the Conclusion
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The Team and the Challenge

I first launched PeepNote, a contact and relationship management tool for Twitter, in 2009, during the Rails Rumble. I was interested in participating in the 48 hour development competition, both for the challenge of creating an app in that short amount of time, and for the focused opportunity to launch a startup. Launching a startup can be a difficult thing to do when you are working a full time job, but focusing on this competition provided a specific deadline for motivation, a team of four to get the work done, and a set aside time with extra incentive to do the work.

At the time, I already had my best friend since age 7, Steven Pothoven, as a co-developer, but needed a designer. I had decided that unless I could find a top designer for the project, I would pull out of the competition. For me, design is a crucial part of any functional app. It’s not the most important part, but I believe its important enough for the success of an online service, that I would never consider launching one without a design expert on the team.

It was not easy to find someone. I attended the Front End Design Conference in 2009 in St. Petersburg and put the word out that I was looking for a designer. I wanted one from Tampa, but sadly, there just weren’t many in this area at the time who had experience with applications.

It was coming down to the wire and I was getting nervous, but then I met a fantastic designer online: Josh Hemsley. We chatted online, and not only did he accept the challenge to be on the team, but he ended up participating on my team in the 2010 Rumble as well for Commendable Kids and also designed the original We Are Tampa Bay and my personal blog. After adding Josh to the team, I also asked Linda Olson, (we were working together on Wombeat.com at the time) to assist with testing, content writing, and the creation of a demo video. The team was set, and there would be many long hours to prepare prior to the actual 48 hour competition.

Why PeepNote?

At the time, Twitter was still in the early adopter stage, and I was struggling to keep track of the new people I was meeting online. I wanted to be able to take notes on those I followed, remember why I followed them, where I first met them, etc, and to tag them for easy sorting. I also wanted to be able to search my notes and their bios, and create Twitter lists from those tags. It was out of this personal need that the PeepNote idea originated. The team was set, the idea formed, and we spent the next month planning out how we would go about building it in just 48 hours.

The Competition

At the time, I had years of experience managing the creation of online software services in Java and for large multi-million dollar companies, as well as a few years as a Ruby on Rails developer for the Miley Cyrus web sites. I had been an amateur entrepreneur since I was a child, but had never launched a small “startup”, and particularly not in such a short time frame. It was a fun challenge to complete so much work in such a little time. My number one goal wasn’t to win, but was to illustrate just how much could be accomplished with proper planning, a strong team, a competent product development manager, and the Ruby on Rails web development framework.

237 teams competed worldwide, with only 137 actually finishing on time and able to submit their entry. Of those, 22 were selected by an expert panel to enter the final round of public voting. PeepNote was selected as one of the finalists and after public voting finished, we were 8th. It was also picked as one of the best by Mashable. We were tired after 48 hours of building, but it was well worth the effort, and the experience was priceless both in memory and in the experience gained.

In the end, the majority of comments both from voters and from judges was that they could not believe how much we had accomplished in just 48 hours. Mission Accomplished.

To Startup or Not to Startup?

After the Rumble we were flying high. The judges comments, finishing in the top ten, the numerous write ups online, all encouraged us to continue with PeepNote post-Rumble. At first we were polishing things we had to skip during the Rumble, changing some things we were forced into by the time constraints. Then we began adding other functionality to make the app more enticing. As time went on, our designer had to move on to other things, and my co-developer could not spend the extra time in the evenings that I was able to. I spent the majority of nights for the next year improving PeepNote. The catch was, however, that at even 10 hrs a week of extra time, beyond my family obligations and more-than-full-time job, it would take me 16 weeks to duplicate the time spent during the Rumble from 4 full time people. It was slow, and I was only product building at this point.

As time went on, I lost site of the big picture. I was heads down building, but so busy with everything else that I wasn’t paying attention to what customers wanted, or even more importantly, to who my customers actually were. I continued to be emboldened by users comments, and even comments from some other successful founders and investors. I knew I had something, but the time burn was intrusive in life, and yet was resulting in very slow progress, and certainly no money.

We finally released the pro plan. It was the first attempt to make money from all these people that loved the service. But no one converted, at least not for a long time. As I began interacting more with potential customers I realized that my target audience was not what I thought it was. It wasn’t people like me who were heavily using Twitter for career networking and wanted to keep track of how I met people and what I knew about them. Instead, the only people that would pay for the service were companies. Companies that wanted to use it to track potential customers; a CRM.

At this point I began to pivot but the functionality set this new target audience wanted was drastically different from what I’d just spent the last year working on and I was burned out. We had some larger companies interested in using it, “if only we could add…”. At 10-15 hrs a week at most, that wasn’t easy to do. I realized the only way to turn this into a real business would be to invest money; substantial money. I needed more developers and a designer in order to respond to what what could make money. Then, to make matters worse, Twitter changed the API, and all the features of the Pro plan stopped working. I was faced with the need to rewrite a huge portion of the functionality in order to continue.

At this point, I reviewed the numbers and they didn’t look good. At what I thought I could charge, combined with a smaller niche audience, it didn’t give me confidence that the return on investment would be worth it. Even more importantly, the entire project was missing a crucial element: my passion. The passion was gone. For months I had no idea why. This was what I had wanted wasn’t? I built a product that users loved and were using. I was proud of it. In the end though, that just isn’t enough. I had no free time to do what I wanted, and since the 2009 Rumble I now had other applications I wanted to work on (like Commendable Kids). I also had no passion for working with it as a CRM and with the new target audience. That wasn’t why I had gotten into it in the first place, and the pivot had turned it into something I could no longer find easy motivation to do. I had to fight to make myself work on it.

In the end, PeepNote was never a startup. It was a side project, a fun challenge, and I learned more from the experience than from any conference I ever attended, any book I’ve ever read or any class I’ve ever taken. But it was never a startup. That word gets thrown around so easily these days as if every side project in IT is automatically a startup. Long before the Internet ever made anyone a penny there were hundreds of thousands of IT side projects. No one ever referred to them as a startup. For some reason today, almost everyone labels their side projects a startup. To me, its not a startup unless the primary goal is the making of money and you are attempting to do so. As well, you must be investing not just your time but your money. If you aren’t willing to take out a loan to invest into it, and you aren’t actively attempting to convert people to paying customers, you are just having fun with a side project. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. The more honest you can be with yourself, the more heartache you will save and the less time you will waste.

I know its not sexy to have a side project. I know having a “startup” sounds so cool, particularly when you can put it on your blog, tweet about it, and attend conferences where you can identify yourself as a founder. But if you aren’t building it with sound business principles, you’re a fraud. I say that, not to crush your dreams, but to free you from using it as a crutch. Today, its become accepted that everyone has a startup and no one expects any of them to actually make money. But when we do this, we do a disservice to the entire startup community and we lower our own expectations. It would be far better if we all started with side projects, powered by passion. Build it, share it, tweak it, and gather feedback. If you have aspirations to make money from it, interact with the early adopters and ask them straight up, if they would pay for the service and how much they would pay for it.

You’ll have to go all in if you want to make the move from side project to startup. You’ll have to sacrifice your hobbies, any other fun projects, and certainly your own money. As well, beware, the bulk of time needed to be spent for a startup, vs. a side project, will be customer acquisition and communication. If you love to build projects first and foremost, you probably aren’t going to have great success turning it into a profitable startup. Most people I talk to, developers and designers a like, believe that 90% of the work is building the product. I would say that 90% of the work of a startup comes post build, which is why building the smallest possible product is crucial. You must get to that 90% of work as soon as possible to save you a long year of sleepless nights building something no one is ever going to pay for. Don’t do like I did and spend a full year building before you find out who is willing to pay for it and what they are going to want it to do in order to spend their money.

The Conclusion

As a side project, PeepNote was a complete success. It worked, it looked good, it was usable, and people have used it since 2009. I have aspirations, however, far beyond that. I’m a builder and a creator by nature, but also a business man who wants the things I create to profit. For me, the two have to go hand in hand. I have another venture or two that I’d like to focus all of my time on, and so because of that, PeepNote will be closing next month. The journey for this side project has come to an end. If you have data on the site, you will need to make a copy of it within the next 30 days, before we shutdown the service. It’s been a great ride, with a lot of great memories. We appreciate all the support and kind words we’ve received and I will never regret any of it, even the mistakes. The entire experience was invaluable and will make my next venture far more likely to transition from side project to a startup.

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