SBDC: The Free Business Consultant Every Lakeland Entrepreneur Should Consider

By Diego De Jesus

Since 1980, the Small Business Development Center at the University of South Florida has aided up-and-coming entrepreneurs in getting their businesses off the ground, including many in Lakeland. 

The SBDC is a federally-funded organization that offers no-cost consulting to small businesses in a 10-county Tampa Bay region. They also help aspiring business owners who still need to establish their business but are in the process of getting credentials, certifications and licensing. 

The SBDC aids in establishing a connective web with organizations such as local chambers of commerce–bringing more exposure of the SBDC to small businesses. 

“My job is really a marriage of all the things I love,” Stacey Dadd said, an Associate Director within the Florida SBDC at USF. “I love small businesses, and I love seeing small businesses succeed, but I still get to use my journalism degree.” 

She allows business owners to recount their authentic experiences of running a small business by interviewing them and writing features about their successes and failures. Businesses give back to the SBDC by spreading the word and doing things like filling out an annual survey that reports how they’ve grown. These evidence-based reports help garner funding for the SBDC.

Dadd says generally that business owners need help in two ways: paving the road and figuring out which route to take.

Sometimes, clients will go to the SBDC with a good idea for a business that requires some planning, and many have the passion for beginning a business but need more expertise to actualize their vision. 

Polk County is no exception; 518 businesses were served by the SBDC for a total of 3,361 hours in 2021, with services provided primarily to local businesses in agriculture, construction, manufacturing and retail trade industries. 

One of their clients was Katherine Martinez, the owner of My Office & More, who moved to Lakeland in 2000 with her mother. 

“One of the problems when you want to start a business is where to start,” Martinez said. “I was kind of stuck; I had friends that picked up that I would talk about it…I had a regular day job, so it was kind of a dream thing, but I wasn’t doing anything about it.” 

She found an SBDC class for $25 on how to start a business. It was worth every penny and would be a stepping stone to beginning her business with help along the way where the SBDC stepped in. 

There, she met Javier Marin, an SBDC consultant for Lakeland. She credits Marin with getting her to where she is today.

First, she needed to make a business plan, and Marin helped walk her through scenarios that gave her the knowledge she needed to jump-start her business. 

“He saved me so much time by helping me figure that out from the front-end rather than through experience,” Martinez said. “That’s one of the great things about this organization and getting this kind of counseling.” 

Carl Hadden was another SBDC consultant who made her think about marketing her business, from her business’s name to its logo. He asked her if the business’s name was already taken, and they found that another company in Phoenix, Ariz., had the federally trademarked name My Office.

Martinez says that Hadden saved her a lot of time and resources since, admittedly, she didn’t know how to properly research the company’s name and the importance of trademarking. 

Shortly after this discovery, Hadden had her reach out to My Office, a staff member responded, and she flew out to Phoenix. They showed her how they ran their business, and she realized she wanted to avoid running an executive office. It wasn’t what she expected. It didn’t fit her vision.

Hot, tired and hungry, she had another meeting with the leadership of CO+HOOTS Coworking in Phoenix. It only lasted about 20 minutes, but it was the most energizing time for her because they were asking her questions as fast as she was asking them. 

It was there that she realized the vision for her business. She wanted to open a coworking location where entrepreneurs could build their businesses. 

Upon her return to Florida, she tore up her original business plan on returning to Florida. She started with a new model that would become My Office & More, which now overlooks Munn Park downtown at 122 East Main Street, with many companies using her facility for their enterprise. 

My Office & More currently has 80 members, with 300 businesses using the company’s mailing address since opening in August 2015. 

“I just love Lakeland. It is the most giving community. It is growing. It is so vibrant, and there are so many intelligent people here,” Martinez said. “They’re inspiring the projects that are around here, the businesses that are around here, you can just go on and on all day for what’s happening in our community and where it’s all going. My heart is here.”