Coaching Urban Entrepreneurs: Bradenton-Sarasota

Mutual passion brought architect Javi Suarez and concrete artist Ben Nettles together to form Red Linen Design in Bradenton. Participation in the inaugural UEP on the Suncoast business coaching program is designed to help them ensure their business remains sustainable long into the future.

Red Linen Design was one of nine businesses culled from 48 applicants from Bradenton to as far south as Venice to participate in the first round of this innovative personalized business coaching program.

UEP on the Suncoast was established through the Urban Entrepreneur Partnership, Inc., a separate 501(c)3 program of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, to support entrepreneurs in Florida's Sarasota and Manatee counties. The first UEP on the Suncoast coaching group kicked off in April.  The second starts today.

"The UEP is committed to providing high-quality entrepreneurial coaching and helping businesses grow," says Daryl Williams, president and chief executive officer. "The basis of this design is UEP's one-to-one coaching model. Each entrepreneur receives an individual coach, a personalized development plan, and access to a world-class network of entrepreneurial coaching and information. The 'best value' for companies that participate is the intense concentration on growing their business to the next stage."

Suncoast Community Capital (SCC) provided funding for the contractual relationship thanks to grants from Wells Fargo and the Bradenton Central Community Redevelopment Agency. This is the first UEP in Florida, and one of only six UEP programs nationwide.

The relationship is special in that all parties have investment in the outcomes. "It is a partnership where everyone involved has 'skin' in the game -- and when you have 'skin' in the game, you're more invested, no matter what it is," says Mike Kennedy, SCC president and chief executive officer.

Concrete Coaching For Solid Results

Nettles and Suarez aren't novices when it comes to running a successful business. In addition to being an award-winning illustrator, Nettles owns Ben Nettles Concrete Design. Javi Suarez, a talented painter featured in galleries nationally, also is an award-winning architect alongside his father, Javier Suarez Sr., at Apex Studio Suarez.

But it didn't take a concrete knock on the head for the two to see their common enthusiasm for fusing art and architecture as an opportunity to design and manufacture functional art. Using a unique fabric-forming process and fiberglass-reinforced concrete, they create organic shapes with sensuous textures.

"I have been a practicing architect for 15 years and Ben has been creating custom concrete countertops and furniture for eight years. Our ideas evolved from the architectural design process," explains Suarez. Their work includes tables, benches, counters, walls, floors and free-form sinks.

Both saw UEP coaching as another tool to grow their year-old collaboration. "While we each have successful businesses, including this one, we're artists and neither of us have business or marketing backgrounds. This program has helped us to focus on things like market research, which demonstrated to us that the market for our products is broader than we first thought," Suarez adds.

Initially, Red Linen Design targeted residential clients, but UEP helped identify other potential markets, leading to the design of 10 benches for the Downtown Bradenton Transit Authority station. "This was a niche we weren't initially aiming for but now may lead to more commercial business in other municipalities," says Suarez.  More work, more employees.

Short-Term Coaching, Long-Term ROI

The SCC started a second session today (July 31) and plans to announce participants in August.  The selection process is pretty simple, says Kennedy.

Once businesses apply, the SCC and the UEP vet and interview the applicants. Companies are selected based on that review and by meeting specific program criteria, Kennedy explains. "We base our decision on their ability to quickly improve their profitability to the point they are creating jobs as a result of the coaching. We look for companies with growth potential."

The program is a hybrid of in-person coaching and high-definition video conferencing. The UEP's lead coach, Ed Bernica, and SCC meet with all the companies, data is reviewed, and the tailored development plan is crafted.

"There is nothing cookie-cutter about it," adds Kennedy.

Tracy Knight, president of Knight Marketing, agrees. Her health-care marketing firm in Venice has been up and running since 1977, but her years in corporate communications didn't provide a complete business finance education. "Every participant gets a different and distinctive value from the coaching. For me, it's like a veil being lifted. Getting an education in entrepreneurial finance is giving me the information I need to make decisions that will help my business grow," she says.

The program involves a rigorous three-month coaching engagement, peppered every two weeks by a two-hour high-definition videoconference with a coach. Some people, like Knight, attend additional breakout modules. Between each session, participants have 10-15 hours of follow up -- homework Suarez calls it -- to keep them moving between engagements.

The UEP is a research-based organization with a commitment to data and outcomes, so an important piece of this program is quantified results. The UEP collects 250 pieces of data on each business that will be monitored over time.
"As part of their agreement with us, each company consents to providing data for at least three years on these 250 points. So good, bad or ugly, we can report to them, the UEP and the community funders on how they have succeeded in increasing their revenues, increasing their profits, and creating jobs, " says Kennedy.

Other companies participating in the inaugural session were:

Manatee Community Federal Credit Union
Milan Catering and Event Design
The Ringling College Center for Applied Creativity and Innovation
Southwest Solutions
Suncoast Digital Press
Trade Mark Interiors

Recruiting takes place quarterly. Entrepreneurs are eligible to apply if they are residents of Manatee or Sarasota counties; have an idea for a business; or already operate a for-profit or nonprofit business, excluding religious or political organizations.

The UEP on the Suncoast office and coaching classes are at 5901 North Honore Ave., Suite 120, Sarasota, FL 34243, within IntegraClick’s company headquarters. 

Applications are available at the UEP website.  For more information, email Mike Kennedy or visit the SCC website.

Sandra Caswell Hice is a freelance writer living in Tampa with two dogs, two cats and husband Joe. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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