Over the last few months, I’ve had an opportunity to talk with some of the state’s most successful entrepreneurs and innovators. These are people who don’t just talk about Maine’s future, they’re building it every day. I’ve come away inspired by these people, who love this state and their work and who, in many cases, started with next to nothing and built important new businesses in Maine.
Almost every one of them has a similar message: Maine has its problems, but it’s a great place to build a new business. We could do more to help entrepreneurs flourish, to grow and attract more startups and innovators, but it’s getting better all the time.
In other words, they’re entirely out of sync with what we’ve been hearing out of Augusta these last few years. To Augusta, everything is terrible. It’s impossible to grow a business here. Taxes are too high. Students are too slow. Workers are lazy. Regulations are onerous. The state is populated with welfare cheats.
If you owned a business in another state and were looking to re-locate to a safe and beautiful place to grow your company and raise a family, why in the world would you want to be in Maine when its leaders speak about it in that way?
Even if you don’t own a business, imagine your reaction if you were checking out a new restaurant and found a sign on the door that said, “Open for business, but the food is bad, the staff is worse and we struggle with food poisoning.” That’s pretty much what we’ve been saying to the rest of the world these last few years.
Successful entrepreneurs across the state don’t see things that way. They see a place with people who work hard and appreciate the value of quality products and services. They see conversations about innovation and startups, countless volunteers who are helping their neighbors and schools where our eighth-graders just ranked among the top 10 in the country in math and science.
Fortunately, Maine has always been a “can-do” place, even when our elected “leaders” are saying, “We can’t.” So people across the state have been asking the age-old Maine question “What are we going to do about it?” and quietly rolling up their sleeves, even while Augusta seems to be wallowing in its own misery.
Last week I talked with Kent Peterson, president of Fluid Imaging Technologies in Scarborough, about how they’ve built the company from a small loft in Boothbay to 40 employees. His problem isn’t with taxes, it’s with finding more skilled employees so they can grow more. A week earlier I talked with Phil Coupe, co-founder of ReVision Energy in Portland, with a similar story of how two guys and a pickup truck became 55 employees today.
I hear those stories everywhere in Maine: in new “buy local” farms popping up around the state, in the eager young entrepreneurs who spent a weekend recently at Startup Portland, in the fast-growing restaurant industry in Portland and in the clean-tech sector, which grew 30 percent in Maine over the last decade.
There is a bubbling enthusiasm among entrepreneurs and innovators in Maine today, and that‘s good news for our future. The pessimism coming out of Augusta is mostly about an old economy. Meanwhile, they can’t seem to see the new one sprouting all around them.
When Gov. LePage talks about how government has to get out of the way and let business grow, I hope he’s looking in the mirror.
Governor, gloom and doom is not helping. Selling Maine short is not helping. And your unwillingness, and perhaps inability, to work with the Legislature to help build a more robust entrepreneurial economy is only holding us back.
Here’s an example: You’ve had a bill on your desk for months that would renew the Seed Capital program for small businesses and startups. It’s a program that’s been a great success. That’s why it has bipartisan support in the Legislature. But you let it sit there rather than sign it.
Shouldn’t we all be able to find common ground on something as simple as helping new businesses grow?
A GATHERING OF ‘CAN-DO’ MAINERS
If you’re interested in being part of a new conversation about Maine, one that is upbeat and can-do, come to the Pioneers of Maine’s Economy speaker series, which runs every month in Portland. Next week’s speaker is Phil Coupe, co-founder of ReVision Energy. Learn more at 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: