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Startup City: Why community matters

Michelle Waite



Anthony Nagendraraj and Marissa Huggins are co-founders of Spontivly, a community management system (CMS) that integrates with a company's suite of community tools to allow for greater insights and efficiencies. Photo provided.

Cambodia has a very special place in my heart. I have had the honor of visiting the country over 10 times in business, as a tourist and for philanthropy. I even had the opportunity to run a half marathon through the UNESCO World Heritage site Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. Above all, what has stayed with me is a tremendous admiration for the resilience, determination and sense of community by the people who live there. 

The Cambodian people have experienced tremendous turmoil, pain and genocide in recent decades. Tragically, more than 1.7 million people were killed between 1975 and 1979. Although the perpetrators of this devastation are no longer in power, the impact remains both physically and emotionally.

One particular visit in 2015 had a profound influence on me, highlighting the power of community despite the history. Over 80% of the population in Cambodia live in rural areas. I was visiting a region called Pursat, located in the country halfway between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. 

My gaming startup at the time had a Foundation that supported low to no-interest microloans for women in Cambodia. I was meeting with and learning more about the cohorts of women who were leveraging these loans to build their businesses to support their families and educate their children. These were hardworking women doing woodworking, raising cows, running village stores and growing and selling rice and other crops. They often held the main financial responsibility for their families.

The microloan program was administered and managed on the ground by HOPE International Development Agency. HOPE works from a community-driven model and approach for all of their projects focusing on clean water, food security and livelihoods that unlock opportunities.

The microloans were each taken out as a group of about 8-10 women who were located in a similar area. They would vote on the use of funds as a group and support each other in making their individual businesses succeed. The entire group would be responsible for paying back the loan and were incentivized to help each other be as successful as possible for themselves and their community. Additional business and other training was also provided by the organization. In many ways, it was similar to the startup incubators and accelerators that exist in our own city.

What stayed with me was the sense of responsibility and pride that these women had for the success of their groups, businesses and communities. With their leadership, the entire region benefited as clean water wells were brought in and children were now being educated and able to live a better life.

I believe that with the right incentives, a strong support system and an overall sense of community responsibility, a business startup ecosystem will thrive. 

A Coworking Space in St. Pete Provides Community

Community is at the core of Thrive DTSP. It is self-described as a local, purposefully built business community based in downtown St. Pete. Thrive provides private offices, workspaces, meeting and event space and offer amenities to make running a business more manageable.

Brooke Beeler, described as the Chief Visionary and Community Builder at Thrive DTSP, runs the ship. “We believe in the power of community, whether it be our community of businesses and organizations using our beautiful space in downtown St. Pete … or our support of local artisans, products, charities and startups in the area,” she explains. “It’s an important part of who we are.”

One member of the Thrive DTSP community is a recent tech startup transplant that you may have seen a lot in the local news recently – Spontivly.

Making a Business Out of Community

Having relocated to St. Pete, alongside a recent investment by Mark Cuban, means Spontivly has been featured in local media a lot recently. Spontivly provides real-time analytics to measure community engagement, growth and impact across any platform. 

Co-founders Anthony Nagendraraj and Marissa Huggins seem to naturally understand the value of community and community-building and are now making it easy for businesses to measure the impact as well. 

When Nagendraraj left his career in consulting with IBM, he knew he wanted to channel the hustle and entrepreneurial spirit that his immigrant parents modeled. He began by talking with over 300 people who were predominantly international university students in his local city of Edmonton, Canada at the time. 

“They were having a hard time connecting to the campus community. As an immigrant, I know the importance of being a part of the community and what that means,” explains Nagendraraj. “They left their cities and countries and friends behind and were feeling very lonely. That struck a chord with me.”  

He then called up a local university and convinced them to bring him in on a project to help address this engagement problem that he identified with their international students. He and his co-founder Huggins, who was from Winnipeg, Canada, eventually met at the startup accelerator that Nagendraraj joined for this effort – and eventually his future startup vision of Spontivly. 

Prior to her work at the accelerator, Huggins saw the overall impact and importance of community building in her volunteer work. “I would run a lot of fundraising campaigns in the summer,” she explains. “When the pandemic happened, I had to shift all of our fundraising efforts to online.” Having success with building community around these digital efforts, she then took on the role running the community programming and events at the accelerator. In this role, she identified a major issue as a community builder – the inability to measure the ROI on what she was building.

Learning that this was the exact problem that Nagendraraj was trying to solve with his startup, it was a natural fit for two entrepreneurs-at-heart to come together and work on building the business together. 

“We quickly realized that this was an organizational problem,” says Negendraraj. “When we talked about (digital) community at the time, no one knew what we were talking about.” 

At its very core, community building is a sense of belonging and people coming together for a purpose. Companies that have figured out how to leverage that have become extremely successful. “This is the evolutionary cycle of a new industry. Companies are now hiring Community Managers. That’s a role now,” says Nagendraraj. 

In that evolution, there has become a need to be able to measure that strategy. “One of the biggest things that Community Managers struggle with is that their community is spread across so many areas,” explains Huggins. “They can’t even tell you, for example, how many people are in their community.” With so many different areas where individuals within those communities come together both online and in person, it is difficult to track and understand where duplication exists.

Beyond that, depending on the use case, other metrics come into play. Currently, community use cases include sales and marketing, customer support and product innovation. Breaking it down to its very basics, both co-founders are clear in saying – “we are Google Analytics for communities.”

So why move to St. Pete to build this business further? “Marissa and I were also looking to land in a city or area that understood us,” states Nagendraraj. “We want to be part of the community. We want to build our company in a place where we have a sense of belonging.” St. Pete was never on their radar originally – it was always San Francisco or Atlanta. 

If it wasn’t for the Tampa Bay Wave (TBW) and the St. Pete EDC, they wouldn’t be here. In 2021, they applied for the TBW program. “It felt like home. It was exciting. All of these companies coming in. And, when we talked about community, people understood,” further explains Nagendraraj. “The tech ecosystem really drew us here too. We want to be in a place that understands why tech is really important.”

Huggins quickly chimes in, “And we wanted to invest in a community that was on the rise. We are a community management and community building system after all. We needed to go somewhere that is actively building community. We are very much of the mind that you walk the walk and talk the talk.” 

Startup City will continue to explore topics on what it takes to have a thriving startup ecosystem through stories and thoughts of local residents and startups. 

Michelle Waite is the VP of Marketing at Florida Funders, a locally-based venture capital firm and angel investor network who enables tech startups to thrive through monetary and business-intellectual capital. She has invested in, co-founded and worked for tech startups for the last 10 years. She counts herself lucky everyday to work for and alongside some pretty amazing entrepreneurs. You can follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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