Three years ago, Darryl Wheatley abruptly quit his job, bought a 36-foot deck boat, spent a year refitting the vessel, and launched a business - Tampa Bay Fun Boat. His wife, meanwhile, kept her steady job and wondered what in the world her husband was thinking.
Then, after 19 years, Shannon Wheatley lost her job. Undeterred, she joined her husband, now "Capt. D," as a full-time devotee of the couple's tour boat business.
Times were tough. After a few months based at a dock behind a waterfront bar/restaurant in St. Petersburg, the couple moved their 35-passenger boat designed for fun - dancing, drinking, sightseeing, etc. - to a dock behind Tampa Convention Center. They have struggled to market the fledgling business with sparse finances.
Shannon Wheatley recently heard about 1 Million Cups, a weekly one-hour gathering of business people and hopeful entrepreneurs. On a whim, she agreed to appear as one of two "presenters" before the networking group's Hillsborough County chapter, which meets at the Entrepreneur Collaborative Center (ECC) in Ybor City, operated by Hillsborough County Economic Development. After briefly outlining the couple's business, and explaining its attributes and challenges, she was excited about the reception and advice she received from attendees.
"I had never heard of 1 Million Cups," she says. "Just the experience of being around all those people…"
Marketing the tours on a limited budget might be the couple's biggest challenge, and audience members encouraged the Wheatleys to explore ways to let people know about their business. One idea: Invite marketing people on a free tour so they can experience it. Discounts for students was another suggestion.
1 Million Cups is a growing national program that aims to engage, educate, and connect local entrepreneurs. The program's name stems from the notion that ideas and businesses often are brainstormed over cups of coffee. Founded in Kansas City by the Kaufmann Foundation in 2012, there now are more than 100 chapters.
The robust Hillsborough County chapter was founded in January 2015, and it meets every Wednesday morning. The community-organized program is one of a growing number of collaborative initiatives the County has developed to support entrepreneurship development. Presenters recently have pitched concepts such as a holder for iPads, a business software program, and a $25 million trash-to-energy operation for a village in Haiti. Alumni of the program have enjoyed success and recognition, including Le Ann's Cheesecakes 'N More, Cirkul Bottle, and eSmart Recycling.
Attendees listen to the presenters' pitches, and follow up with questions and advice. Though everyone is cordial and supportive, some advice is blunt and counters a presenter's business plan.
Shannon Wheatley says she appreciated the honest feedback, positive and negative, at the Jan. 25 session. It was a learning experience, she says, and constructive criticism spurs ideas and options that she and her husband have not considered.
Photo Caption: Darryl Wheatley maneuvers Tampa Bay Fun Boat near the mouth of the Hillsborough River.