Tampa Bay Area military veterans learning how to start their own business in a unique way

Startup Bus Florida competing in New Orleans

TAMPA, Fla. — Starting a business can take years, but there's a group from the Tampa Bay Area tasked with conceiving, building and launching a startup in just 72 hours.

They are pitching their concepts today in New Orleans in an annual national competition called Startup Bus.

Each bus takes off from a different city and ends their trip pitching their concepts to a panel of judges; there are 8 buses in total this year, including one from Tampa.

The Tampa bus has a special mission this year because about 10 of the 30 riders are military veterans, and their trip was sponsored by Veterans Florida, a non-profit state agency which aims to help veterans succeed in the business world by providing grants and development resources for free.

"Nearly one in four veterans want to be an entrepreneur," says Startup Bus Florida's Robert Blacklidge, who is a military veteran, and "conductor" of the bus that left from Tampa.

Blacklidge, who served in the U.S. Air Force, was a participant on the bus competition last year, and this year was asked to lead a new group of Tampa Bay Area entrepreneurs.

He believes military veterans are especially well-suited to be entrepreneurs, because being in the military requires certain skills like organization, disciplined, and drive.

The competition, he says, is less about creating a new, successful startup than acting as a kind of Boot Camp for entrepreneurs, teaching them the process of starting a business in a very short amount of time.

But it can lead to real companies; Blacklidge came up with the idea for his company, Course Align, while on the bus in 2017. 

According to Blacklidge's LinedIn account, Course Align is "designed to help universities develop curriculum that meets evolving business needs," by analyzing a community's job market, through job postings, in real-time.

Veterans Florida is sponsoring several of the Tampa participants, who typically need to pay for the cost of the bus ride, food, and a hotel room in the host city.

The state agency is known for helping other veterans that have been reported on by ABC Action News, like the co-owner of a new St. Pete business called American Freedom Distillery.

"I was having a hard time changing my mindset from an enthusiastic veteran starting an enterprise into an entrepreneur who needed to know how to create profit and loss statements, understand the necessity of developing a business plan and learn all about prioritizing the customer," explains Scott Neil, co-owner of American Freedom Distillery, in a report by Veterans Florida. “The Veterans Florida Entrepreneurship Program gives the veteran who has an idea he or she wants to take to market a solid framework for accomplishing that, along with a healthy dose of reality. Military veterans are all about planning. The online courses gave us the structure and mindset we need now.” 

American Freedom Distillery is in the process of building their own still facility and bar in St. Pete's warehouse district, with plans to open their doors in 2018.

To learn more about Veterans Florida and their entrepreneur resources, click HERE.

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