By Ramesh Sambasivan
Looking back, as Bootstrappers Breakfast Tampa Bay Area celebrates completion of a year of meaningful meetups, it is becoming clear that its success story is that of a newcomer tripping over a pressure cooker of a city that was already steaming with entrepreneurial energy that could barely be contained. Some of the participants drive close to an hour and reach early to beat the morning rush hour traffic that crawls into Tampa’s downtown district, waiting patiently for the clock to strike 8:30 a.m. when Bootstrappers Breakfast meeting begins in the Tampa Bay Area.
To keep the initial Bootstrappers Breakfast meetings in Tampa Bay Area completely free was a deliberate choice. In talking to local tech entrepreneurs I sensed the need for a forum for them to get together. It had to be nothing like they had known before. Not a forced networking event where small talk over tall beverages were the norm. An entry fee was considered desirable only to ensure that participants felt a sense of commitment that would ensure their presence after they RSVP. Sensing the pent up demand for a serious breakfast forum for startup businesses, I did not want to be bogged down with collecting fees and any related administration. I had heard about Bootstrappers Breakfast when the invaluable advice and knowledge shared by Sean Murphy on a startup forum in Philadelphia caught my attention and I became a fan. I reached out to Sean and asked what it would take to launch a Bootstrappers Breakfast in Tampa. As it turned out, luckily for me, that phone call was all it took. Sean knew me from the same forum in Philly.
Various people starting signing up for Bootstrappers Breakfast through the meetup page that had been set up for Tampa Bay Area. I selected a well known relatively new restaurant that was also home to a co-working place. It turned out to be a good choice for us starting out because it was in a central location and parking was easy, and free. My goal was to minimize all hurdles for the bootstrappers to join the breakfast meeting.
I forgot about name-tags so I grabbed some index cards from home and folded them in half, bootstrapping the name cards to be placed in front of each participant. The group’s size did not grow very fast and soon I decided not to bother with name cards. I did not want name-tags either, with the goal of making it feel different from other forced match-making events that local entrepreneurs were used to. In trying to be different I wanted to send the message that this was not just a business meeting but one where we cared enough about one another that we would try to remember one another’s names without the crutch of name tags.
By design, I also chose not to actively moderate the discussion. This helped keep the discussions more like a gathering of friends who got together to hear one another’s problems and offer suggestions or solutions. This was a self-moderated breakfast meeting of like-minded entrepreneurs with the common purpose of helping one another by listening to one another and sharing experiences as a way of suggesting solutions.
I did not actively promote the group until a little later. People found out about it through positive word-of-mouth. The fact that our last-Thursday-of-the-month meetups coincided with another one called Geek Breakfast did not help because many tech entrepreneurs could not make it to Bootstrappers Breakfast. However, those who could make it gave of themselves to the group during intense discussions over coffee and breakfast. They returned regularly, month after month. Word started getting around that this was a serious business meeting over breakfast with selfless bootstrappers helping each other.
Popularity comes with a price. We started growing to 12 or 17 participants. The breakfasts started attracting many service providers looking for startups and tech companies to sell services to. The restaurant we used also started becoming popular. We had nothing to do with it, I presume. Members strained to hear one another in the high decibel environment, but they returned for the quality of discussions and for the inevitable camaraderie after almost a year of knowing one another. Then there were the late-comers, the interrupters, the humorists, the salesmen and saleswomen that started showing up towards the end of last year. I was also told by well-meaning evangelists for Tampa’s startup ecosystem that it is important for Bootstrappers Breakfast to be a meetup located in a publicly visible manner because it is a physical manifestation of the startup buzz that the county and the city are amping up. However, the various members who are regulars at the Bootstrappers Breakfast by now had started feeling a great sense of pride in this institution that had been collectively nurtured, one breakfast at a time. They would not let this baby get drowned in the noise of the location or the unwelcome sales pitches of service providers. This baby was growing up and it was time to child-proof the house.
Starting this month, we are bringing some overdue changes. We are trying out another local mom and pop restaurant as a venue because we want to continue to support local businesses, and if possible bootstrapped ones. We wanted to address the high-decibel environment so we have found a restaurant with a free private room. It is close to a highway exit, so I believe driving to the place would not be a problem and parking, I have been assured, is ample and free during breakfast hour. The owner of the restaurant is approachable and willing to accommodate our group’s basic needs. We moved the breakfast to the last Wednesday of the month to make it easier for more technical founders of startups to attend without giving up on Geek Breakfasts. We are ready to attract more bootstrapping entrepreneurs and grow this breakfast group to benefit even more businesses. The local media has taken notice. Bootstrappers Breakfast Tampa Bay Area is considered one of the best groups for startup founders to seek and find selfless advice in running their bootstrapped businesses.
Looking at it from the driver’s seat, I am touched by the pride that the entrepreneurial community is taking in this fledgling chapter of Bootstrappers Breakfast. I am humbled by the community’s readiness and willingness to make it yet another lasting legacy for Tampa Bay Area as the city prepares to find its place on the startup map of the world. I am grateful to the moderators of Bootstrappers Breakfasts from various other cities for sharing their experiences, especially Mike Krupit of Philadelphia for sharing his experiences with me in private conversation as well as in the monthly reconnaissance calls of moderators whenever I have been able to dial in. Last but not the least, I am grateful to Sean Murphy for letting me experiment with his Silicon Valley creation and letting it soak in the Florida sun until its roots became strong enough to withstand hurricanes. Wishing all bootstrappers a healthy business and a healthy breakfast in 2014!
The author Ramesh Sambasivan cofounded iTradeFair.com, and remains active in startup circles in Philadelphia and in Tampa Bay. He is a Round Table Member of TampaBayWaVE accelerator, a Board Member and Charter Member of TiE Tampa Bay, and the Champion of CoderDojo Tampa Bay Area – a free program to teach kids to code. Once a month, he moderates Bootstrappers Breakfast® for the Tampa Bay Area.