What is the value of having co-working and collaborative spaces in a downtown?
Companies that come out of incubation typically aren't necessarily ready for a full commitment of an office space and particularly, coming out of COVID, they are uncertain about the future economic forecast. So first and foremost, what co-working spaces have offered is flexibility—they are shorter term leases, they're smaller spaces, but you can still have multiple independent offices. It provides these growing businesses more agility than they might have in a standard office lease.
An additional advantage of these spaces is they bring together like-minded individuals or like-minded companies that may benefit from exchanges of connections, resources or opportunities to grow their businesses. If you are in a dedicated office off by yourself, how are you meeting peers? How are you overhearing a conversation about a mutually beneficial piece of technology? Or perhaps meeting a client of a “coworking neighbor” who could also work with your company in some capacity? I have seen “hallway conversations” progress into collaborations and idea sharing that just would not have happened organically without sharing physical space.
Co-working has become a tool for networking and our city is demonstrating that you can't have too much of that right now. It is even more valuable when the tenants are curated, meaning you are intentional about who you put together—seeking out placements based on higher probability that they are going to find ways to work together.
How do companies benefit from being in a market that supports entrepreneurship?
There are three levels of entrepreneurship that I’m seeing—you have the student level through schools and universities, you have what we talk about occurring within the collaborative spaces and incubation programs, and then you have what I am seeing more of since COVID—entrepreneurship within companies. In my experience, companies locally are very open to finding new clients, new applications and new ideas that stay true to their brand but explore new uses. For example, “I have this device. This is how it has always been used but I believe there are other ways it could be beneficial. Let’s explore those.” This can originate from a designated role like a Director of Innovation, from an employee-sourced pitch fest, or even an after hours social conversation that sparks an idea.
In the Innovation District, we really push this idea that people do not have to limit or think of their jobs in a certain way and we can facilitate the cross-discipline introductions to make it happen. We’re really investing in this idea of internal entrepreneurship and it is a big asset to companies because it keeps employees engaged in and curious about what’s going on.
What are the biggest challenges that you see for entrepreneurs right now?
One of the biggest challenges is understanding our entrepreneurial ecosystem. We have incredible resources—new and longstanding. As an entrepreneur, however, navigating and finding all those resources is tough; many resources are geared or designed to serve a particular type of entrepreneur or venture. I have seen entrepreneurs, get very frustrated at what they see as a lack of help, when in reality the source they are appealing to does not serve their specific needs.
Traditionally financing has been a challenge. I am not hearing that as much right now. Private investors are getting interested in tech and are coming forward and national funds that are looking at Florida-based companies now. There are always funds available if you’re willing to give up equity, but many don’t want to.
Tell me about the ARK Innovation Center.
At the core, it’s a really interesting collaboration that in itself is symbolic of where we are in supporting entrepreneurship. The city donated the land, it is County-built, the operator is a non-profit, (Tampa Bay Innovation Center), and the naming rights were sponsored by a private company (ARK Invest). The fact that you have all these entities at the table making the first purpose-built facility for entrepreneurs in our community—one that will serve as an incubator with accelerator programs, and space for companies who want to get involved with entrepreneurs—that's powerful. The infusion of the ARK team’s research capabilities with the TBIC’s deep understanding of the ecosystem will help propel entrepreneurial activities in a way we haven’t seen before.
Complete this sentence. Downtown St. Pete is a place to _____.
Enjoy the small town feel with big town. I used to say we had big town aspirations, but I think we've achieved that; but we haven’t lost that community feel. You'll still run into your buddy in the coffee shop and you'll still see someone in the grocery store. The depth of talent, jobs and work happening here—it’s big city stuff.