Launched as a pilot program in Sarasota in 2009, GrowFL today has bloomed into a largely self-funded entity that has aided more than 300 businesses headquartered in Florida to move into a second phase of expansion. GrowFL director Tammie Sweet, who recently served as keynote speaker for the SB2 symposium Good Growth: Economic Indicators, sat down with SRQ to discuss what companies need to build a greater future.

SRQ: How does GrowFL work? Sweet: We were originally created in 2009 as a state-funded program. As a pilot program, it was 100 percent funded by the state of Florida in the beginning, but now we are 96 percent funded by grants and private sector funding. Then about 4 percent comes from other state-funded or local entities.

Where do you draw line on startups versus businesses you want to work with? We start looking at how many jobs they have and what is their revenue. We want a company that has grown beyond the startup phase, usually between 6 to 10 employees and usually about $1 million in revenue. They have an intent and desire to grow beyond second stage. As mentioned with JMX (a Sarasota company selling Amish furniture), they started out with 10 and now 30 or 40 employees, and they want to grow and continue to grow. Those are the types of companies we identify. It’s really important that the CEO structures business with an intent and desire to grow the company beyond second stage. Our companies span all kinds of industries—the two largest industries have been manufacturing and information technology businesses, but it really doesn’t matter what type of business you are, just the fact you have the intent and desire to grow beyond second stage. The other piece is that these are companies that are headquartered in the state of Florida. You want to get that smart entrepreneur to recognize that this is a community that honors and celebrates and has the resources to help them grow. That is what Sarasota has been able to build in particular—an environment that you know has great support.

How do you direct efforts at GrowFL or other entities to help existing businesses since that is where the most jobs are created? There is a lot of activity around startups, and it’s not even that much easier to help startups, but once you get into the second stage they are much more sophisticated and more demanding. They’ve been there and done that. That’s why the tools GrowFL has are sophisticated, designed to get in, give the company the data they need to make better decisions and then let them run with it. They want to move fast; they are on the move constantly. It’s making sure we can provide the right data at the right time and then get out of their way.

What data do they need? At end of the day, what they are really looking for is validation of markets. They are looking for ways in which they can expand where they are selling their products or services. The clients we work with may start selling to certain markets they are aware of because they have a certain passion around that particular product or they know people in that industry. At a certain point in time, they need to understand where their marketing potential is. What we run is like a Fortune500 research team, to put at their fingertips what they need to access those markets and be smarter about it.

Do we need more four-year degrees in the state? Finding that talent and recruiting talent is always the top of the list of issues. We tend to find our businesses have five top issues. One is marketing—what is my customer, where is my customer? Two is cash flow and finance—if I find that customer how am I going to finance building the service? Third is people—how am I going to find individuals who will help me succeed? Then the sales process itself. The challenge with businesses and workforce development is that it’s hard with the education system because by the time they train the kids the technology changes. It’s so hard to develop the programs internally, so the more we provide customized training—again listening to the entrepreneur about what they need in high school systems, helping them create those programs— so when they graduate, I can probably take them and continue to build their certification or their degrees as they’re working for the company. Some need to go to college and some don’t. We still have a tendency to push everybody toward the four-year degree. It’s also hard getting kids interested in other options, to know you can make decent money working for a manufacturing plant where you don’t need a four-year degree.