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How failure shaped one of Tampa’s emerging entrepreneurs

Margie Manning

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Tony Selvaggio (Photo credit: Emmanuel Pezoa from dBArcade // info@db-arcade.com)

Tony Selvaggio, founder and CEO of eSmart Recycling in Tampa, says “resilience” describes his entrepreneurial journey.

While he’s won multiple awards and recognition, “failure has been a huge component of what has taken me to where I am right now,” Selvaggio said in an interview with the St. Pete Catalyst. “Failure teaches you a lot and puts your character to test. I have failed during the pitches we tried to do with companies, accounts we worked on for years and then when we got to the finish line, we just blew the opportunity … If we put on balance the things I’ve done right and those I’ve done wrong, the things I’ve done wrong far outweigh the things I’ve done right.”

On Thursday, Oct. 10, Selvaggio will talk about how he grew his business while learning from his failures, when Hillsborough County celebrates entrepreneurs at “Fail Forward.” More information about the event is here.

He was selected as the first guest for the program in part because he was the first presenter at 1 Million Cups Tampa five years ago.

Selvaggio said his company has pivoted significantly since then.

eSmart Recycling collects surplus technology inventory that companies no longer need and finds ways to monetize it, either by recycling or reselling it, then uses a portion of the proceeds to fund technology labs for children.

It’s an evolution from the original concept, a scrap metal recycling company Selvaggio launched in 2014, about three years after he came to the United States from Venezuela.

“My background has always been in scrap metal,” Selvaggio said. “In 2014, when I started the business, I figured I’m going to stick to what I know, scrap metal. But back in 2014, e-recycling and e-waste was a hot topic. It was the fastest-growing municipal waste stream and everyone was talking about it, especially in Tampa.”

He started taking in computers to recycle, initially thinking that would be a side business. But a connection made through Emerge Tampa Bay, a young professional group from the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, changed that.

“I met a company that had 20 or 30 computers in their office and they asked, can you come pick them up? I said of course and I picked them up. Later in the week, I met a nonprofit that served about 200 kids and they didn’t have any computers, and they asked to buy some from me. I didn’t have the heart to sell them computers. What I thought was that if this company that just gave me 30 computers to recycle knew about this nonprofit that needed them for the kids, I’m pretty sure they would have given them to the nonprofit, but they didn’t do it because they didn’t know,” Selvaggio said. “I told the nonprofit I would give them 10 computers – and I asked the company if it was OK – and everyone was happy. The nonprofit got the computers. The company felt like they were doing something for the community. We kept some computers to make money. And that was how the whole process started. That became for us the core of the company.”

The model continues to evolve, as Selvaggio wants to build a company that can be scalable.

“I never felt I wanted to have a mom and pop business. I wanted to build something I could grow,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been working toward, how do we build a model that can grow without losing the social component of the company, and have a successful enterprise.”

Today, eSmart Recycling has seven employees at its Tampa office, another office in Lima, Peru, and plans to open a location in Raleigh, North Carolina, Selvaggio said on After Brew, a podcast associated with 1 Million Cups Tampa.

Selvaggio has won a 2015 Hillsborough County business pitch competition, was a finalist for the 1 Million Cups best overall pitch the following year, and also was the Key Person of Influence Pitchfest winner in 2016. He’s been called a success story by Prospera, an economic development organization that serves Hispanic entrepreneurs.

“A lot of people like to focus on success and the things that worked, and not a lot of people pay attention to the struggles the entrepreneur goes through and the struggles a company goes through,” Selvaggio told the Catalyst. “That’s important to shine a light on as well, the journey that one has to go through when you fail and you pick yourself back up and figure it out, because it’s not about you. You have employees whose families depend on you, so you have to do it, there’s no way around it.”

He said he’s learned from each of his difficult experiences and setbacks.

“Everything teaches you. If you can’t manage the pressure when you are little, you won’t be able to manage the pressure as you grow,” Selvaggio said. “You just get used to it a little bit more and you start believing in yourself because if you were able to pull through back then, why wouldn’t you be able to pull through right now. It starts building resilience.”

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