Network of business support nurtures Clearwater entrepreneurs

When Larry Buckler died suddenly two years ago, his wife, Kaye, wasn’t sure she’d be able to shoulder the burden of their small business alone.

The couple had been together for 30 years. For 24 of those, they owned and operated Pest Care of Pinellas. Kaye handled the bookkeeping and scheduled clients; Larry “did all the major physical work,” she says.
People encouraged her to sell the company, to find something else to do with her time. “They said, ‘Why don’t you focus on something you love, like dogs or the arts,’” she says. “But I’m stubborn.” She wanted to keep the business alive as tribute to her late husband. She just didn’t know where to turn.

That’s when she was introduced to the Technical Arts Facility for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (TAFFIE), a small business incubator. At the time, Steve Allen, CEO/founder of DocuPhase, had just founded TAFFIE, devoting an entire floor of his company’s building to the endeavor, which today offers a month-by-month co-working space and a weekly roundtable meeting for entrepreneurs. These discussions take place every Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. and regularly draw around 50 people.

The incubator is a way to develop talent locally, Allen says. “It’s economically beneficial,” he adds. “The more jobs you have, the more people you attract, and the better the talent pool.”

For Kaye, those early roundtable meetings were a lifesaver. “These guys are amazing,” she says. “They really know what they’re doing and helped me develop the confidence to keep it up.” Today, her business is thriving. While she plans to grow it organically, she’s already eyeing expansion into other areas within the region.

This spring, TAFFIE went on to partner with other entities to form Clearwater Business SPARK, which brings together a variety of resources for entrepreneurs and small business owners. In addition to TAFFIE, partners in the program include the city of Clearwater’s Economic Development and Housing Department, the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Small Business Development Center at Pinellas County Economic Development, and the Clearwater Public Library System.

Business incubators and city-run programs that encourage the growth of small and emerging businesses are certainly nothing new. In fact, the staff at the Economic Development and Housing Department studied various incubators in the area as they developed their plan for SPARK.

Collaboration breaks down silos, benefits business

For a year, they visited these facilities, including Tampa Bay WaVE, a nonprofit that helps entrepreneurs launch their tech companies through a workshop series, coworking space and mentorship. Similarly, the Greenhouse in St. Petersburg and the HuB in Sarasota offer small businesses counseling, training and networking under one roof. Meanwhile, just a quick drive out of the Tampa Bay area is Orlando’s National Entrepreneur Center, an endeavor that was created by Walt Disney World, the Orange County government and the University of Central Florida.
SPARK’s model is slightly different, though. Rather than a one-stop shop, it brings together several partners. Each of these partners has their own programs for small businesses in place, and have operated separately until now. 

“Prior to this network being formed, everyone was doing their own thing,” says Audra Aja, Clearwater’s economic development coordinator. “There really wasn’t a collaborative effort to deliver those services. So that’s what we we’re hoping to achieve by developing SPARK, to help entrepreneurs and businesses find the resources that they need.”

The partners complement each other well, and there are resources for every stage of starting a business, Aja says. For fledgling businesses and entrepreneurs, who likely can’t afford to rent an office or workspace, the library is a good place to start. Meeting rooms can be rented for free and the library system offers Makerspace tools, including 3-D printers, as well as a green screen and video camera, which can be used to make prototypes and promotional materials. 

The library also regularly partners with SCORE, which offers free mentorship and educational opportunities, and has launched a popular Etsy workshop, which teaches people how to start an Etsy business, Aja says.

All SPARK partners offer their own educational and networking opportunities, and work together to refer entrepreneurs to necessary resources.

Since SPARK launched in March -- with around 200 entrepreneurs, small business owners and local leaders present at the kick-off event -- Aja says her phone continues to ring off the hook on a daily basis. People want to know more about the partners and how SPARK can help their companies grow. 
“I didn’t even know all of these resources existed,” Kaye says. In recent months, she’s connected with a business mentor through the Florida Small Business Development Center and attended various networking events.

Structure, support key to success for entrepreneurs

James Spencer, founder of Crescent Womb, also found success through attending the TAFFIE roundtable discussions and taking advantage of other SPARK offerings. He knew he had a winning idea with his specially designed baby cradles, which were inspired by the birth of his daughter in 2014, but he didn’t know where to start.

At the time, he was only 22 and was a business student at St. Petersburg College. So he sought guidance from others at TAFFIE, leaving each roundtable with a new task to complete by the next meeting.

He launched his company on Aug. 8. Business Insider featured the business and its crowdfunding campaign on its website. The featured video had more than 18 million views and the company made $200,000 in sales before the month was over. Spencer currently employs nine people in Clearwater, where he operates out of the space at TAFFIE, and is actively seeking a larger production space.

Without TAFFIE and SPARK, he never would have achieved this success, he says. He’d had other business ideas in the past that never came to fruition. 

“I think mainly because I didn’t have something to keep me accountable, something to keep me on schedule and on track,” he says. “The structure and support of the group was vitally important to the success.”
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Tiffany Razano is a Pinellas County-based writer and editor covering the City of Clearwater and other news and features in the Tampa Bay region for 83 Degrees.