December 29, 2013

Charles Lawton: Nurturing Maine’s entrepreneurial renaissance

And such a rebirth must not be Maine-centric.

Question: What is the middle way? Is there an alternative path for development in Maine to the two extremes so apparent in our public debates? On the one side is the posture of planting our heads firmly in the sand while blindly resisting all change. On the other is wishing on a star for fistfuls of fairy dust to transform our illusions of painless change into reality.

Answer: Yes, enrich the soil and plant lots of seeds.

Maine exists today in a world of vast transformational opportunity. But those opportunities are less likely to be identified and grasped by some logical analysis of industrial codes than by the creative imagination and entrepreneurial drive of individuals who do or might wish to live here. Maine has had a successful “Startup Weekend.” It needs a startup week, a startup year and a startup decade. Maine needs an entrepreneurial renaissance.

And the key to such a rebirth – like the key to revitalizing a neglected garden – is rebuilding the entire ecosystem. Enrich the soil and water regularly, so that all kinds of plants will grow. The first step in such a revitalization must be to change the underlying human motivation from “find a job” to “create or join an enterprise.” To accomplish this change, we need to identify and celebrate entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship. Starting and building an enterprise – be it a business, a nonprofit or a new government agency or program – shouldn’t be a mysterious activity undertaken by others. It should be an integral part of every child’s education in 21st-century Maine, as much a part of life as participating in and attending athletic events.

And being an entrepreneur or participating in an entrepreneurial enterprise shouldn’t be a solitary or isolated activity restricted to the special “hot house” environment of incubators, accelerators and government grants. It should be as much a part of the everyday, real-world economy as car loans and house payments. It should have a supportive yet honestly demanding ecosystem of investors, bankers, accountants, lawyers, marketers and technical and managerial experts and mentors who are familiar with the process and success rates of entrepreneurship. The Italian Renaissance was not simply the product of a few Leonardos and Michelangelos, but of a complex cultural atmosphere. The same must be true for a rebirth of entrepreneurship in Maine.

And finally, if it is to succeed, Maine’s entrepreneurial renaissance must not be Maine-centric. Maine’s last economic era – the century and a half running from the textile mills of the1840s to the call centers of the 1990s – depended on an endless supply of low-cost labor turning natural resources into a series of products to sell across the world. That era has passed, but the need to look to global markets has not. Maine’s entrepreneurial renaissance, if it is to be truly transformative, must be more than a 21st-century version of “making do,” of individuals finding a collection of income sources sufficient to enable them to live in this wonderful place. This combination of creative job balancing and “lifestyle” businesses is and will remain an important element of Maine’s economic landscape. But it cannot be the foundation for a renaissance.

An economic renaissance for Maine requires entrepreneurs who shoot for the moon, who recognize a need that exists far beyond Maine and intend from the start to scale their enterprises to meet it. Theirs are the enterprises that will take advantage of the digital communications revolution to take creative Maine ideas to the world. Theirs are the enterprises that will attract to Maine not displaced farm workers from the Canadian Maritimes but highly skilled Maine emigres fed up with the costs, congestion and pressures of life in major urban centers and nostalgic for the beauty and peace still possible for families in Maine. Theirs are the enterprises that will, in the words of Idexx founder David Shaw, “not settle for ‘good enough’ but strive for ‘great’ in every job they undertake.” Theirs are the enterprises founded on the optimism that the universe really is friendly.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be reached at:

clawton@planningdecisions.com

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