The clock was ticking for two former science teachers, a meteorologist, a flight instructor and a personal trainer who were discussing marketing strategies.

The local Portland-area business owners were among the roughly 100 attendees Tuesday who met with business coaches offering free advice on everything from marketing to social media. The event was part of a tour sponsored by SCORE business consultants and American Express OPEN, which caters to small-business owners.

Now in its fifth year, the tour is visiting five cities this summer, offering free networking, resources and individual coaching sessions for small-business owners to develop strategies to grow.

“Think speed-dating for businesses,” said Karen-Michelle Mirko of American Express.

Small-business owners are key to economic growth, said Ken Yancey, chief executive officer of SCORE, a Va.-based nonprofit that provides free business advice to small companies. The company has seven offices in Maine.

“They’re the pioneers of today. One hundred to 200 years ago, they would be heading across the country in a covered wagon,” Yancey said. “People are realizing the importance of small businesses in our economic environment.”

In 2010, SCORE helped mentor 58,000 small businesses nationwide, and 237 new businesses in Maine.

At Tuesday’s event, held at the Holiday Inn by the Bay, blue-shirted counselors sat at long tables providing individual coaching sessions. Nearby, groups of small-business owners gathered at round tables with other counselors, bouncing ideas off of them as well as each other.

The 25 men and women in the blue shirts were volunteers, the crux of the program, Yancey said.

“If you had to pay for this expertise, you just couldn’t afford it,” he said.

Dave Underhill was one of the volunteer business counselors working Tuesday. After spending 40 years in the media industry – starting a radio show and working in publishing at Tribune Co. – he serves as a media consultant for a for-profit, but spends a considerable amount of time consulting for nonprofits like SCORE.

“When I left my last big corporate job, I decided to spend time doing things I want to do. It’s simplistic to say, but I like helping people,” Underhill said. “I wish I had SCORE when I was starting my companies. It’s unbiased and financially disinterested coaching.”

They make a difference, said Judy Crosby of The DaVinci Experience, a small-business summer camp with six locations in Maine.

Crosby spent her teaching years emulating Ms. Frizzle from the science education TV show “Magic School Bus” and meeting Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Now retired, she said her small business has given her a new channel for her passion. “I want to make science fun for kids. I want to help increase science literacy,” she said.

Facing her roundtable, she asked the group for ideas on how to expand her business outside the state.

“Make it local,” was the resounding advice her peers and counselors gave her, keeping displays relevant to their new locations.

Local aspirations, small businesses, swift growth. It could be mantra for an economic upheaval.

“People see opportunity in bust times,” said Mirko. “People come to get this fuel, to get this coffee, this jump start, so they can grow during times like these, and sustain growth.”

“Entrepreneurship is uniquely American,” said Yancey.

“Entrepreneurs and small-business owners are driven. Our goal is to help grow the economy one small business at a time.”

 

Staff Writer Colleen Stewart can be contacted at 791-6355 or at: [email protected]