Tech entrepreneur comes back to Tampa to rebuild company he found two decades ago, and to spur the next generation of local innovators.
Back in the late 1980s and 1990s there was a common feeling among young people in Tampa Bay that if you wanted to make it in the world you have to leave.
That may not have been fair — or accurate — but it was how a lot of people coming out of high school and college those days felt. Among them was Byron Crowell. A Jesuit High School graduate, Crowell left Tampa in 1989 to attend the Virginia Military Institute. He later headed to California to seek his fortune.
Crowell, 51, is now back in Tampa, running a new iteration of the company he founded and helped build in California. And now that he’s back, he’s taken it as his mission to help transform the city into the kind of entrepreneurial hub that keeps people like his younger self around for the long haul.
The company he runs is Solution Publishing, now based on Rocky Point just off the Courtney Campbell Causeway. It's niche is in publishing newsletters, in the IT, human resource and business-to-business sectors. Crowell expects Solution Publishing to grow from a $2 million business to a $6 million business by next year, and for that to increase to $10 million in a few years. The company has seven employees, with plans to double the payroll by the end of the year.
Solution Publishing traces its tangled roots to 2001, when Crowell and a partner began with print publications.
But even during the early days of Solutions Publishing, Crowell knew the future was online. It was the early 2000s, he says, and the company was learning to work with emails. It eventually discovered content syndication and tried to harness all the available technology.
'I just think we need a concerted effort in the next couple of years by people that are doing this stuff to get together and try to push the envelope a little bit.' Byron Crowell, CEO and founder of Solution Publishing
“But in each case, it was iterative and not particularly scalable,” Crowell says. “In the course of all that, we had a good brand. We had IT Solutions Journal, a pretty well-established tech pub. But I always had the sense that there was a much better way to do this.”
Eventually Crowell was bought out by his partner. He stayed on as an employee, which, he now says, led “to a very difficult three or four years.”
He stayed in California until 2016, then moved to Connecticut. Through a series of fortunate and unfortunate events — including the sale, a falling out with the former partner and a family illness — Crowell found himself back in Tampa two years ago.
And then, in a sale that closed Feb. 1, he bought Solutions Publishing back. (Crowell declines to disclose the sale price.)
During the difficult years, Crowell put together plans and a strategy to relaunch the business using the technology now available. He also utilized the difficult lessons he’d learned about what it takes to build a successful organization, such as mentoring and bringing in the right people and allowing them to do their best work.
The new version of Solution Publishing opened with an in-house, in-person team operating with a startup mentality and bedrock clients it performs lead generation for that, he says, are essentially paying to relaunch the business and build out the technology.
“It’s the best of both worlds, right? We don’t have (venture capitalists) breathing down our necks and we don’t have terrible terms. And we have a customer that’s willing to pay us to do this,” Crowell says.
“For me,” he adds, “the most exciting thing is that the vision for the business has been solidified for quite a while, and we’ll be able to do that. What’s really neat is we’re going to be able to build a great team that can execute on a lot of different things beyond what we’re just building here. And that’s the longer-term vision.”
What Crowell wants is for Solution Publishing to become a company that builds products — like newsletters, online publication, video and speaker series — using aggregated content for targeted audiences. Essentially, that means the platform that’s being built will make the company smart and efficient in order to create products that are engaging, provide value and are geared toward specific industries or business sectors. This, while protecting that audience from lead generators.
“We’re determined to spend the next couple of years getting this right and changing how people are treated online,” he says. “It’s so easy to use big data to exploit interests and habits. As an industry, we have to resist that temptation and focus on delighting our users.”
As for his other mission, Crowell wants Tampa to build the kind of startup community you find in Silicon Valley and that you’re starting to see in Miami. For that to happen, he believes there needs to be a greater emphasis put on incubators, startups and venture capitalists. Tampa is already home to Florida Funders, a hybrid of a venture capital fund and an angel investor network, and Embarc Collective, a non-profit startup hub. And others in economic development and mayor's offices have talked up the region as Silicon Beach for several years.
But Tampa, Crowell says, can do more. For his part, Crowell says he’s committed to offering mentorship and building a company that’s a “launching pad” in or to make sure young people know they don’t need to go elsewhere to make it. “There’s something," he says, "about talking the talk until you can walk the walk."