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What the seven-figure home purchases of top tech leaders says about the industry’s growth in Tampa-St. Pete

Margie Manning

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Stu and Rebecca Sjouwerman's home in Belleair

Here’s one signal that the Tampa-St. Pete area is becoming a major hub for technology.

Three of the four highest-priced home purchases in Pinellas County so far this year were by founders of technology firms that started and grew to unicorn status while remaining in the area.

ConnectWise co-founder and CEO Arnie Bellini and his wife, Lauren Bellini, bought two adjacent Clearwater properties in July and in August. One cost $11 million and the other $9.25 million, according to Pinellas County property records. Stu Sjouwerman, founder and CEO of KnowBe4, and his wife, Rebecca Weiss Sjouwerman, paid $7.9 million for a Belleair home in August.

The only more expensive home purchase in Pinellas in 2019 to date was the $16.5 million paid by Sandcastle on the Gulf II for a home in Belleair Shore in February. Sandcastle on the Gulf II is a company associated with real estate entrepreneur Ben Mallah.

While the real estate, restaurant and hospitality industries have long played a leading role in the local economy, efforts to boost the technology sector are gaining significant momentum.

Both ConnectWise and KnowBe4 had major financial windfalls earlier this year.

ConnectWise, a managed IT services provider and software developer in Tampa, was acquired in February by Thoma Bravo, a technology-focused private equity firm, in a deal that Bellini previously said would create 70 new millionaires among the long-time staff at the employee-owned  company. Even before the Thoma Bravo deal, ConnectWise was considered a unicorn, a designation for tech firms with a valuation of $1 billion or more.

KnowBe4, a Clearwater-based cybersecurity training firm, vaulted into unicorn status when it received a $300 million investment led by KKR in June.

“It’s clear that the Tampa Bay area is rapidly becoming a mature and major high-tech hub,” Sjouwerman told the St. Pete Catalyst in an exchange of emails. “Many large high-tech companies are already here and the startup scene is taking off. Just an illustration is that for instance downtown Clearwater has around 20 high-tech companies.”

Catalyst: Do you expect to see more $1 million+ home purchases by local tech execs as a growing trend?

Sjouwerman: That seems entirely possible. High-tech execs often are able to take some money off the table in what in VC-language is called ‘secondary’ instead of primary which goes to the balance sheet. With hypergrowth, you get very healthy valuations.

Catalyst:  Does this signal technology executives who currently live outside of the Tampa Bay area that their companies can be successful here? Could it lead to tech company relocations?

Sjouwerman: It’s my position that this not only could lead, but already has led to companies moving to Tampa Bay. Running a high-tech company here is a substantial competitive advantage!!

Bellini did not respond to several requests for comment.

While the prices paid by Sjouwerman and Bellini were well over the $245,000 median sale prices for a single family home in Q2 2019 in the Tampa-St. Pete metro area, they are still relatively modest compared to the “mogul mansions” owned by technology executives profiled by Business Insider earlier this year, including a $127 million home owned by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates in Medina, Washington.

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