DADE CITY — As the owner of a fledgling home-based business, Kellye Dash liked being able to work in her PJs but found productivity a challenge.
"You feel so isolated," said Dash, a former IT employee who quit in 2012 to turn her part-time side business into a full-time venture. Though she liked being her own boss, she also missed bouncing ideas off colleagues.
So when she learned about SMARTstart, Pasco County's new business incubator in Dade City, the Wesley Chapel resident couldn't wait to apply.
Her business, the Busy Buddy, was among the first seven firms accepted into the program, which opened its first office last fall in the Dade City Business Center.
The 2,500-square-foot incubator provides office space, free Wi-Fi and meeting space for clients. But more important, Dash said, it offers training in how to run and grow a business.
Through workshops, conducted in a room aptly decorated in a garage motif, she learned how to interpret body language, how to negotiate and how to market her business, which provides a host of support services, from social media management to report preparation and accounting. Like the other members, Dash also was assigned a mentor.
"I can bounce anything off someone," Dash said, referring to SMARTstart director Krista Covey as "my angel."
Covey, an employee of the Pasco Economic Development Council, was tapped last year to lead the charge as Pasco made its first foray into business incubators.
"They're like my baby chicks," Covey said of the seven members, who were on hand for an open house Friday to show off the now-filled quarters to potential new members — and donors.
Members must come up with a six-month business plan to be accepted into the program. They also must be either new, relocating or transitioning from home and seeking to grow. Priority is given to businesses that build on local strengths, have high employment potential, export products or services, replace imported products or services, provide new products or services or deliver them in a unique way and that meet unsatisfied community needs. Those approved may stay up to two years and then are re-evaluated.
"We're not here to provide free office space," Covey said. "Our goals are to create jobs and economic development."
An idea snowballs
The EDC laid the groundwork for the program several years ago when it established the Pasco Enterprise Network. It combined a variety of assistance agencies so that entrepreneurs would find "no wrong door" when seeking help.
The program got off the ground with a $100,000 donation last year from Pasco County government, along with $50,000 that the EDC collected in private money. The Dade City Commission kicked in $50,000. The Dade City Business Center provides discounted rent and utilities.
Covey said the services have been in high demand. Already she is searching for more space in Dade City. Recently, the EDC announced the opening of a west Pasco location in a city-owned former post office building at 6347 Grand Blvd. in New Port Richey. Economic development officials would also like to open an incubator someday in the Zephyrhills area.
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The local incubators join three already in the Tampa Bay area. The rise of so many at once causes some to ask whether incubators are a fad and whether you can have too many.
"Sure, there can always be too much of a good thing," said John Lax, a faculty member at Saint Leo University's business school and adviser to its student-run consulting firm. "However, if we look at opportunities and growth in Pasco, I think it can easily support incubator expansion. The nice thing about the SMARTstart style model is that instead of a large, very expensive centralized incubator, we have smaller, very localized facilities that are not only closer to the potential clients but also use resources very efficiently."
The incubator advances a goal suggested in the recent report from the Urban Land Institute, a national panel of experts that visited the county last year. The panelists urged the county to work with existing businesses, most of them with fewer than nine employees, to help them expand and create jobs.
That opinion was echoed by Daniel Scott, an entrepreneur who helped start the Gazelle Lab incubator at USF St. Petersburg and teaches entrepreneur studies there.
Scott said diversifying economic development spending and building more home-grown jobs might offer "a more sustainable and long-term strategy than simply acquiring new jobs from elsewhere."
Pasco County Commissioner Ted Schrader, who served as the county liaison to the EDC when the incubator idea was developed, said the big outside employers are important, but they can be fickle.
"We probably focused too much on the big fish as opposed to the entry-level business operator," he said. "If you take a look at it, small business is clearly the economic backbone of Pasco County. It makes sense to give them the help they need to be able to move their ideas and resources out of the garage."
Besides, said citrus farmer Schrader, whose great-grandparents started with a single orange tree, look at electronics giant Apple. Steve Jobs "started it in his parents' garage."
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Ken Buzzie is the owner of Computers Etc. in the Dade City SMARTstart business incubator. Due to incorrect information supplied to the Times, a story Sunday listed another employee.