2018-03-08 / Editorial

Starting a business in Maine?

Legislative Lowdown
by Rep. Martin Grohman

Everyone knows Maine is the best place to live and raise a family. Can it be the best place to start a business? There is tremendous opportunity here in Maine to start and grow your own company. And growing new Maine companies is critical to our state. Do you want to keep young people in Maine? Grow the tax base? Develop careers and jobs? Startups are one of the answers.

The network of support for startups is strong. You can go to SCORE, whose mentors, many of whom are retired executives, will meet you at your office. You can go to the Small Business Development Center (with an office right in Saco) for advice on everything from developing financial projections to becoming a vendor to the federal government. The Maine Center for Entrepreneurship has a formalized training plan called Top Gun, which is a startup boot camp. I have served as a mentor for Top Gun, and it is intense fun. Looking for a volunteer opportunity? The group is always looking for experienced startup founders and executives to serve as mentors)

Every company started somehow, somewhere. From the cable company to the gas station to this newspaper. Someone had the idea and the dream. There are many famous Maine startups that are now publicly traded international companies worth billions such as WEX and IDEXX. There are legendary personal care startups like Tom’s of Maine, and local clothing manufacturing companies like Suger/Angelrox right here in Biddeford.

And there is financing. When it’s time to raise money, it is often said that Maine is the best place to raise your first $500,000. If you’re willing to go all in, we have a great network of funders and banks ready to make your idea a reality with significant funding. It can’t be a side gig though. It has to be well planned, researched, tested and ready to commercialize.

If you’re in that early stage, I recommend starting at Maine Technology Institute, which can make small awards to do market testing and prototyping. From there, many other funding opportunities exist, such as Coastal Enterprises, Inc. which makes significant investments and loans tied to its social mission of good pay and environmental sustainability. They have an advisor right here in Biddeford. Once your venture gets a little larger, the Maine Venture Fund invests in fast-growing Maine companies looking to expand nationally or internationally.

Another great approach is to enter a pitch contest. There’s nothing better for your business than being forced to explain it to other people. There are many pitch contests in Maine. I have been involved with Gorham Savings Bank’s “Launchpad” for several years. You can also apply to pitch your idea on TV, with Greenlight Maine, which airs on Saturday nights at 7:30 on NBC.

It will always take more money than you think, and there will be curveballs. Founding a company is exciting, sometimes too exciting. It is a time when drawing on that network of business supports and advisers will be critical, so be nice to everyone on the way up.

The stereotypical startup founder may not be what you think – in fact, Maine has become a national leader when it comes to companies owned by women. Women found more businesses in Maine than men do, and womenowned businesses in Maine are more effective at creating jobs and boosting revenue. New Ventures Maine is an absolutely top-notch mentorship program for women, with classes right here at University College, Saco.

Still, we have more to do, and there are some changes I’d like to see.

First, so far in this article I’ve mentioned Coastal Enterprises, Inc., SCORE, Maine Venture Fund, Small Business Development Center, Maine Center for Entrepreneurs, Maine Technology Institute and several others, and I’m feeling bad about quite a few I’ve left out. We are lucky to have all of these organizations supporting startups. But who’s your first call? It’s confusing. We should have a “no wrong door for the entrepreneur” program, kind of like a 411 for startup founders.

And once you get going, two or three years after the ribbon cutting, it can get kind of lonely. There isn’t as much support for the company that’s got out of the gate well but started to plateau. It’s like we’re a fish hatchery that just pours a bunch of fish fry into the ocean and hopes they come back. We need to change that, with more funding and greater availability of business mentorship programs.

Our startup economy is also much too southern-Maine focused. I looked at the number of new businesses founded across the state in 2017, and it is depressing to see single digit numbers in Washington and Piscataquis counties while there are hundreds of new businesses founded in York and Cumberland counties. There is no technical reason for this, and it’s clearly a missed opportunity.

Lastly, we need to work harder to get the new ideas and technologies developed at our universities out to the marketplace. A patent doesn’t do anyone any good sitting on the shelf. The bridge from research and development to commercialization is where the new jobs are. We should build that bridge. There should be hundreds of startups around our universities, like there is in Boston.

To sum up, we’ve got a modest cost of living (compared to Silicon Valley, anyway) and a lot of very talented young people who are eager to learn. We’ve got world class colleges and universities, and we can hire people ready to build the next big thing. We’re known for our hard work and Yankee ingenuity. So, start that next big thing. I’m on the other end of the phone if I can help.

Rep. Martin Grohman of Biddeford is an Independent State Representative serving his second term in the Maine Legislature and is a member of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. Outside the legislature, he hosts a podcast for Maine entrepreneurs called The Grow Maine Show – available on iTunes – and is chair of the Biddeford Solid Waste & Recycling Commission. Sign up for legislative updates at www.growmaine.com, facebook.com/repgrohman or call Marty at home at 283-1476.

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