Featured Founder: Rosa Shores of BlockSpaces
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 Rosa Shores, Co-founder of BlockSpaces, a blockchain incubator that provides specialized education, development and support services to a collaborative learning community of individuals and startups.
What were you doing previously and what inspired you to launch your company?
My background is primarily in retail and marketing, and I have done two tours of duty at HSN over the years in different divisions. Most recently, I was working in the eCommerce division when I first heard of this new thing in tech called “bitcoin.” It seemed absolutely crazy to me at first, but dots started to quickly connect, and I had seen “entertainment retail” transition from television shopping to eCommerce and, now, in real time, watching mCommerce dominate digital commerce. I started thinking of how cryptocurrency could maximize payment processing and how HSN might utilize digital tokens in their online arcade as rewards for brand loyalty.
As I begin to better understand blockchain, which is really some uniquely combined previously existing technologies that make up the bitcoin protocol, other use cases sparked my imagination. As corporate social responsibility becomes more of a brand necessity, I saw how blockchain might be used in retail supply chain to empower consumers, reduce exploitation of workers, protect local environments and enforce ethical business practices by providing a transparent record of provenance. It was and still is very exciting to me. I actually approached leadership at HSN about these ideas, but it was 2014 and everyone just looked at me like I had two heads. There were very few people to talk to at that time about this emerging tech.
In 2014, my partner, Gabe Higgins, and I started holding meetups locally to discuss and learn together about this emerging technology. We were also both very involved with politics, and a local Congressional candidate approached us with an idea for a Congressional transparency project utilizing blockchain. That idea morphed into a project called ClearVoter, which is a civic engagement platform that incentivizes political participation around issues instead of political parties. We had the vision that as blockchain-based digital ID management and blockchain-based voting systems matured both could be deployed on our platform.
We worked our jobs during the day and worked nights and weekends on ClearVoter from 2014 while continuing to hold the meetups. In fact, we found the absolute best place to learn about blockchain was the meetups and being with like-minded entrepreneurs who wanted to learn together. We were attracting people from all walks of life, who all had interesting ideas and potential use cases for this technology, but there was no school to learn about it and online resources were difficult to prove trustworthy. Blockchain developers were nearly impossible to find, and these professionals are still in incredibly high demand. Investors didn’t understand blockchain. Attorneys didn’t understand blockchain. CPA’s definitely didn’t understand blockchain. So, the traditional support network that startups usually have just didn’t exist. Feeling this pain ourselves and within our community inspired us to find our own dedicated space in August 2017 to leverage the network we had built over the years to foster ideas and developers through hands-on peer learning and give blockchain startups a home locally. BlockSpaces evolved as the community and technology evolved, and the business grew organically.
What pain point is your company solving? What gets you excited to go to work every day?
Because it is so nascent, critical components of the blockchain ecosystem are severely underdeveloped, and blockchain founders face industry-specific challenges when trying to grow and scale their businesses. This industry as a whole is emerging very rapidly and is forecasted to have a 80.2% CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) through 2024 reaching $61B by 2024 and $3.1T by 2030. The blockchain job market is forecast to grow 16x in the next seven years. That’s staggering growth for a technology that has only existed a decade. Individuals located outside of major tech hub cities cannot find adequate resources to keep up with the rapidly changing technology landscape or the complex regulatory environment, and startups have difficulty finding a skilled workforce and supportive network.
At the same time, technology is causing profound changes in workplace environments and education. Meanwhile, changing demographics are driving today’s workers away from high cost of living cities and towards urbanization of secondary cities where they can incorporate innovative, entrepreneurial, progressive work/learning styles. We cater to these trends by offering a unique, membership-based path to learn about this technology and possibly grow a business or work in this emerging industry no matter what your interest or level of understanding. Right now, we have BlockSpaces members who simply came to one of our meetups with no real knowledge of blockchain who have changed their entire career path and are now teaching newcomers or developing projects in our Idea Lab. One of our member’s startups just closed a seed round, and half his staff are BlockSpaces members. We are fostering a workforce right along with these companies so they don’t have to leave the area to find talent. I honestly can’t think of anything that excites me more than seeing our members succeed. To make a blockchain analogy, their success is our Proof Of Work.
Name the biggest challenge you faced in the process of launching the company. How did you overcome it?
I could be like everyone else and say funding, and that would be true. Finding an investor partner who shares your vision is crucial. But honestly, the biggest challenge we faced was the industry hype cycle of late 2017 and early 2018. It brought out a tremendous amount of people who were only interested in what seemed to be fast profit. The projects and people we saw flood our space last year were, for the most part, unsustainable. Blockchain is not a marketing term. You can’t slap it on just any currently existing problem and make it better. This is a brand new technology that has the potential to change the way we do business in new and unexpected ways. That kind of innovation takes time and requires long-term visionaries and a supportive network of people who understand that potentially changing the world is not a quick turnaround and will likely come in fits and starts. These startups need a space to thoughtfully build real technical use-cases combined with strong business development methodologies. Integrity is important to our community, and like everything else, we will overcome this challenge together.
Where do you see your company headed next?
We have some exciting strategic partnerships developing that, we believe, will make 2019 a truly amazing year for our company and this region and provide us with scalable infrastructure. We are also really looking forward to fully launching our Idea Lab, when we move to our new location in the spring. This initiative is really the heart and soul of our unique business model.
Give us a tactical piece of advice that you'd share with another founder just starting out.
If you exist as a business today, you are, by default, a technology company. Logical reasoning that strictly applies old rules and paradigms will likely not serve you as well as you may think it will in this fast moving, ever changing new world of innovation. Employ “elastic thinking,” and realize that opportunities are often missed by not recognizing change has occurred and the previously unthinkable is now doable. New rules often seem absurd and are rejected by those who embrace commonly accepted conventions. Respectfully, ignore those people.