Urban Stimuli: East Tampa incubator helps local small businesses thrive

Occasionally, I have to be shaken out of my comfort bubble. That is, of craft coffee bars, runs along Bayshore Boulevard, and concerns about which brand of organic skincare to buy at Whole Foods.

It’s easy to forget the kinds of challenges, and solutions, that exist out in the wider world, even if only a few miles away.

5508 is the street number and name of Tampa Hillsborough Action Plan’s co-working space and business incubator. It’s nestled off East Hillsborough Avenue on the fringes of Tampa’s city limits, in an area not often traveled by most, among warehouses and industrial complexes.

Small businesses at THAP 5508 brighten up a once old storage space in Tampa.Inside, though, it’s a hive of activity and excitement. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was in Austin or some other hip sort of place that would have the neat idea to renovate storage units into micro-storefronts and offices.

There’s a center courtyard where members can gather for events or just to chat, or they can retreat to the privacy of their offices. 

Nighttime and weekend events are programmed regularly for members to socialize with the community. Food trucks visit often and a coffee shop will soon be open onsite.

Typical co-working spaces and business incubators mimic the open floor plans of tech companies, per the trend of the last few years, but is that really the best way to both be collaborative and actually focus on your own to-do list?

Hands-on training

Though East Tampa is considered an economically disadvantaged area, it’s not short on entrepreneurial spirit. 5508 aims to legitimize local businesses through its hands-on incubator and PITCH (Push, Improve, Teach, Challenge, and Help) program, in collaboration with the Tampa Bay Black Business Investment Corporation, Small Business Development Council, and TD Bank.

Designed as a three-year training program, PITCH lessons and lectures are mandatory and cover topics like finance and accounting, scalability and growth strategies, marketing, time management, and negotiation. Attendees also learn how to dress and speak appropriately for business meetings and address customer service issues.

Initial “Shark Tank”-esque interviews help determine if potential trainees have viable business concepts and are coachable. There is currently a waiting list of 75 to join the 5508 and PITCH.

While non-techies may find Tampa Bay WaVE and USF’s business incubator intimidating with their focus on technology, 5508 is a bridge for all types of businesses. Disadvantaged communities often lack access to the latest technologies relative to other demographics, and still have a legitimate need for more traditional services.

Thus, the 45 current “collaborists” and “anchors” at the facility include a law firm, a magazine, a radio station, a men’s suiting shop and tailor, and a landscaper.

Many of 5508’s member businesses start with little or nothing, and under the guiding hand of the PITCH teachers and mentors, mature to the point where they’re comfortable and confident approaching banks for loans or submitting proposals for new work.

And after their three years are complete? The biggest challenge for these businesses is answering the question of where to go when they graduate.

THAP interim CEO Derrick Blue: “We’re developing paths for our participants to take after they leave the incubator, which could be commercial and retail space owned and operated by THAP.”  Derrick Blue, interim CEO of THAP Group in Tampa.

The five-year plan may be market-rate space that serves as the next bridge, between germinating business and bountiful, self-sustaining enterprise.

Tampa Hillsborough Action Plan, Inc. (THAP) is an umbrella organization that also provides housing support through Coastal Bay Properties and health services through Synergy Health Centers, all located in and serving East Tampa.

“THAP is interested in addressing the whole person. Good health and safe, reliable housing lends itself to business stability and growth, which in turn benefits the entire community, locally and in the wider regional context. The issues are all interrelated.

Who is the purpose, not what.”

Smaller, more localized successes lead to interest from bigger businesses, which improve overall quality of life in the area, and provide more job opportunities for residents. 

“We’re in this for the long run, to benefit East Tampa.”

Success stories

First as a co-worker, now on his second, larger space at 5508, Ben Walker is one of the runaway successes.

Ben Walker, owner of Buyer's Point at his office at THAP 5508, a co-working exchange.His business is Buyer’s Point, an online retail store. After eight years of 30 percent annual growth, he is targeting over $1 million in revenue for 2018. That’s staggering to imagine, considering the simplicity of his product: wall plates for switch panels, from simple on-off light switches to dimmer switches and specialized controls for home theaters and sound systems.

Walker has 150,000 customers worldwide, sells through eBay and Amazon, and handles his entire business from 5508 (Suite 13).

A few doors down, Daryl Johnson is CEO of N-Touch News, an online radio station and printed circular. Since 1996, after a career in the postal service, Johnson has run N-Touch to provide quality content to The Bay Area with shows like Dr. V’s Place and Dear Girlfriend. The lineup also includes hours dedicated to sports, entertainment, cigars, and mental health. 

In between shows, he plays gospel music and clean hip-hop.

While much of his content and content consumption is local, 40 percent of his online listeners are international, primarily from Canada and Germany, and on U.S. military bases around the world.

Johnson: “5508 is on the cutting edge here. I feel like I’m really part of the community, especially when the courtyard is full of people.”

THAP’s 5508 business incubator is innovative, imaginative, and demonstrating returns already. It’s the right format for East Tampa, and one we could all learn from. And, it’s one of several business incubators and accelerators that is changing the face of business in urban Tampa.

The best part of my being assigned story topics, often against my wishes, is when they pleasantly surprise and delight me. This is one of them.
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Read more articles by Alex English.

Alex English is a Tampa native who has lived in Sarasota, Seattle, New York, Bordeaux and Milan. He is passionate about urban development, retail and style, and publishes Remarqed, a personal blog on those subjects.