Alumni-owned businesses thrive

Higher unemployment rates have caused many USF students to look beyond the job market and create jobs of their own.

According to the  US  Department of Labor, Tampa’s unemployment rate in November was 7.8 percent, up from 4.5 percent in 2007.

A suffering economy is an important risk to factor into the equation of starting a new business, but the alternative is the risk of unemployment in a bad job market, said Thomas J. Carter, an economics professor at USF St. Petersburg.

“It might be tough to find a good job with a regular company, so starting a business might be more productive for some,” he said.

Business partners and USF alumni Jay Mize and Van Sefair began their entrepreneurial careers in real estate development. Even as the real estate market boomed, Mize said he realized that wouldn’t always be the case, so he and Sefair started the dry cleaning company Drytec Cleaners in November 2006.

“The economy is having an effect on all businesses,” Mize said. “It has forced true entrepreneurs to get creative and think outside the box and it has forced us to out-think the competition.”

Mize, who has a bachelor’s degree in finance, said his time at USF has had a lasting impact on his entrepreneurial career.

“My entire spirit of influence can be traced back to my USF contacts — from my friends to my former football teammates,” he said.

Mize said the weak economy might be a blessing in disguise for those considering starting their own businesses.

“There may not be a lot of capital or funding available, but in every down economy there is a silver lining and better opportunities available. It just takes finding the right niche to make it work,” he said.

Carter said he agreed that opportunities are available for those in the right industry, and funding depends on the product or service.

“There are just certain types of businesses that may improve with bad economic times — like pawn shops or job training services,” he said. “The financial market is making it difficult to get loans right now. It is dependent on what type of business you are starting, since people are cutting back on their spending — especially on luxuries.”

Hard economic times often affect the sale of luxury items and services first, but USF alumnus Andrew Dundas’ company Feed-a-Bull has so far been unaffected by the economy.

Dundas said he started the food delivery service after three  months of unsuccessful job hunting.

“I always figured I would work for a company, but I started (Feed-a-Bull) because there wasn’t enough of a job market,” he said. “Instead of being another employee, I decided I would be an employer.”

After six weeks of planning, Feed-a-Bull was started in September 2007, and now delivers food to customers of more than 20 restaurants in the Tampa area. Dundas, who co-owns the business with fiancé Linda Walter, said he started it from the ground up after conducting research on similar establishments in other areas of the country.

“When the economy suffers, luxuries are usually the first to go, but we fit in with pizza delivery and there will always be a market for our service,” he said.

Mize and Sefair provided a new twist to dry cleaning, which they said they credit for assuring their futures as entrepreneurs. The eco-friendly dry cleaning business has a coffee shop, JavaTinto, conveniently located inside.

Not all luxury-based businesses are having financial trouble.

What started as a joke for USF alumni Eddie Zaragoza and Connie Ramos is now a clothing design and T-shirt screen-printing company. NaimBran Apparel, a fashion design company, and Brisk Prints, a screen-printing company, were started in the fall of 2007 with the sole financial backing of Zaragoza’s credit card.

Zaragoza, who graduated in December with a bachelor’s degree in marketing, said the economy has not affected his business much because of its target market — which includes many groups at USF.

There are many advantages to being your own boss, Zaragoza said: He enjoys the freedom of being able to set his own schedule as well as the opportunity to meet new people. But there are also downfalls to being in charge.

“You have to be self-motivated because it’s all on you and there is no one else to blame,” he said. “It can be easy to get sidetracked.”

Dundas said he warns new business owners that work can consume their lives, but the pride that comes with the accomplishment of a dream makes it worthwhile.

“The reward, if you’re a person that is a hard worker and proud of your accomplishments, is a lasting business. This company will be here for as long as the University is here,” Dundas said of Feed-a-Bull.

Mize said pride is also an important factor for him.

“The gratification and reward of seeing something that was originally a thought written on a napkin (become) a viable business is the best part of owning a business,” he said.

Sometimes an extra push is all that is needed to make a dream a reality, Zaragoza said.

“I think definitely do it, because otherwise you will wonder if you could have done it. There are workshops you can take that will help you on things like taxes — and a lot of it is free, too,” he said.

The Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at the USF Downtown Center offers five to six seminars to the public each week, all focusing on advice for small business owners or those interested in starting a business.

“Some are free, some have a low fee, and they are in a large range of topics — anywhere from accounting and taxes to marketing, advertising and financing,” SBDC Director Eileen Rodriguez said.

The SBDC also offers free one-on-one counseling available to residents and business owners in the 10-county region it serves.

The center has seen many entrepreneurs coming in for help to combat the struggling economy, Rodriguez said.

“A lot of people have been downsized and are finding it hard to find jobs, so they are starting a small business instead,” Rodriguez said. “People who own small businesses currently are also having a hard time finding financing and are seeking advice just to stay afloat.”