It’s a rare chance to speak with a rocket scientist, entrepreneur, and connector all at once – but Brian Kornfeld has done it all, and seen it all. We spent a good 2 hours with him, learning all about his career in Tampa, especially his work at Synapse and what comes next.
On his career
Roxanne Williams: Can you take us through the Cliff’s Notes of your career? I’m particularly interested in your time at Northrop, Mr. Rocket Scientist.
Brian Kornfeld: My Twitter handle is @TheRocketManBK. One of my friends actually created it for me because he wanted me to join Twitter so badly.
I graduated with a Bachelor’s from University of Michigan and a Master’s from University of South Florida in aerospace engineering. I got a great opportunity out in Los Angeles, working with Northrop Grumman pre-flight testing satellites.
One of the reasons that was one of the best jobs is that when they launch a satellite, it can’t fail. Otherwise, it becomes a $500 million piece of space junk. As a test engineer, you have to learn perfection, and how to make something so robust that when it fails, it still succeeds. It’s an art and a science. Writing test scripts and test procedures is one of the best skills I’ve ever learned.
Matt Vaughn: Were you doing the testing on one specific thing, or literally everything?
Brian: I did pre-flight tests, so everything. The satellites were set up in a way that if they fail, they go into a safety mode that completely shuts them down. There’s no way to fix it. You have to think about it in that light, and that helps you find all those potential ‘what could go wrong’ scenarios.
That also helped me think about things in a different light through my career, because now I could think about how to break things. Think of a website. When you first build it, how do you break it? What if I click here then back here and then fill this out, is it still going to work? Some of the weaknesses that you can find once you learn to think this way are simply incredible.
On his education
Roxanne: What actually made you go into aerospace engineering?
Brian: I grew up loving airplanes. I watched the movie Top Gun when I was 5 or 6 years old. For my 7th birthday, I got a cat, and I named it Maverick.
I could just sit and watch airplanes take off and land. I could tell you the exact type of airplane it was, from a very long distance away. And just had this real love and affinity for it. I didn’t know aerospace engineering was a thing until I was looking at colleges.
When I went up to the University of Michigan for a tour, I saw they had a whole building for aerospace engineering. I was looking around, thinking, “This is a thing? I could do this? This is my calling. This is what I want to do.”
My performance during freshman year of college was subpar, partially because I was new to college and freedom. I joined a fraternity, and did all the fun stuff you do when you’re 19 years old and living on your own. But I also wasn’t taking those aerospace classes yet.
I went from probably between a C or B average from freshman year to about a 3.8 average the other three years because I loved what I was studying.
I remember getting my first exam back in my aerodynamics class. The professor handed me the test – I got an 85. I asked, “What was the average? Was I right around it?” He said, “The average was 37.” It was like, “Oh, okay. Well, now I’m catching on.” That’s how much I was studying and loving what I was doing. It meant something to me.
On his passion
Matt: With that kind of passion behind aerospace engineering, what made you go down the entrepreneurship route?
Brian: I’m actually a Tampa native. My parents moved down when they were pregnant with me. I knew that this was going to be a long-term home.
Around 2009, I decided I wanted to move back to the Tampa Bay market. I had to find a job, and that was a little bit of a struggle. But, I found a small defense contractor called Sypris Electronics. They made handheld encryption devices, mostly for SOCOM, but also for other places around the country and other defense services.
They were looking for someone who could help them spin up a test engineering department. I worked on a product for a couple of months as a test engineer first to learn the ropes. What we quickly discovered is that out of a company of about 400 people, there was one engineer who could have human conversations with others: me.
All of a sudden, I started getting taken on training missions and talking to the military. I was putting together customer requirements, and building up more of this portfolio. I started to move up from test engineer, to system engineer, to project engineer. Very cool time in my career, very fun time.
I started to work on my MBA over at USF, but the company wasn’t doing so well as a whole. By my third year there, layoffs were constant. I had to look elsewhere, and I found Nielsen. Nielsen had an executive training program where you were a six sigma black belt in their company for two years, and after two years, you graduated and became an executive. I was already a trained and certified black belt, so I said, “Oh, that actually sounds really nice for me, and a great way to progress my career.”
I had gone from engineer to manager, and it would nice to go from manager to executive. And if I could do that in two years rather than 5 to 10 years, great. I also knew Big Data was a big thing, especially the 2013 timeframe. So, I jumped ship and I went over to Nielsen in 2013.
I always knew Nielsen was going to be a temporary thing. The timing worked out nicely because I was also finishing up my MBA at USF, and the executive MBA program was one of the best things I’ve ever done. That’s where I discovered how to be a leader. In the past, I could talk to people, I could step up and say things. But I lacked the confidence in myself to start my own business and truly lead a team.
What I discovered about myself is, it’s a lot more mental and internal than it is situational. Yes, some people are absolute born leaders. However, a lot of people have that leadership quality in them, they just lack one step of confidence. And sometimes, it’s taking that one step that will get you to the next level. So, while doing that, I said, “Alright. I want to launch a company.”
I started a software development company called Popkorn Apps, and it was really its own incubator. It was software development consulting, business planning, business building, and partnerships, all built in one. It helped people with great ideas launch their first business.
On the road to entrepreneurship
Roxanne: Where did the name come from?
Brian: My dad had multiple boats all named Popkorn. It’s a play on our last name of Kornfeld with a K. But really, if you think of what popcorn is, it starts with a kernel. You can’t really do a heck of a lot with just a kernel. But when you put it in the microwave and you pop it, now it’s something you can eat.
It was a side hustle to Nielsen still – it was not supporting me full-time. But it was building, it was growing, and it was profitable off of customer number one. The best part is, it got me ingrained into the startup and entrepreneurship world. I started to realize what that world can be like, how fulfilling it is to work for yourself.
It’s all on you, which is really hard and really fun at the same time. When things aren’t going well, you’re the only one to blame. When things are going well, you’re the only one who gets to celebrate. It’s a fulfilling experience to go down the path.
In 2016, I was trying to find a way to make it work full-time, and I started talking to other people. I got a little bit of inspiration from Greg Ross-Munro, the CEO of Sourcetoad.
Roxanne: Heck yeah!
Matt: Former interviewee and all-around great guy.
Brian: I would assume former interviewee! I love Greg. He formerly worked in the startup space, but was now starting to build enterprise clients. I had met him once but hadn’t really talked to him much. He was someone I clearly should have been talking to for about two years, and he said he had a bunch of people going to him who really should be going to me. He looked at me and he said, “Where have you been all my life?” And I said, “If you’ve been looking for me, and all our mutual connections never told you to come talk to me, that’s a problem.”
There’s something missing in this Tampa Bay community as to why we’re not talking to each other, and there’s something missing in this Tampa Bay community as to why other similarly-sized markets like Nashville, Austin, San Diego, Boulder, and Pittsburgh are passing us on rankings for entrepreneurship and for innovation. I started to wonder why. I began doing some research into the local market. What’s going wrong here, why are we not developing, why are we not moving?
Finally, I had my string of good luck. A couple of things happened at the same time that fell right in my favor. The first related back to my MBA program. The USF executive MBA program has a guest speaker the first Friday of every month, and they invite alumni back to come listen to the speaker.
On, April 1st, 2016, the speaker was some gentleman named Jeff Vinik. I grew up a Lightning fan – I’ve been going to their games since season one. I loved reading about what he was doing with real estate and was very interested in it. At that point, I had not heard a single thing come out of him about an innovation hub, or anything in that realm.
So, I went and I listened to him talk. He spent 20 minutes talking about this and how he was trying to work on the inefficiencies of the market. I went up to him afterwards and I said, “I’m doing this research and I’d love to find a way to help you.”
Didn’t ask for anything, just love to find a way to help you. He gave me his card, and I emailed him three days later. Like when you would meet a girl in a bar and you wait three days before you make the phone call.
Matt: Three day rule with Jeff Vinik!
Brian: I didn’t want to seem overeager [laughter]. So, after three days, I sent him an email and I just said, “I’d love to find a way to help you and support what you’re doing.” Figured there was probably about a 10 to 20 percent chance I was going to hear back from him directly saying, “Let’s meet.” Maybe 20 to 30 percent chance that I was going to hear back from him or somebody else saying, “Hey, I’m in his organization, I’ll meet with you on this.” And probably about a 50% chance I was never going to hear anything and go on my merry way.
I did not care what the answer was. It was going to be 100% okay with me, and I would’ve respected the hell out of him. I would’ve totally gotten it. He was doing so much – and he still is doing so much – and I love everything he’s doing for the city.
Within an hour, I got an email back from him directly saying, “Let’s have a meeting. My assistant’s on copy.” That was it.
I had about 6 weeks to prepare, and I dove in head first. Every waking hour that I wasn’t at Nielsen was focused on this. I wanted to be as well-prepared as humanly possible. Sometimes, you get that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and you don’t know what it’s going to turn into. I didn’t know if it was going to turn into a job, I didn’t know if it was going to turn into a, “Thanks, I appreciate the help.” At a minimum, if I could contribute on some small level to the future of Tampa Bay knowing his influence, every minute that I spent was going to be 100% worth it.
That’s something I like to recommend to people: don’t be of the mindset of how you can be benefited, think of how you can benefit the other side – and the benefit will come back to you in some way or another. There’ll be times when you’ll get taken advantage of, but at the end of the day, something will come and it will resonate and it will work for you.
I went in with that mindset. I did a SWOT analysis for the first time outside of business school, and came up with recommendations. One of the key things was focusing on our core industries.
There are a lot of people who are coming up with some great companies, but they don’t have customers. It’s not that they don’t have customers because it’s a bad business, it’s because they’re not focusing on what local customers want. If you don’t think about the problems you’re trying to solve for customers and how you can build and start to make money, then you’re not really a business. You have to think about the customers that are there. So, if people focused on defense technology, healthcare, financial tech, sports, and entertainment, that would really start to frame this market, building businesses that could grow and sell towards those customers.
Roxanne: Also why Sourcetoad, being in the cruise industry, works so well here.
Brian: Right in the tourism space. We have a cruise ship port, and what they’ve done and grown towards is incredible.
So, that was luck number one. Then came number two. I had a friend who I went to summer camp with named Jesse. Him and his wife invited me and my wife to a 4th of July party at his father-in-law’s house.
I had met his father-in-law once, I knew he did well, but didn’t really know what. Just knew he’d sold a company or two. We started talking, and it turns out he had sold his last company in 2013 and was doing some angel investing locally. There was growth, but it was really inefficient. He was doing research as to why he had to go to every networking event, every pitch competition, and why he had to look at over 1,000 deals a year just to be able to invest in 10 in this new investment fund. This fund was Florida Funders, and that was Marc Blumenthal.
On how Synapse was born
Marc and I realized we were doing a lot of the same research. We set up a 30 minute meeting, and that 30 minutes turned into 2 hours on a whiteboard.
It was complete serendipity, and actually, it’s funny now looking back. Part of our mission is to remove this reliance on serendipity of right place, right time and instead make it more intentional. But it really was a complete right place, right time moment.
Marc, Florida Funders, and the Business Journal put on the first Innovation Summit in January 2017. I called in sick from work so I could attend. Just a phenomenal, very inspiring day.
After the event, Marc sent me an email invite for a meeting about ‘Cuban Sandwich.’ Cuban Sandwich was the codename for how to build this ecosystem-driving community that helped connect everybody. How do we get everybody to start working together?
I brought in my research, Marc brought in his, and that is where the real basis of Synapse started to come from. It was Marc, myself, Ned Pope, Andy Hafer, Mitch Neff, Jim Barnish, Wes Lehman (who came up with the name Synapse), and General Dave Scott.
We had all these great leaders in one room. The goal was to figure out how we could make one strong community across the state of Florida to help people connect to what they need, help people share what they have, help spread the good news, help get people the right education, make everything intentional, and make everything build so that people can get everything that will help them succeed.
Brian: It’s actually not the Cliff’s Notes version, that’s probably the longer version. So sorry [laughter].
Talent in Tampa
Matt: No, this is great. That’s all info that we were going to ask about in other questions. Let me continue on, then. Being that you’ve been in Tampa for a while now, what are your thoughts on the tech talent produced here? We’re always curious about our interviewees’ thoughts, being a staffing agency in Tampa.
Roxanne: And the quality of startups as well.
Brian: There has been a large shift in the last 10 years since I’ve been back. I remember when I was young, there were farms and dirt roads that are now 6-lane highways. The transition of the Tampa Bay market over the last 36 years is really staggering. But now there’s a reason for people to be here. People are talking about the good things that have been happening locally.
Great things have taken place right under our noses for a long period of time. Tampa Airport was one of the first commercial organisations to use an autonomous vehicle. They had their monorail system before Disney did.
Roxanne: I’m so excited you brought that up! We just interviewed Marcus Session from the airport a few weeks ago.
Brian: Well good, glad I hit that one then!
Defense and all the technology that goes into it, like logistics, research, security, intelligence. Utilizing blockchain and cryptocurrency to help to track what’s going on on the dark web.
We also have a lot of good schools creating tech talent here. USF, Muma College of Business, College of Engineering, College of Health, Florida Poly, University of Tampa, SPC. Then there are the unheralded schools like Ringling – they do a lot with web design. Jody Haneke, who is a graduate of Ringling, has won a ton of Webbies. They’re right out of downtown Tampa and they do projects like augmented reality for the Freedom Tower in New York. It’s not like they’re a small local web-building company, they’re a national and they do incredible work. They did the UX for Synapse Connect’s platform. I’m very proud of it.
Roxanne: They’re amazing.
Matt: We didn’t talk to Jody, but Jesse Curry was one of our first interviews.
Brian: Yeah. I know Jesse very well.
Roxanne: I remember we went to their office and the shelves were just covered in–
Brian: Webby, Webby, Webby, Webby, Webby, Webby, Webby [laughter].
Mark Royals co-founded a company out of Clearwater called OnMed. The name Mark Royals may sound familiar to football fans, because he used to be the punter for the Bucks. Look at Vincent Jackson and his career transition from being a Bucks receiver to being an investor, then look at the military that transitions. There’s incredible talent sitting right at MacDill Air Force Base, SOCOM, and Centcom. After 20 years, they need something to do and they have such great leadership skills and tangible skills.
A gentleman named Kent Paro, who is a Senior Vice President at Grow Financial, came from Special Operations Command, and some of the things he’s done helped train him to build a culture there. You wouldn’t think going from the military to a federal credit union would be a logical transition, but it can be. There’s a lot of great talent right here in our area. A lot of great businesses are now really trying to look for them.
Tech talent retention
Roxanne: What can Tampa do about tech talent retention? Where do you feel the pain points are when it comes to why people leave?
Brian: We have to talk about the wins and talk about ConnectWise, myMatrixx, Tribridge – the big exits. There are some great things that are happening right here that we just don’t talk about.
If a student at USF has the opportunity to work for Publix or work for Twitter, they’re probably going to pick Twitter. They don’t know what Publix is doing on the tech side. It’s not broadcasted well.
There’s a company called FIVE Labs that does surgical training for new orthopedic procedures and it’s right around the corner from here. It’s a phenomenal facility. Anybody who’s graduating from the College of Health in that space should really be looking there. There are some great things that go on here, we just have to talk about them. We have to get exposure to them.
That’s why we set up the exhibitors at the Synapse Summit the way that we do: to give exposure to people who don’t normally get it. Give that opportunity to talk about our key wins, and if we can continue to do that and spread the word, if we can rely on groups like AmericanInno to keep doing what they’ve been doing so far, we’re going to see talent not just want to stay here, but want to come here as well.
Look at the fact that we just had two companies from here pitch for startup of the year at SXSW.
Roxanne: Verapy and Immertec.
Brian: Yes! That should have been on the front page of every newspaper here. That’s what I’m looking for. These are things that we should be celebrating.
How we can get more attention in media
Matt: Outside of the Tampa Bay Business Journal, what publications do you consider to be a good source of business/tech news?
Roxanne: St. Pete Catalyst is awesome at covering our business news.
Brian: Margie at the Catalyst is doing a great job with this every day. Tampa Bay Inno is doing a great job every single day. A lot of props goes to Lauren Coffey and what she does. We just have to keep building on it and make sure they realize it doesn’t stop. We have a great opportunity on May 1st to get national attention with Rise of the Rest coming here.
The Times is starting to come around a little bit more. They had a reporter who came to Synapse Summit on the first day just to check it out. He came back the second day with a group of photographers. Our journalists are starting to take notice. We just have to keep building on the momentum, doing things throughout the year, and giving people reasons to stay engaged continually.
To get back to the pain points… This is a great place to live. You have great weather most of the year, depending on if you like hot heat or not. You have great beaches. Really, you can live where people vacation. But, a lot of people knock us for the salaries that our companies will pay talent.
When I moved here from California, I took a very significant pay cut, probably about 15%, and I ended up taking home more money. Additionally, living here was also less expensive. I had more money in my paycheck. People don’t think about it in that light, but you have to think of the net at the end of the day, not just the gross.
Roxanne: The problem is not relocation, it’s remote work. My partner used to work locally, but now he works at a company out of New York, completely remote, making more money than he’d make here.
Matt: With the low cost of living.
Roxanne: Yeah. He’s getting all the advantages of Tampa life and a New York pay. How do we compete with that?
Brian: Yes, there are those opportunities and there are those question marks – but look at Peerfit. They’re a 100% remote company that’s based in Tampa. They don’t have an office, but they’re based here. Ed Buckley lives here. So, you can do both. This is not an either/or, it’s not a zero sum game.
Roxanne: I enjoy getting different points of view on that. I bring that example up a lot, because it’s a problem that we face. Really, I’d much rather our local talent work locally.
Brian: It is a problem. It’s absolutely a problem.
Matt: Do you still lecture at USF? You mentioned the lectures earlier.
Brian: I do. At USF, I will do a guest lecture once a semester or so, particularly on Lean Six Sigma in different environments. Sometimes, I get asked to come and speak in a class to talk about Synapse, and about what we’re doing in the innovation community now. And it spreads out a little bit more. I like giving back, giving people opportunity, and giving people the chance to ask questions. Look at what happened with me and Jeff Vinik – him coming to talk, and what that can do for a career trajectory. I want to give those opportunities to other people. In fact, I’ve had people who have taken great advantage of it, and I love when people reach out to me after a lecture.
A couple of weeks ago, I did one class at USF and one class at the University of Tampa. I had a call with someone from USF where I helped them with a startup concept and gave them ideas on monetization. I’m also helping mentor a student from UT, who was a competitor for Startup Weekend. Additionally, one of the women who was in that UT class reached out about interning, and she now works with us.
So, you never know unless you ask. The worst thing that I can do is say, “I’m busy.” Or, we have a conversation and it might waste a half an hour of my day, but to me, that’s still worth it, and it’s still worth the way to potentially give back to others. I’ve seen what it’s meant to me and I never want to be the person who just sits in a corner office and has a guard up that nobody can ever access or reach.
Roxanne: Sit in an ivory tower.
Brian: Exactly [laughter].
Matt: Who is someone in Tampa that you think is doing something cool and innovative in the tech outside of your immediate vicinity or circle?
Brian: I love what Immertec is doing. I’m a big fan of Eric and his team. They have a really good shot to go all the way, which is really great to see. They’re solving a true problem. I also grew up in a medical family, so the VR training aspect is a very good thing to see and I would love to see how that can grow and scale.
Any time I get to walk around Sofwerx, it’s fun for me – especially with a defense background. Get to see the drones, any of the toys that they get to play with, and they are always pushing boundaries. They’re always trying to think outside the box, so just getting that immersive experience, it’s a great opportunity and it’s a hidden gem that’s right in our backyard.
The other one is a company that just moved here from Gainesville called Grifin. They’re a financial tech company and they’re trying to help disturb the way that people do any type of trading, or even really utilize credit unions. They just moved here within the last month and getting themselves established, and they are a sharp group of people.
Book / podcast recs
Matt: Those are great companies, thank you for mentioning them. Do you have any podcast or book recommendations for our readership?
Brian: Book recommendations for sure. I have three.
There’s a book that I read when I was doing my MBA called High Commitment, High Performance, and I don’t recommend it only for executives, I recommend it for team members as well. It’s about how high performing teams can be highly committed to their staff as well, and it gives great examples.
The second book is called Made to Stick. It’s a great book about how to come up with ideas and good stories that go with them, that are really going to be innovative, and commit to those brands and that brand message.
There’s one other off the top of my head. The Lean Startup. There are two ways of doing a startup. Either throw everything and the kitchen sink in there and hope that it works, or go lean, measure, find customers, see what works, and grow from there, one thing at a time.
I think a lot of people miss that because they have this idea, they have this grandiose vision, and they think they have to have everything in there to get to the vision. But, you have no clue what your company is going to look like in two or three years. Things change, and the world we live in changes every second of every day – so change with it, be adaptable with it, and utilize what’s going to work.
Roxanne: Final one. Any further thoughts you’d like to share, anything exciting coming down the pipeline for Synapse or for yourself?
Brian: Synapse Challenges – we’re going to continue to have more of those, so be on the lookout because that’s a great way for innovators, talent, and people who are looking for jobs to get involved. Companies are using them as a talent pipeline. We’ve seen real results, and it gives you an opportunity to think outside the box, to really push the envelope and try something on a small scale that you want to try on a larger scale.
Be on the lookout for Synapse Summit 2020 dates coming soon, and other Synapse programming across the state. We’re working to expand across Florida. We grew and we launched here in Tampa Bay, but for us to be successful, we really have to grow across the state.
Take advantage of the opportunities that are in front of you. There are a lot of them. A lot of people are working very hard right now to enable those. If you have great dreams, push for them.
I have a whole bunch of quotes up on the wall behind me that I like to look at, and the one right in the middle (and the first one I put up there) is from Michigan’s football coach, Jim Harbaugh. It says, “If your friends aren’t laughing at your dreams, you aren’t aiming high enough.” So, let people laugh at your dreams, and work hard. This is a hard environment to be in, but the rewards are very much worth it.
Synapse believes that connections are the key to accelerate a thriving innovation community, driving Florida’s economic growth, and attracting/retaining top talent – now and for generations to come. Synapse lives to enable the connections that allow innovators to easily find what they need and share what they have in order to succeed.
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