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Catapult, in Towson, is area's newest business incubator in growing industry

Catapult offers all the services of a business incubator, plus free coffee and wifi, its co-founders say.

Anyone walking into an office building at 17 W. Pennsylvania Ave., in downtown Towson, will see tenant Umar Hameed talking on a TV screen in the lobby.

"Welcome to Catapult," Hameed says in a promotional video for his new entrepreneurial venture. "What we're building here is a community of driven people that want to grow their businesses."

Catapult, a business incubator co-founded by Hameed, 55, of Lake Walker, and Ernie Rafailides, 48, of Timonium, is the newest entrant in Towson's small but growing industry of startups that offer entrepreneurs and small business owners office space, guest speakers, consulting services and networking opportunities.

For a flat rate of $100 a month, Catapult, which officially opened Feb. 15 and is now recruiting clients, promises "a cross-pollination of ideas and motivation to help companies grow," according to the video. And, Hameed stressed in an interview, "You can use the space however your want."

"We want to help you catapult your business, thinking and life," said Rafailides, managing partner of Bayview Management, LLC, whose family owns the office building under the company name Towson 17 LLC.

Catapult was Rafailides' idea. He said he hired Hameed, a longtime sales consultant who owns No Limits Selling, to do team-building and training for Bayview Management's staff last year.

"I pitched him this idea and we talked," Rafailides said.

"We can do that," Hameed thought.

Catapult operates on the building's third floor, which has office space for clients, along with sponsors talks and networking get-togethers in a 20-seat auditorium on the fifth floor. The setting is bare bones, but Hameed said the "high-test coffee" and wifi for the Internet are free, and clients can use the offices during business hours from 9 a.m, to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

"If you're looking for the oak boardroom and fancy-shmancy copiers, that's not us," Rafailides said.

"We're like a startup ourselves," Hameed added. "Small business is the backbone of America. We need to get more small businesses up and successful. We're going to be the catalyst that catapults everybody forward."

'Popping up everwhere'

Catapult is by no means the only business of its kind. Nationally, there are companies such as WeWork, whose slogan is, "Create your life's work," and which offers monthly office space and networking packages from $45 for basic services to $450 for dedicated desks and 12 hours of conference room availability.

Locally, Towson University has offered a business incubator with networking and consulting opportunities since 2007. Its membership options range from $100-a-month "virtual" memberships with services that are available only online, to "resident" memberships with around the clock access to private office space, as well as administrative support and educational and networking opportunities, according to program manager Stephanie Chin.

Students who want to start their own businesses get discounts, Chin said. One of the incubator's 22 clients is a student-run business, Hop Theory, which makes sachets with hand-crafted blends of hops, fruit peels and natural favors to customize beer, according to Chin and the Hop Theory website, hoptheory.com.

Also well known is Launch Workplaces, with locations at 600 Washington Ave., in downtown Towson, as well as Rockville, Edgewater and Gaithersburg in Maryland and Tysons Corner in northern Virginia. Launch Workplace services include office space, guest speakers, counseling, tax seminars and networking events, executive administrator and office manager NichelleDyson said. The oldest location, in Gaithersburg, opened in September 2014 and has 75 clients, she said. The Rockville location has 30 clients and is expanding its space, Dyson added, while the Tysons Corner location has 20 clients and the recently opened Edgewater location two.

More and more incubators and office space purveyors are setting up shop, Dyson said. "They're popping up everywhere."

'Evolving as we go'

Hameed said he and Rafailides hope to make Catapult "more nimble" than a traditional incubator, and that its services include a studio where people can make promotional videos and podcasts.

"This is going to be evolving as we go," he said.

He warned that the concept won't be to everyone's liking and that it can't offer the comforts and convenience of a home office, though it can get clients out of their homes and away from their TVs, refrigerators and other home-life distractions. Having a home office sometimes "isolates them," he said. "When you come to this place, you get a vibrant community" of other clients.

Hameed was the guest speaker at Catapult's introductory session for the public last week, talking about one of his favorite subjects — using neuroscience as a sales marketing tool to get people "more predisposed to say yes" to a sales pitch, he said.

Hameed, who runs the Baltimore-Washington Institute of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, offered such advice as building trust by matching the speed of your conversation and tone and volume of your voice to potential clients, and finding metaphors and analogies that are tied to things they like, such as sports sayings for those who like sports.

"Unleash your sales potential by unleashing your crazy, sexy brain," he told the three people in attendance, including Dierdre Suddeth, 59, a Farmers insurance agent in Owings Mills, who came to the meeting from her home in Glen Burnie. Suddeth said she saw an announcement of the Catapult meeting on the website meetup.com.

"It's always good to learn how to get people to say yes, whether it's a wedding engagement or an insurance proposal," she said. "You can never have too much training on that when you're in sales."

Also attending the meeting was AFLAC insurance agent David Seidenman, 48, of Timonium, whose office is in Towson. He met Hameed while networking and has heard him talk before on the subject of neuroscience as a sales tool.

"It's one of my favorite subjects," Seidenman said. "Being in sales, there's always a psychological component to it."

Client Charles Tucker owns The eBranding Group, which also offers marketing and support services such as web design, social media set up and search engine optimization for small businesses; he has 30 clients, he said. He has a home office, but is looking forward to "the balance" of having a business office, too, and collaborating with other tenants.

"Working strictly from home doesn't work," said Tucker, 42, of Shrewsbury, Pa., which is just over the Maryland line. "I just can't do it. You don't get to meet people. The networking isn't as good."

Also, he said, "It's a really good location. Towson is really growing."

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