November 20, 2011

Trying times

Experts say the poor economy could nudge new entrepreneurs to start their own businesses.

By J. Hemmerdinger
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - Some of the country's most successful corporations were launched during periods of economic malaise.

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Emily Adams of Windham launched her ice-cream cake company Dirt on a Cake in September 2010.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Emily Adams owns and operates Dirt on a Cake from her home in Windham.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below


Blackstone Accelerates Growth: new program that will fund entrepreneurial education and tuition assistance. Contact the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development.

University of Maine's Innovation Engineering Jump Start program: hosts education programs on transforming business ideas into marketable products.

Greater Portland Council of Governments: promotes economic development in Portland, South Portland, Scarborough, Westbrook, Falmouth and Cape Elizabeth.

Maine Angels: group that invests in early-stage companies.

Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development: provides mentoring services and hosts entrepreneurial education courses.

Maine Department of Economic and Community Development: provides business support programs and resources and information for entrepreneurs.

Maine Entrepreneurs LinkedIn discussion group: search "Maine Entrepreneurs" in the Groups section.

Maine International Trade Center: provides international trade assistance.

Maine Patent Program: helps entrepreneurs understand the U.S. patent process.

Maine Small Business Development Centers: provides business management training and assistance.

Maine Technology Institute: provides grants and funding to promote technology-intensive products and services.

SCORE: nonprofit group that provides resources to entrepreneurs and small-business owners.

Sunrise County Economic Council: promotes community and business development in Washington County.

Small Enterprise Growth Fund: venture capital fund that invests in Maine companies with high-growth potential and public benefit.

U.S. Small Business Administration: provides a range of small-business and entrepreneurial services.

Examples include General Electric, started by Thomas Edison in 1890 during a global recession, Toll House cookies, launched during the Great Depression, and Microsoft, which began during the economic stagnation of the mid-1970s.

Small-business experts say economic conditions are once again ripe for entrepreneurship.

And they say Maine has a host of government and nonprofit resources that can help fledgling businesses get off the ground.

Don Gooding, executive director of Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, said layoffs and slack employment growth have created a slew of "entrepreneurs by necessity."

"When there aren't many opportunities in the existing economy, people are more inclined to go out and make their own (opportunities)," Gooding said.

Gooding said economic conditions drive both veteran and entry-levels workers to become entrepreneurs.

"What have (workers) got to lose?" he said. "They are not turning down great jobs on Wall Street or in corporate America."

According to nonprofit research group Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Americans started 565,000 new businesses per month in 2010, the highest rate in 15 years.

And a 2009 Kauffman study found that more than half the companies on the 2009 Fortune 500 list were started during a recession or bear market.

It's unclear how many entrepreneurs are in Maine, but the state has 147,000 small businesses, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Valarie Lamont, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Southern Maine, said economic slumps encourage entrepreneurship, but also can make starting a business more difficult.

"When the unemployment rate goes up and stays up, people look at different options and gravitate toward entrepreneurship," she said. "On the other hand, in this recession there has been difficulty getting access to credit. It's harder to start a business and keep it going."

There are other challenges.

Emily Adams, an entrepreneur who launched Dirt on a Cake last fall, found that running a cake company meant learning a whole new set of skills, like marketing and sales.

Adams wrestled over a marketing strategy before turning to the Women Standing Together networking group for advice. The members encouraged her to sell to small retail shops.

Small business experts say entrepreneurs have drive and creativity, but often must seek outside help in tackling the nuts and bolts of business ownership.

"The biggest challenge is all the hats an entrepreneur must wear," Nancy Strojny, chair of the Portland chapter of SCORE, a group that provides resources to small businesses. "As an entrepreneur, you have to be CEO, vice president of sales and controller."

Strojny and others advise entrepreneurs to take advantage of the resources available to entrepreneurs in Maine, many of which are offered by government and nonprofit groups, often free of charge.

For instances, SCORE has seven offices statewide and offers face-to-face counseling. The organization's low-cost business workshops teach about business plans, social media, Internet marketing and other topics.

"There are a lot of programs out there to take advantage of," said Adams, whose ice cream cakes are now sold in a handful of southern Maine stores. Adams consulted with the head of the Maine Small Business Development Center at the University of Southern Maine.

Gooding said business people who launch traditional small businesses -- restaurants or retail shops, for instance -- have the benefit of selling established products or services. Price points are already set, and demand can be estimated.

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Additional Photos

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Mike St. Pierre, at his new business in Biddeford, models one of his backpacks.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Entrepreneurs Seabren and Whitney Reeves with baby Sondre, 7 months.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer


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