You’ve likely seen Joe Hobbs’ glassblowing work in downtown Pensacola establishments like Perfect Plain Brewing Co. and Global Grill, the result of decades of perfecting his art.
While the self-taught entrepreneurialism has brought much success, Hobbs admits the business management side is where he could use some help.
“Going to art school, the biggest downfall is they don’t teach you any business whatsoever. … You learn to make the work, but then you go into the real world,” he said.
Hobbs’ is one of seven Pensacola businesses that will be paired with established mentors in fields like law, banking, insurance or marketing under the latest round of The Spring’s VMS mentoring program.
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The Spring has been operating the program – based off a successful model at MIT – since 2020, and it has since grown to 28 participating businesses and 90 jobs created.
There are some business owners who have been in operation for years and are wanting to expand their skillset. Hobbs, for example, hopes the program can help him expand his company and source more commission work.
Others, like MI SU Street Food or Tastebuds Ice Cream, have specific goals to expand their locations and offer elements like a brick-and-mortar store eventually.
In addition to the food-based businesses, this year’s mentee class also has an insurance business, a garbage management company, a dog event planning service and a running program aiming to help men in addiction recovery.
Studer Community Institute President Rachael Gillette, who oversees The Spring as part of SCI, said now in its third year, the VMS program saw about 60 applicants who the staff had to whittle down to only seven businesses.
“Some of them are very early stage and some are further along, but they all got into it because they love it – they’re an artist or a chef or whatever it may be,” she said. “They have technical skills but not the business skills so with the depth and breadth we have in the mentor pool, from bankers to lawyers, entrepreneurs to marketing and HR, we have all these mentors to ask them questions and advise them.”
For Jack Johnson, who owns What Limits Project, it was the move of his operation from Atlanta to Pensacola that prompted him to reach out for help from The Spring’s mentors. Originally from Pace, Johnson spent the last 20 years in Atlanta, where he started the business that creates running programs for men coming out of drug or alcohol addiction.
He decided to move back home about six months ago and is building out the program here starting with partnerships with Waterfront Mission and Teen Challenge.
“Our plan is to grow. We’ve trained about 300 guys in the past year and it’s amazing to see some of the changes they’ve made,” he said. “We really want to grow the outreach of the program, get connected with mentors, grow to include more facilities and build up the volunteer base.”
The VMS mentoring program is free and while it’s somewhat structured in having business owners partnered with mentors, Gillette said The Spring often sees entrepreneurs come in more informally to get help with everything from business license questions to choosing between an LLC or sole proprietorship. The pandemic has accelerated the entrepreneurial spirit, Gillette said, and The Spring went from assisting 95 businesses in 2020 to being on track for 300 this year.
“We have this vision of making our community one of the friendliest entrepreneurial communities in the country so we need to help them get started and grow and reach that potential,” she said. “We have to make it easier to navigate the whole entrepreneurial environment.”
Emma Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-480-6979.