Monthly Archives: June 2019


Featured Founder: Vikas Bhatia of JustProtect

Welcome to our Featured Founder series, where you’ll meet startup founders from Tampa-St. Petersburg who are building and scaling their ventures to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. We interviewed Vikas Bhatia, Founder and CEO of JustProtect, a regulatory compliance management platform that simplifies the distribution and response of internal and 3rd party risk assessments.


What were you doing previously and what inspired you to launch your company?

I’ve been in the enterprise cybersecurity and compliance world for almost 20 years. I spent 15 years in corporate, then decided to set up my own successful firm. I realized the hard way that people don’t like paying for consulting but that an assessment was critical to becoming compliant and secure! My (personal) mission is to secure cyberspace one human at a time, so what better way than to simplify compliance assessments — making them super scalable and so easy my mother-in-law could do it! (sorry Mom!) Also, growing a business around my family inspires me every day!


What pain point is your company solving? What gets you excited to go to work every day?

Regulated enterprises are required to perform and respond to risk assessments internally and assess the risk of their 3rd parties. The smaller guys, i.e. startups, may not focus on compliance until it impacts a sale. The average assessment takes 6 weeks, it is expensive for both parties and highly ineffective. JustProtect facilitates enterprise assessments in less than 2 days and we give startups all the tools necessary to accelerate assessment response for free. Getting thanks from our customers and knowing we’re challenging the status quo is very exciting!


Name the biggest challenge you faced in the process of launching the company. How did you overcome it?

Personally, JustProtect was a product of a failed business. Convincing Jen, my wife, to let me try the business again was very hard. Ultimately, belief in the vision and constantly communicating incremental wins bought me more time! From a business perspective bootstrapping and not being able to raise has presented some real challenges. That being said, if you have belief in what you’re doing, and can be resourceful anything is possible.


Where do you see your company headed next?

We are micro-focused on scaling so gathering ROI data, customer references and accelerating marketing and sales efforts will put us on track for a raise as well as position us for growth mode. On a personal note, I'm headed from NYC to Tampa next so we couldn’t be more excited about the move!


Give us a tactical piece of advice that you'd share with another founder just starting out.

  1. Talk to as many people with the pain as possible to identify their pain point and the value you can bring. Quantifying this is huge!
  2. Build later. although it's a double edge sword building too early means carrying too much tech debt
  3. Don’t underestimate the power of the network...use us!


Learn more about JustProtect on  LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook



Keep up with the latest in Tampa Bay startup news, local talent interviews and founder resources.
Delivered to your inbox every Thursday.


Embarc Collective to Connect Local Startups with Nationwide Networks


Tampa Bay Innovation Hub Unveils Unique Approach to Collaborating With Key Local and National Partners

We help Tampa Bay startup talent build bold, scalable, thriving companies. The startups we support have a mindset toward scaling globally, so we needed to ensure that we've built in that connectivity from a support standpoint from the start. Knowing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, we have partnered with impactful organizations from around the world to help us do so.

Through listening to the needs of startup founders and their teams, we've gathered data points that have dictated our approach to building relationships and seeking partnerships, focused on three core components:


Connectivity Beyond Tampa Bay

High-growth companies can now start and scale anywhere, not just in a few coastal cities. Our partner organizations like GSVlabs, Nashville Entrepreneurship Center, and Loeb.atl are backing up this thinking. Whether we are swapping best practices, sharing office space for our member companies to conduct investor meetings, or facilitating introductions, our national partners are aligned on helping startups succeed—no matter where they are headquartered. By being a member of one organization, you can receive value from an entire global network.


Strength as a State

We may not be the size of a market like New York City or San Francisco as a standalone city, but as a statewide collective, Florida demonstrates tremendous support. Founders can attend conferences like eMerge Americas in Miami, meet with customers through Synapse's reach in Central Florida, or pitch the Florida Venture Forum investor network in Sarasota, Naples, and West Palm Beach. Given our rising rank as one of the most popular states for migration growth, we must align on strong collaboration to be competitive with other startup destinations.


Local Collaboration

When building a startup, your success is determined by more than just your own team and capabilities. It takes a solid network of support behind the scenes. We lean on the power of local accelerator programs like the Tampa Bay Wave, colleges and universities, and economic development organizations such as the Florida Business Development Corporation (FBDC), which allow us to focus on the consistent and tailored support we deliver. Through local collaborations, we can begin to reduce silos and more easily and effectively connect resources within our community to the entrepreneurs that need them.

Even before our space opens, Embarc Collective has been working to ensure that Tampa Bay's startup community has access to the relevant resources required to scale.

  • Read our report on the state of connectivity in Tampa Bay.
  • View our Southeast Capital Landscape, a comprehensive list of capital providers of venture-backed startups in the Southeast US region.
  • Lastly, if you're interested in discussing collaboration opportunities, please reach out.


See Press Release



Keep up with the latest in Tampa Bay startup news, local talent interviews and founder resources.
Delivered to your inbox every Thursday.


4 Paid Search Tips to Boost Your Startup’s Visibility

It’s no secret paid search campaigns are effective ways to drive prospective customers to your website or encourage current customers to return. Reaching ideal audiences as they turn to search engines to find products, services or answers related to your solution is the whole gist of paid search. While that’s a fairly simple breakdown of the paid search concept, implementation is where things get tricky. Moreover, since it’s not a set it and forget it tactic, constantly tweaking paid search campaigns is essential for getting the best return on investment.

Perhaps you have already launched a few paid search campaigns, crossing your fingers your startup will hit the highly-coveted first or second spot on a search result page. But achieving paid search success through Google Ads or Bing Ads isn’t a matter of luck – even though it might feel like it when you launch your first couple of campaigns.

Read the four tips below to take the guesswork out of paid search campaigns and make them an instrumental part of your startup’s marketing strategy.


1) Start with Compelling Copy

If you’re not excited about the words describing your product, service or startup, how can you expect potential customers to be? Your ad copy should be compelling while also including at least one keyword. Keeping your message short and simple is really your only option because of character limits, so each word should count. Let readers know why your product or service beats the competition. Don’t forget a specific Call-to-Action (CTA) encouraging the reader to fill out a form, order now, download a guide or complete another measurable action.

Bonus Tip: Google will reject ads using copy that doesn’t adhere to editorial guidelines and spelling requirements. For example, “buy flowers” would probably be acceptable, but Google would most likely reject “buy f l o w e r s.” See more information on Google’s advertising policies here.


2) Use Your Own Audience Data to Increase Return

In today’s world of “big data,” advertisers pay big bucks to use collected cookie data to target audiences based on their online behavior and interests. But many startups and corporations forget they already have the relevant information to target some of the best potential customers by utilizing their own website visit data, email database and more.

By setting up these audiences with Remarketing Lists for Search Ads (RLSA), you’re able to optimize bids for those users who have already shown intent, and therefore are more likely to convert.

Bonus Tip: You can take you current audience data and turn it into similar audiences. A similar audiences list is created from a remarketing list with at least 1,000 cookies with enough similarity in search behavior to create a corresponding similar audience. Learn more about it here.

3) Implement Effective Ad Extensions

Make your ad really shine on Google with Ad Extensions. With 10 extension types now available, there are more ways than ever to enhance your standard ad copy and provide more information about your products or services. Ad extensions can make ad copy more prominent, feature reviews, offer click-to-call and click-to-text options and more.

A lot of people just add a few quick sitelink extensions and call it a day, but that’s like having access to a whole toolbox to build a house and only using the hammer. Ad Extensions also increase the size of your ad, which helps increase your Click Through Rate (CTR), while potentially pushing competitors lower on the search engine results page.


4) Uncover New Opportunities in Search Query Data

About 15 percent of Google search queries have never been seen by the search engine. It’s not mathematically possible to have every keyword variation included in your campaign. That’s why search query/term review should be the number-one routine optimization you should be completing.

Since there are so many potential search query variations, using Broad and Phrase match keywords help to catch those long-tail keywords. Unless these are added to the campaign, you’ll never be able to optimize your bids for the search queries that are actually converting. It’s essential to use a multiple match strategy (Broad, Phrase, Exact) to ensure you have complete coverage.

Bonus Tip: In addition to using Broad, Phrase, Exact phrase matching, you should be filtering out irrelevant search queries by adding negative keywords. This prevents your campaigns from getting unwanted clicks.


Like most online marketing tools and strategies, running paid search campaigns comes with a learning curve. And with over half of all Internet ad spend coming from paid search, most businesses have at least dabbled in the practice. By using the tips above, plus constantly documenting and tweaking your strategy, you can go beyond dabbling and confidently launch paid ads that get better results than your competition.

This guest post is based off an original article from our Bayshore Solutions partner.



Keep up with the latest in Tampa Bay startup news, local talent interviews and founder resources.
Delivered to your inbox every Thursday.


Featured Founder: Ed Buckley of Peerfit

Welcome to our Featured Founder series, where you’ll meet startup founders from Tampa-St. Petersburg who are building and scaling their ventures to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. We interviewed Ed Buckley, CEO of Peerfit a digital platform for employers, insurance carriers, and brokers to offer wellness solutions to their clients and employees.


What were you doing previously and what inspired you to launch your company?
I was in grad school when I started working on Peerfit. With my academic pursuits being on the healthcare policy and health behavior side, and my practical experience being worksite wellness and fitness,  it was a natural blend having them all come together. Getting to hear from people in the industry on market policy implications and what larger companies were trying to accomplish, it was a huge motivator for creating Peerfit.

What pain point is your company solving? What gets you excited to go to work every day?

From a value prop perspective, there are big companies, health plans, and employers who want the best for their members and employees. While there is a growing trend to support those members and employees to live a healthier lifestyle and give them the best benefits, it’s been harder than anticipated.

Peerfit provides the ability for those employers and plans to build community and promote physical activity in their population that they wouldn't have been able to do before. Knowing we are able to help both the companies and their people as our overall mission is the thing that motivates everyone to get up out of bed every day.

Name the biggest challenge you faced in the process of launching the company. How did you overcome it?

There have been so many, it’s hard to narrow down which is the biggest. In the course of going from just the founders, to more than 100 people, we have encountered a lot. Everything from major accounts wanting to end their relationships, some of our largest vendors wanting to completely restructure how we do things, all the way to having funding pulled at the 11th hour that we had planned on, hired for and needed to make payroll. There isn’t one that truly sticks out, since the important thing is how the team has responded every time. Not, ‘oh the sky is falling’ but with “what’s wrong?” and “what’s the objective solution to this scenario?” We have always taken the approach of how can we fix this, or, how can we find the right people and resources to solve this problem. A lot of big problems end up having simple solutions if you are willing to evolve with how the situation has evolved. More often we are trying to force the situation back to what it was instead of working towards what it can be.

Where do you see your company headed next?

I don’t think it’s a secret, but we are expanding from just the under 65 population to also include over 65. This move into the Medicare space is certainly not one that has been taken lightly or was a knee jerk decision. It has taken more than a year of planning, strategizing and bringing in outside people, while internal people have simultaneously been picking up more work. This is where we see the largest opportunity - helping the millions of Americans who have  Medicare Advantage gain access to more than just big box gyms as their wellness solution.

Give us a tactical piece of advice that you'd share with another founder just starting out.

The piece of advice I’ve been giving out to founders is more on managing your own emotions and communication style so you can help your team manage theirs. It seems like maybe a simplified cliche, but when you are at the top of an org chart, whether 5, 50 or 500 people, you have a butterfly effect with every decision you make or don’t make. From how you convey those decisions, to your facial expressions, it all has an impact. A lot of times founders are so focused on the product and forget to focus on their people and the dynamics between them and other people. It’s really important to know that you will also become a manager of communications and emotions.


Learn more about Peerfit on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.



Keep up with the latest in Tampa Bay startup news, local talent interviews and founder resources.
Delivered to your inbox every Thursday.


Embarc Collective Partners with Florida Business Development Corporation to Develop Coaching Support for Entrepreneurs

Tampa Bay startup hub to build out its growing coaching program for early-stage technology ventures to support startup talent development regionally


Tampa, Florida Embarc Collective is partnering with the Florida Business Development Corporation(FBDC) to provide on-the-job training for high potential talent building high-growth technology startups. This support will initially be available to 25 startups being supported currently by Embarc Collective and will grow in scope throughout the year.

Launched in early 2019, Embarc Collective helps Tampa Bay’s startup talent build bold, scalable, thriving companies. Startup companies can apply for membership and receive on-going individualized coaching for the various functions related to building a technology startup.

In partnership with the FBDC, Embarc Collective has also launched small group support that addresses specific skills startup talent must master to successful help grow a new venture. The programming is customized to the needs the companies served by Embarc Collective and is being delivered by vetted experts from both within the Tampa Bay region and beyond.

“This type of continuous learning offered to startups at Embarc Collective is critical to building and developing a resilient and entrepreneurial technology workforce in the Tampa Bay region,” said Bill Habermeyer, President and CEO of the Florida Business Development Corporation. “This is important in helping to retain and attract talent as entrepreneurs want to build in a community that understands their specific needs and is proactive in providing solutions to help their business grow.”

The support from the FBDC will allow for Embarc Collective to host weekly interactive sessions, curated by the needs of the startups being supported, on topics including but not limited to growth strategy development, leadership & management development, fundraising, customer success, marketing, analytics, and talent strategy. Startup teams also receive access to a resource repository to supplement in-person training.

“FBDC understands that investing in the development of an entrepreneurial workforce is fundamental to the success of Tampa Bay-based businesses,” said Lakshmi Shenoy, CEO of Embarc Collective. “The skills learned while building a startup can be leveraged throughout one’s career and help Tampa Bay organizations, no matter the size, stage or industry, further develop a high growth mindset.”

Embarc Collective measures success by the extent its efforts help to attract, retain and develop entrepreneurial talent in Tampa Bay. To complement the coaching and programming already in place, Embarc Collective’s 32,000 square foot physical location will open later in 2019 in downtown Tampa and will serve as a central landing zone for technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

To learn more about Embarc Collective and their specific startup support. Visit


About Embarc Collective:

Embarc Collective is a 501c3 nonprofit that helps Tampa Bay’s startup talent build bold, scalable, thriving companies and current supports 25 early-stage technology startups. The support from Embarc Collective is hands-on and driven by the specific goals and needs of each startup being supported. Later in 2019, Embarc Collective will open its 32,000 square foot innovation hub in downtown Tampa.


About FBDC:

Florida Business Development Corporation (FBDC) is a private, non-profit Certified Development Company established in 1989 to administer the Small Business Association (SBA) 504 Loan Program. In addition to the 504 Loan Program, FBDC is active in the economic development in the community in which it serves.


For press inquiries, contact:


Finding My Community in Tampa Bay


I was first introduced to Tampa just over two decades ago, when my sister began her freshman year at the University of Tampa. During a visit to her that fall, I found myself sitting in Plant Park, watching her crew team practice on the Hillsborough River and gazing across the water at a downtown; whose riverfront undoubtedly has a much different landscape today.

My sister planted her roots here then, and still calls Tampa home, but my own journey here has taken a much more circuitous path.


The Long and Winding Road

From our hometown in New Jersey, to my college years in Ohio, to taking on San Diego, then Durham, then Miami - I've called many cities and states home over the years. My career as well has been by no means straightforward, but each experience I've had along the way has exposed my strengths, weaknesses, passions, and fears. Perhaps most importantly, I learned from those experiences, and they guided me towards where I am today: in exactly the kind of work and community I was always (though at times unknowingly) seeking.

I’m a musician. I’ve been singing since before I could talk, reading music before I could read words, and writing poems since I could hold a pencil in my hand. So how did I end up working for a new nonprofit supporting local tech startup talent?

I studied music and modern history in college with aspirations towards a career in either musical theater or law (just stay with me here...), followed by a brief stint at a back-office investment support firm, where I discovered I had an aptitude for working with numbers and data. Not ready to abandon my creative dreams quite yet, I left the corporate world and spent the next several years teaching private piano and voice lessons, which showed me how much I loved teaching and sharing knowledge with eager, creative minds. It also showed me that no matter how important music is to me, I had no interest in being a performer for the rest of my life. So I landed a job at a public botanical garden, where I was introduced to the wonderful world of organizational administration, and I was hooked.

I then moved on to a global health NGO (public health, of course, being the most natural next step in my whirlwind adventure), where I learned that I love finance. REALLY love finance. I had a great mentor, and spent the next few years honing my skills in project management, financial reporting, banking, insurance, policies & SOPs, contract management, board relations - I soaked in everything. It was also amazing to be able to work with and coordinate colleagues across the globe - I was drawn to the communal drive of it all, bringing such disparate groups of people together into a beautifully functioning, sharing, learning community, which has certainly been a core tenet of mine since.


And Then Came Miami

It hit me fast and hard. A twist in life circumstances landed me in Miami, and it would be an understatement to simply describe the city as a vibrant, exciting, fast-paced delight to the senses. It’s still growing very quickly and has no shortage of powerful players driving this growth. I was fortunate to spend my four years there working on the communities and impact team at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a major catalyst in Miami's art and entrepreneurial scenes. Through my work there I became increasingly interested in communities and public spaces - what it takes to build healthy, engaged communities; how to create space for people to gather and share ideas, art, and laughter; how to provoke meaningful thought and conversation; finding ways to ensure that all voices are heard and that every community member has the opportunity to contribute, share, and feel valued.

While I did love my time in Miami, and appreciate the opportunities and experiences I had there, it wasn't quite the city for me. I needed to be in a city, but one where I wouldn't get quite so lost in the crowd. I needed a place where I could plunge my hands into the dirt and work with people in a more intentional way. My background is as an artist, and I needed to create. To build.


Hello Tampa!

Fast forward to just over a year ago, when my parents announced they were leaving Miami for Tampa. The decision to follow them was easy - besides the obvious benefit of being closer to more of our family, I had taken an interest in the development explosion that was bursting through the Bay. A colleague connected me with Lakshmi Shenoy, Embarc Collective’s CEO, and I felt a fit immediately. Not only was it an amazing opportunity to help build a nonprofit organization and its physical space, it was a chance to actively participate and engage in a community of which I'd been witnessing the evolution for over twenty years.

The most exciting thing about being in Tampa Bay right now is that at this moment, Tampa is on the precipice of major growth and catalytic change. It's a city in a renewed adolescence, and its residents have the honor of assuming the role of community builders, with the unique position of being able to individually shape the type of city they want Tampa to become - their city, their friends' city, their family's city. It's personal - each person here, whether a new or lifelong resident, has an opportunity to personally contribute to Tampa’s story.

Being a resident here is a much different experience than that of visitor, and I'm continually delighted as I explore my new home and peel back the many layers of what this city has to offer. Tampa is an extraordinarily friendly and welcoming city. Occasionally it trips over itself in its zeal to push forward, but it brushes itself off and gets right back up again, charging full-steam with a determination and drive, and I absolutely love that about it. Originality and innovation can thrive here - anything’s possible, if you’re willing to take the chance. I hope that my role in the community can be to help people take those risks and break through barriers in a thoughtful way that will make their ideas sustainable, solid, and scalable.


Keep up with the latest in Tampa Bay startup news, local talent interviews and founder resources.
Delivered to your inbox every Thursday.


Open Opportunities Through Diversity and Inclusion

Each week at Embarc Collective, we bring in a local or out-of-market expert to talk about a specific pain point or skill that is being voiced by the startup community we support.

We are lucky in Tampa Bay to have startups that are focused on building diverse and inclusive teams from Day 1, and from that feedback we brought in Alex Rose, CEO of ResumeRx. Prior to launching her own company, Alex has been on teams of Series A - Series D companies, including Clarifai, Cockroach Labs, and Datadog, and helped them to incorporate a mindset towards diversity and inclusion into their recruiting and hiring practices.

It's one thing to talk about diversity and inclusion on your team. Bringing it to fruition within an organization is what really matters. Here are some of the takeaways from Alex's work session on how to build diverse and inclusive recruiting and hiring practices:


1) Understand Your Why and Communicate It

It's important for you as a leader to have a reason for why building a diverse and inclusive team is specifically important to your organization's success. It needs to be aligned with your long-term vision for the organization and authentic to your team's perspective. Candidates can see right through you if you're just giving this topic lip service. If you're a work in progress and earlier in the journey towards building a diverse and inclusive organizational culture, be honest and tell that to a candidate.

An Aside on Values
At Embarc Collective, we built this why into our organizational values:

Open Opportunities: We believe entrepreneurship is a great equalizer. We strive to open doors for our entrepreneurs by fostering an inclusive and collaborative community where founders with high-impact ideas, discipline, and drive are supported in transforming their visions into reality.

If you have your why, share it. It's never to early to start working on your own employer branding to support recruiting efforts. On your Careers page, talk about your mission, your vision and your people. Use words, pictures, and video to bring your why to life. The goal of employer branding is for a candidate to see themselves on your team. That's going to attract more people to want to join your mission.

Some good examples of companies that have found their why and are communicating it to support recruiting:

2) Uncover Your Blind Spots

Alex talked about common blind spots she sees in the recruiting and hiring process. Here are a few she called out:

  • Know Your Unconscious or Implicit Biases: Many times we limit ourselves to defining diversity by what is outlined by the Equal Employment Opportunity policy: age, race, color, creed, sex, religion, and disability. Alex noted that there are additional ways to consider diversity, and we each have implicit or unconscious biases that can impact how we see each other.
    Here is a tool you can use to help you become more self-aware of your biases:

  • Job Descriptions: We all write with unconscious biases that may turn off a high potential candidate or make someone feel like they aren't the right person for the job, when in fact, they could be. Luckily, there are some easy to use tools to help, including:
  • The Accessibility of Your Site: Make sure that a website is easy to navigate given the different ways that people want and need to navigate your information. The ADA accessibility is a start, but there are more ways to increase the inclusivity of your website experience.
  • Where You Recruit: Startup job boards are not always reaching a broad and inclusive audience. Alex recommends asking the job board for a breakdown of the demographics they reach and partnering with other organizations that reach underrepresented people in technology to ensure that your job opportunities are far reaching. One approach is to find national organizations with a focus on inclusivity and reach out to their local chapters. A few examples:

3) Consistency is Key

We react to different people in different ways. With that variability, how can you fairly assess diverse candidates for a job? Alex recommends creating a structure for the interview process and commit to being consistent with that structure. Write out the exact questions that every candidate will be asked and ask those questions in the same order for each interview. By doing that, you can fairly assess how each candidate does against these two filters:

  • Can they do the job?
  • Are they aligned with our values?
    • Bonus Tool: Use Key Values to match engineering talent with your organization

How do you know if you're achieving success when building a diverse and inclusive organization, especially when the work is never done? The key is seeing progress. As you begin to build diverse and inclusive practices in your hiring and recruiting process, develop a metrics system to keep track of your progress.

Shout-out to our friends at the Tampa Bay Wave who are similarly aligned with a focus on increasing the diversity of technology leaders in startups through their TechDiversity program.

Many thanks to Alex for spending time with the startups at Embarc Collective.



Keep up with the latest in Tampa Bay startup news, local talent interviews and founder resources.
Delivered to your inbox every Thursday.


Featured Founder: Farrukh Siddiqui of Defynance

Welcome to our Featured Founder series, where you’ll meet startup founders from Tampa-St. Petersburg who are building and scaling their ventures to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. We interviewed Farrukh Siddiqui, Founder, President & CEO of Defynance, disruptive student loan refinancing utilizing innovative Income Share Agreements (ISA).


What were you doing previously and what inspired you to launch your company?

My experience spans across insurance, mortgages, and web application development.  Over the past 15 plus years, I have focused on socially responsible finance mostly as an entrepreneur.  During this time, I weathered the financial crisis with millions of Americans.  My personal and business life suffered as a result and I was able to analyze the self-inflicted wounds that caused it as a financial services insider.  I resolved that there has to be a better way and have dedicated the rest of my professional career to fostering social impact within financial services.


What pain point is your company solving? What gets you excited to go to work every day?

We are tackling the $1.5 plus Trillion student loan crisis that is impacting more than 45 Million Americans.  Solving a major problem through a solution that is responsible and scalable is what drives me to work hard every day.


Name the biggest challenge you faced in the process of launching the company. How did you overcome it?

Raising capital has always been the biggest challenge because our product is new and untested.  I am still overcoming this challenge by building strategic relationships, bootstrapping, and always remaining confident and committed to the mission.


Where do you see your company headed next?

Our next milestone is revenue generation followed by establishing product-market fit and developing repeatable and scalable processes.


Give us a tactical piece of advice that you'd share with another founder just starting out.

Bootstrap for as long as possible!  It’ll be difficult and frustrating but it fuels innovation, creativity, and aids in recruiting a core team that believes in the values and mission of the company.  As a founder, you really find out who you are and acquire much self-confidence along the way.


Learn more about Defynance on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter.



Keep up with the latest in Tampa Bay startup news, local talent interviews and founder resources.
Delivered to your inbox every Thursday.


Featured Founder: Aaron Froug of Grifin

Welcome to our Featured Founder series, where you’ll meet startup founders from Tampa-St. Petersburg who are building and scaling their ventures to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. We interviewed Aaron Froug, Co-Founder and CEO of Grifin, a patent-pending technology that lets you automatically buy stock where you shop.


What were you doing previously and what inspired you to launch your company?

Before I started Grifin, I was attending the University of Florida studying pre-med and pre-dental. I liked working with children and wanted to follow the career path of my parents to either become a dentist or work in pediatric endocrinology. During this time, I did research at the biomedical science building and ended up working with paxgene cells and cleaning blood samples. I nearly fainted every day. In that time, I realized that the medical field wasn't for me. I decided to follow my passion where I could still help people and ended up working as a counselor at a youth camp for children with diabetes. I changed my major many times before graduating from pre-med, pre-dental, accounting, finance, and finally ending at economics just trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I stumbled across wealth management through speaking with a company at UF’s career fair. He described his work as the antithesis of Wall Street and that the goal was to help families feel more prepared for their future. That sparked my interest and I changed my focus in hopes to get an internship to learn more.

I landed a position shortly after at a large institution, where I got to learn an incredible amount from the principal advisor. I remember one instance particularly where a woman came in frantic and shaking with a pile of unorganized papers in her hands. She desperately asked the advisor to help her get her finances in place to take care of her family. He confidently assured her he would help, taking the papers from her and all, only to enter her information into a system the exact way he would for all of his other clients. This was then picked up by analysts in another city who would handle the investments. It made me feel that the industry was too ambiguous, impersonal and hard to understand. People never feel good about their finances or have the confidence to invest or understand the process in themselves. It shouldn’t be that way.

My senior year at UF, I decided to minor in entrepreneurship and took a course that required us to build a creative, unique business plan. They wanted the product to be revolutionary. I connected with Bo, one of the Grifin co-founders, who was already working on an app idea called MarketChamps. This provided an open marketplace for a community of people to trade with one another. When I heard the concept, I thought it was brilliant, but asked if I could play devil's advocate because I felt there was a stronger way to solve the problems for people in this industry.

We went back to the drawing board to better understand why young people weren’t investing and interviewed kids all over campus. Most answered that it was too expensive, complicated, and impersonal. We ended up going through a hundred ideas and nothing still felt right. It wasn't until I went to Starbucks with my sister that it hit us. We had ordered 2 cups of coffee that came out to $10. My sister laughed at the price and mentioned that she should really own stock considering how much she shopped there. The light-bulb went off. I realized then that this was the way to change the way people could start to invest, by connecting them to the things they cared about most. Something so simple and easy that it just integrates into their daily lives. A concept that could become a habit like brushing your teeth.

We fully developed the idea of Grifin in the last semester of our senior year, presented it as our final project for our course, and entered two state competitions. We placed first for one and made the semifinals for the other. We ended up changing our name from MarketChamps to Change, then Interest Investments, Interest, Beanstoc… and finally Grifin. That in itself is a whole story. As the school year came to a close, my co-founders and I had a long discussion if we were going to really do this full-time and after two more months of working on it every day, sleepless nights, and quitting our jobs, we took the leap and officially moved forward pursuing Grifin.


What pain point is your company solving? What gets you excited to go to work every day?

The average person starts investing at 31, but can start investing at 18. The difference between those who build wealth is when you decide to vs when you can. The finance industry usually enters our life under negative circumstances where we’ve already developed a poor relationship with our money. There are few places to learn how to manage personal finances. You aren't taught it at school, most don't learn at home and it's never approached as a fun or positive experience. Often times, people push further away from it as they become more uncertain. Our goal with Grifin is to make people feel excited and motivated in not only themselves and their capability to invest and save, but just to feel confident in their financial status in general.

What gets me excited everyday is seeing users test our product and genuinely light up because they fully understand the concept. They become energized and inevitably want to share it with other people. This let my team and I know that what we're creating is truly going to change people’s lives in a positive way. It's going to put them in a position to protect themselves financially at a young age. This is an industry that hasn’t been changed in the past 200 years. It’s time for something different. The most powerful part is that Grifin means something different for everyone who uses it based on their life, their habits and what's important to them. You don’t build a product for your own story, it should be to help shape someone else's.


Name the biggest challenge you faced in the process of launching the company. How did you overcome it?

The biggest challenge we're facing now is trying to create our product with limited capital in a space that is newer to the consumer side of the startup industry. We are extremely fortunate for all of the opportunities we’ve had so far and how much the city is changing. It is why we want to be a part of this growing startup culture and all of the amazing things that are happening here in Tampa. We want to do our part and help in every way we can to make the city grow enough to become the next startup capital of the world! Doing the right thing just takes time and patience. With that, the capital will come.

Plus, with development, it always takes longer than you would anticipate. We went in with a lot of ideas to create something ready to put in consumers’ hands, but truly doing it the right way takes a lot of work. We're lucky enough to have people help us reach out and provide the resources we need. Still, there's only so much you can do even when you want to do everything without overextending yourself. I have an amazing team where each individual is working on 10 different jobs at a time. Everyone in the startup industry knows how this feels! We have many sleepless nights and are constantly learning how to take care of ourselves while running a business. The most important thing is to keep looking forward, do the best we can, and learn to deal with the unexpected. As long as you can build a team that is open to adjusting accordingly where they need to, that remains strong enough to stand back up after they fall, you are on the right track.


Where do you see your company headed next?

Our biggest goal right now is raising money. We just opened our Seed round to have the funding necessary to help us put the product in people's hands. We've built the external infrastructure, have early adopters and have all the right relationships we need to bring Grifin to the market. Our main focus is to market the product and hire the right talent to share Grifin's story. We've worked to make it a company, now it's time to be a business.


Give us a tactical piece of advice that you'd share with another founder just starting out.

Be okay with failure. Because usually after the lowest lows come the highest highs. We've had a lot of hard moments in this business where we honestly didn't know if it was going to work out. The key is to stay confident and continue to be positive as you move forward. Most companies fail not because their products aren't great, but because the people let failure overcome them rather than look at the success that failure could lead to. Every time we've “failed” something better has happened as a result. Be excited for your failure and then push forward. Always continue to innovate, execute, and look at a situation with every perspective possible. It's a long process to create change, but it's worth it. Anyone willing to be innovative has to be willing to be misunderstood.


Learn more about Grifin on FacebookInstagram, LinkedIn, and Pinterest



Keep up with the latest in Tampa Bay startup news, local talent interviews and founder resources.
Delivered to your inbox every Thursday.