St. Petersburg is a haven for small business. Tech startups, innovative law firms, niche marketing companies and mom-and-pop coffee shops and eateries are the backbone of what makes St. Pete great. Despite the thriving small business ecosystem, entrepreneurship has never been easy. In fact, according to St. Pete’s resident professional business consultant and coach Barry Foster, starting your own business is always going to be harder, more expensive and more time-consuming than expected.
That healthy dose of reality combined with an unyielding tenacity says a lot about why Foster has been at the helm of the EA since 2012. Affectionately known as Mr. EA, tonight will mark the start of Foster’s 15th consecutive season hosting the program, held each fall and spring to teach small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs the basic portfolio of skills required to successfully strike out on their own. EA is located at the Greenhouse, the home of the partnership between the City of St. Petersburg and the Chamber, known as St. Petersburg’s “front-door to business growth.”
Founded in 1995, the Entrepreneurial Academy has long been an essential tool for helping St. Petersburg’s small business owners. But leading up to 2012, the program had gone dormant. Chris Steinocher took over as CEO of the St. Petersburg Chamber in 2011 and began working with Sean Kennedy (now the manager of the Greenhouse) to resurrect the program, but they needed the right person to get it off the ground. They asked Foster to help out – just until the first week of class. That first week turned into 10 weeks and ultimately, years. “I haven’t done any less than every single week since,” Foster laughed.
The ten-week EA program covers everything from business plans to marketing, law, finance and community resources for businesses. According to Foster, the program is in constant iteration, with new speakers, topics, and industry evolutions each cohort, thanks to the feedback of the last one. EA has graduated well over 300 students over the years, many of whom are now running successful St. Pete businesses.
Tanner Loebel, founder of FoodNow, an app-based meal delivery service that was acquired by Minneapolis-based BiteSquad in 2017, is an EA graduate. “Tanner is a good example of somebody who paid the price, spent an inordinate amount of time being alone in a car with a laptop with a cell phone – doing doing doing,” said Foster. “By the time he got invited to Minneapolis by BiteSquad, he was from Crystal River to Fort Myers. How often do those stories happen?” Last year, Loebel’s serial entrepreneurship continued when he opened the 600-block favorite fast-casual restaurant Pacific Counter with his partners.
Other notable alums include Club Savor founder Roger Curling, who founded an EA alumni group after graduation; Blush Tea + Coffee founder Lori Bishop, who retired from her corporate job of 28 years to pursue her small business dream; and Wandering Whisk Bakeshop founder Jen Jacobs, who recently opened her first brick-and-mortar store.
Foster often invites alumni back to tell new cohorts about their experience. That connection with other business owners and cohorts of the Entrepreneurial Academy is just one of the many invaluable benefits of the program, which for $399 includes course instruction, a weekly meal catered by a Chamber member, and a full-year Chamber membership after graduation.
Foster works hard to ensure that the presenters each week are not only experts in their field, but entertaining presenters. Because most of the participants in the Entrepreneurial Academy are working full-time already, engaging messages and unique insight are top priorities. Participants are also given the opportunity to ask industry-specific questions from finance, law, human resources and marketing professionals, unparalleled access they would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.
“By the time students leave they have a three-inch three-ring binder filled with material,” said Foster. “Many of our EA grads still refer to that manual.”
“If you’ve got a seed of an idea, the Greenhouse is the place to bring it,” Foster explained. “And it if you want to start a business, the Entrepreneurial Academy is the place to come in and learn things that you’re gonna need to learn in order to launch, survive, grow and perpetuate it.”
According to Foster, EA is for anyone who feels the entrepreneur bug. That includes those already in business, who may need to round out their skillsets or brush up on new skills, like digital marketing. The program is even for those currently employed who may not be feeling happy where they are, and thinking they want to go out on their own.
One of the key factors, Foster believes, is not just what EA graduates learn about running a business. It’s about what they learn about themselves. The process of discerning whether entrepreneurship is the right choice can be just as valuable as the hard business skills themselves.
“We have some folks that will come in here and say, ‘I have an idea, not exactly sure what is,'” Foster explained. “By the time they graduate, that idea has blossomed. They have a business plan, marketing plan, financial plan. They have taken this bull by the horns. They are already launched and they have business on their website by the time they graduate. We’re only giving you the top-level instruction, they’re supplying all of the fuel and the horsepower.”
“Other folks have a business already and when they graduate they say, ‘I now know how much I didn’t know about running a business when I started.'”
The third type comes in with a foggy idea of what they want to do, he said. “When they graduate they say, ‘I now know what to takes to start my own business and I don’t want to do that. I’m going to be a better employee.'”
Foster knows personally how difficult small business ownership can be, and how important the perspective of those who have gone through it is for participants in the program. He has been a professional development coach and small business strategist since 1996, and as he will freely admit, his journey has certainly not been without struggle.
His book, Overcoming Your Funk: Practical Advice and Strategies for Reigniting Your Spirit and Taking Charge of Your Life, details two years of Foster’s own personal and professional funk, following his move to St. Petersburg and the subsequent Great Recession, a funk that nearly wiped out his business.
“When I was in Connecticut I was an institution,” Foster recalled. “But in the greater St. Pete area, no one knew me and no one cared.”
So Foster decided to become an institution once more. He changed his mindset. Instead of thinking of networking and brand building as, “I’ve already done this, I don’t need to do it again,” he reframed his thought process.
“What makes you successful in the first place will you make you successful again,” Foster said. “I decided that visibility creates credibility, creates endorsement.” So Foster joined the St. Petersburg Chamber, hosted free lunch-and-learns and founded the Tampa Bay Coaches’ Association.
“One of the ways you can get out of a funk is to own it,” said Foster. “I said to myself, ‘I screwed up and I own that. Now I’m gonna turn it around.'”
Foster was named Chamber Member of the Year, the highest honor a member can receive, in 2013.
“I’m now stronger, bigger, better, faster, busier, and my checkbook is more full than it ever was before,” Foster said. “Going through that was not – for me – debilitating or degrading,” he explained. “It was exciting yet challenging.”
“Our greatest successes are on the other side of our biggest fear,” Foster said. “We’ve just got to be able to figure out what we’re going to do to get through that fear to see the success on the other side.
“The five hours that I spend here, 10-20 weeks a year, is my 100 hours’ worth of community giveback time. At the same time it is so rewarding being at the front of the room, to watch people grow from week one to week 10 and afterwards.”