Pre-incubator program arms ambitious entrepreneurs with tools they need

The Tampa Bay Innovation Center returns with its tenth CO.STARTERS cohort on Tuesday, Sept. 15. The nine-week facilitator-led course will be held virtually via Zoom.
The goal of the prominent pre-incubator program is to arm ambitious entrepreneurs with the tools they need to move toward a sustainable and successful endeavor.
A component of the CO.STARTERS curriculum is dedicated to customer discovery via research and interviews to help entrepreneurs learn about their customers and what they need.
When all is said and done, the Tampa Bay Innovation Center expects the cohort participants to take some form of action.

"[They] will either launch their business, understand their customers more clearly, pivot or figure out that they are not ready to start a business," says Chris Paradies, CO.STARTERS facilitator and Tampa Bay Innovation Center chairman.

Paradies says that nearly 80 percent of all businesses fail within the first five years.

"Using CO.STARTERS to validate an idea is much better than spending resources on a service, product, or solution that no one really wants," he says.
"By participating in a program like CO.STARTERS, the chances of survival increase significantly," Paradies explains. "Companies entering an incubator have an 87 percent survival rate compared to the 44 percent that does it on their own."

Like all programs with an in-person aspect, CO.STARTERS had to adjust and accept the challenges of going virtual when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered group gatherings.
"The challenges are similar to any virtual program with getting interaction between cohort members," says Paradies. "Networking is also a big component of the program. The cohort interacts with each other and with the business experts and mentors that donate their time to the program. By offering the class online, the networking component isn’t as effective."

"We have adjusted by scheduling the business experts in advance and by offering individual mentoring sessions to those that need it during the program," he says. "We have also shifted a heavier focus on the digital marketing and social media component of the program for the cohort members."

In past cohorts, there has been a variety of industries participating -- from arts-related nonprofits, medical device companies, and tech. Recent cohorts, thanks in part to a partnership with Creative Pinellas, have included a mix of creatives from digital marketing experts, podcasters, songwriters, voice actors, product-based companies, and artists.
"We partnered with Creative Pinellas in the spring of 2016, due to the demand from local artists and other creative industries," says Tonya Elmore, President, and CEO of the Tampa Bay Innovation Center.
"Sponsorship that covers program expenses for creatives, artists, and arts-related organizations is provided by Creative Pinellas," she says. "The goal is to provide participants the tools they need to survive in their industry, create jobs, and add to the economic activity in Pinellas County. Approximately 100 artists have participated in the program."
CO.STARTERS is a twice-annual program conducted in the spring and fall. For more information or to get on the waiting list for the spring cohort, visit Tampa Bay Innovation Center's CO.STARTERS page. For even more information, visit the Tampa Bay Innovation Center.

Read more articles by Allison Koehler.

Allison Koehler is a Cleveland-area native who now lives in Tampa by way of Detroit. She resides in Seminole Heights with her partner, Phil, and three children -- one human and two cats. When she isn't writing, she's watching pro football, listening to music, or streaming Netflix and Amazon Prime. 
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