Entrepreneurs, inventors and tinkerers are the engine of tomorrow’s prosperity.
Maine’s next economy isn’t likely to suddenly appear in our midst, materializing like a summer fog when the air and water temperatures are right. Prosperous economies generally arise in one of two ways: by luck or hard work. Fortunately, we have experience with both.
Economies of luck are usually the result of discoveries of vast, untapped natural resources that can be converted to wealth. Think gold rushes or oil strikes, or the discovery of rich soils and unending forests, which fueled America’s growth in its first few hundred years.
Maine had its own version of a “gold rush” over a 200-year period, driven by our immense uncut forests, our powerful and navigable rivers and an astonishing abundance from the ocean.
Today, we’re well past the “gold rush” stage of our economy, and we’ve struggled to reinvent ourselves and avoid becoming a ghost town of past prosperity. Many people have left the state since those early days, chasing the next big “find” somewhere else. Others stayed, with too many simply awaiting another jackpot.
The other way that prosperity grows is when people focus on inventing or building things and selling them to the world. That approach relies less on good fortune, the exploitation of resources or a few lucky lottery tickets, and more on ingenuity, skill, determination and hard work.
The good news for Maine is that we’re a state with a long tradition of bootstrapping our way forward and inventing products that the world wants. For hundreds of years, after all, we were a state of nothing but tenacious small businesses, including family farms, entrepreneurs and tinkerers.
We’re also blessed with plenty of inspiring examples of entrepreneurs who have been, and are, the pioneers of our next economy.
These are people who didn’t wait around for a gold rush, but instead went out and built the future. In their own way, each has pointed the way forward for Maine. Here are just a few examples:
• The shipbuilders: At the peak of Maine’s “gold rush,” Maine’s first great entrepreneurs flourished by converting our massive oak forests into to the world’s best sailing ships. But they didn’t just build those ships, they owned them, captained and crewed them and became renowned global traders, bringing lingering wealth to Maine’s coast.
• L.L. Bean: Closer to our time, Maine’s iconic entrepreneur took something that we don’t grow — rubber — and used it to produce a boot that would keep people’s feet dry in the wettest conditions. Employing simple tools and persistence, he built upon our reputation for quality that the shipbuilders had developed earlier, and propelled the Maine reputation for quality products.
• Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine: L.L. Bean’s granddaughter, Linda Bean, is following in those footsteps today, helping to organize Maine’s iconic lobster industry to compete in the 21st century, while finding new ways to deliver this symbol of Maine to the world. She understands the power not only of Maine’s most famous product, but of both utilizing and enhancing our brand.
• Tom Chappell and Tom’s of Maine: Tom and Kate Chappell took the idea of all-natural personal care products and blended them with Maine’s reputation for quality and wholesomeness to build a company that was worth well over $100 million in 2006.
• Roxanne Quimby and Burt’s Bees: Roxanne Quimby took another simple starting ingredient, beeswax, and moved from candles at a local crafts fair to a national brand that, again, fit Maine perfectly. Her company was worth well over $100 million by 2003 and many times that a few years later.
• Jonathan King and Jim Stott at Stonewall Kitchen: Jonathan King and Jim Stott took their homemade jam from a farmers market in southern Maine to a line of world-class products that, again, enhanced the Maine brand while benefiting from it.
Across the state, from agriculture to software, and from new technologies to the arts, these and many other pioneers are building the foundations of Maine’s next economy and inspiring others by their example.
It’s time we celebrate their stories and hear more of their ideas for making Maine an entrepreneurial state for the 21st century.
I invite you to hear from some of them, and join a conversation about Maine’s future, in a series of monthly breakfast presentations sponsored by Envision Maine. The first, scheduled for Sept. 24 in Portland, will feature Tom Chappell.
Each presentation will add to a larger conversation about Maine’s future that you’ll want to be part of. For more information, go to www.envisionmaine.org.
Alan Caron is president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit organization that promotes Maine’s next economy, and a partner at the Caron & Egan Consulting Group. He can be contacted at: