Startup Specialist Lakshmi Shenoy on Building in Second Tier Markets

Starting a new innovation hub is basically like founding a startup. That’s according to Lakshmi Shenoy who six months ago left her role as VP of strategy and business at 1871, a top-rated tech hub in Chicago. She's now CEO of Embarc Collective, a 30,000-square-foot coworking space set to open in Tampa Bay in March 2019.One of Shenoy’s primary goals is to ensure Embarc Collective serves the entire Tampa Bay startup community. She's passionate about expanding the typical startup mix to include underrepresented entrepreneurs, like women and people of color.Shenoy will share that passion — and a formula for engaging women entrepreneurs — during her session at BuiltTech Week this October.We caught up with Shenoy recently to get her perspective on what a startup community needs to thrive. She also shared her insights on appealing to investors. And for those entrepreneurs in AEC, she gave advice on building a tech startup in an industry resistant to change.

Give us a brief overview of your day-to-day. What are your roles and responsibilities?

I meet with startup founders every day to understand the barriers they experience as they look to scale their companies.I meet with potential partners. At the core of Embarc Collective’s thesis is a desire to remove silos. So we collaborate with organizations, services, and supporters of the entrepreneurial community. We want Tampa Bay to be a prime destination for startup talent.And then I spent a lot of time working with architects and contractors on the actual construction of our space.

What do you think startups in secondary markets need the most out of a startup center?

I think of these markets as rising stars — places with a huge amount of potential that are getting ready to grow. In the Tampa Bay region, like other markets, there's definitely a need for more access to capital.The other key thing for the Tampa Bay market is talent. People want to move to places where there's opportunity. We've got to do a great job of creating a density of opportunity to attract high-caliber talent. In the case of Tampa Bay, we've got to make sure there's not one great company that an individual can move down here to join. [We need] 20 or 100 great companies they would be interested in. We've got to be able to show them they've got options to grow one's career in that region.

If you just stop and listen, oftentimes the best insights will come to you from the customer.

As part of your discovery process, you're talking to a lot of investors. What do they want to see from an early-stage startup?

Ultimately, investors are looking to de-risk an opportunity as much as possible. To do that, investors are looking for any signs of traction. That might be a letter of intent from a potential customer. That might be an actual engagement with a customer. Anything to show that the customer is willing to pay money for the value proposition -- that there's an actual business in place.

BuiltTech Week [now Shadow Summit] focuses on startups within the AEC community. What advice would you give to a startup that's trying to disrupt a legacy industry?

I would focus on the pain points. If you're zeroing in on a true problem the industry has, the customers are going to respond to that. Truly putting yourself in the shoes of that target buyer. Even if they don't have a history of leveraging tech-oriented solutions, demonstrate you understand the challenges within their markets. That will get you ahead as you go through the sales process.If you just stop and listen, oftentimes the best insights will come to you from the customer.

You're new to the Southeast. How would you gauge the region’s startup activity?

I've been impressed by the southeast at large. There are so many great pockets of activity. Atlanta obviously has a tremendous amount of activity going on, as does the Research Triangle and Florida as a whole. Look at places like Birmingham, Chattanooga, and Nashville: there's a tremendous amount of activity happening in those metros.Each of these cities is also extremely livable. When you combine the activity with the fact that these are great places to live, the southeast as a whole becomes really compelling.

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