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Montclair State professor explores Tampa Bay WaVe

Posted in: Musings

Tampa Bay WaVe – Filling Gaps in the Local Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

By Yanli Zhang

During the balmy weather of late January in Florida, I attended the USASBE (United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship) Annual Conference in Tampa.On the first day we visited the Tampa Bay WaVe, a co-working space/incubator with a 15,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility near downtown Tampa.

Linda Olson, the founder and president, shared with us the experience of Tampa Bay WaVe. After working with startup companies in Boston during the heady days of the dot-com boom of 2000, Linda moved to Florida for family reasons. Still excited and believing in the future of tech startups, Linda tried to create that kind of entrepreneurial community and fill in the gaps of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Florida. In 2006, she founded the predecessor of Tampa Bay WaVe, which was practically just a Meetup group of like-minded tech entrepreneurs at that time. Gradually they set up an advisory board, who met once a month discussing how they could build up the entrepreneurial community around Tampa Bay.

In sharing the lessons of how to get private sponsorship, Linda said it was important to find people who are well connected in the community. She also used the idea of contingent sponsorship to get people onboard about the idea. For example, while applying for the federal EDA funding which requires matching, she was able to secure an in-kind contribution of $300,000/year real estate value office space from the owner of the current building they reside in (which happened to be vacant 50% at that time), who was suggested by a member of the advisory board. In 2012 Tampa Bay WaVe got the $1 million federal EDA funding from the i6challenge program. This dramatically lifted the visibility of Tampa Bay WaVe in the community, and got the community excited. Interests in getting involved rolled in, which helped it recruit many mentors.

In order to manage the vast number of mentors, Tampa Bay WaVe put in some process and allowed mentors to take different roles based on their situations. Dedicated mentors are assigned to companies which require higher commitment of time; while mentors-at-large include subject experts, entrepreneurs-in-residence, and provide office hours, workshops, or just-in-time demands. MOU are signed to help set the expectations, which usually specify the time frame that mentors need to be involved (e.g. 6 months for dedicated mentors). In order to increase mentor engagement, Tampa Bay WaVe tries to recruit dedicated mentors who are genuinely interested in the companies they are mentoring, and tries to give them recognition by featuring them on the website and also providing mixers for mentors to network with each other.

Tampa Bay WaVe assesses the companies that apply and puts them into three stages: Build, Launch, and Grow. The Build stage is typically pre-revenue, very little validation, still bootstrapping, seeking around $1-100k investment; during Launch stage the company has secured some paying customers and objective validation and is typically seeking angel funding of $100k-1m; finally at the Grow stage companies will have achieved at least $1m in revenue, found product market fit, and are seeking $1m+ Series A or above funding.

Different from other incubators/accelerators out there, Tampa Bay WaVe does not take equity but charges a very low fee (about $150/year for belonging to the peer-to-peer network, $1,000 for being in the 6 month Build stage, $300-500/month for dedicated office space). However, Tampa Bay WaVe requires that the companies there devote at least 10 hours per month giving help to other companies. Another major difference from other incubators/accelerators out there is that Tampa Bay WaVe allowed the founders to work part time during the initial stage (min 2 to 4 hours per week) and consequently extended the time from 12-16 weeks for a typical accelerator to 6-18 months, since many founders have to continue to rely on a source of income before their companies take off given the availability of venture funding in the community.

Tampa Bay WaVe also has a robust internship program with nearby universities such as University of South Florida, University of Tampa, etc. Interns are recruited to work in Tampa Bay WaVe, supervised by WaVe staff, and occasionally assigned to help the resident companies. First 6 months were unpaid and after that it became paid. During the visit, we saw that quite a number of the staff there came from interns, and some interns went on to work with the companies there.

With places like Tampa Bay WaVe filling in the gaps in the local entrepreneurial ecosystem, I’m sure it will make it easier for entrepreneurs to start a business anywhere. In the end, I hope more people will be like Linda who resisted the exhortations of friends who urged her to go back to Boston to start a startup, and decide to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem in their own communities.

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