November 20, 2011

Trying times

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

By J. Hemmerdinger
Staff Writer

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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.

Gooding said entrepreneurs selling new products face "market risk," as in, "is there actually a market for the product and service?"

He said the best many entrepreneurs can do is develop hypotheses about demand and price.

"When you test those hypotheses against the real world, sometimes you are right, and sometimes you (must) adjust," said Gooding. "You just don't know until you are in the marketplace."

He added that business plans are of limited value to entrepreneurs.

"You can put together a business plan, but it's obsolete the moment you write it," he said. "There are a huge number of uncertainties."

Unpredictable businesses aren't prime candidates for traditional bank loans, which can make it difficult for entrepreneurs to land start-up funding, said Strojny.

Many entrepreneurs therefore borrow money from acquaintances, which Gooding calls the "friends, family and fools round" of financing.

Entrepreneurs may also qualify for loans or grants from nonprofit groups like Maine Technology Institute, the Libra Future Fund and the Maine Angels, a nonprofit association of individuals who invest in start-up companies.

Gooding said breaking into mass markets can be difficult because consumers grow attached to established brands.

Therefore, he said entrepreneurs might consider marketing their products to "early adopters" -- consumers who pride themselves on owning the latest products.

He said that strategy worked for Biddeford-based start-up Hyperlite Mountain Gear, which sells ultra-light hiking packs and tents designed for hard-core hikers, not day-trippers.

"Early adopters can get you off the ground," Gooding said. "Then you have to shift gears to attract mainstream (consumers)."

Entrepreneur offers the dirt on challenges of startup

Emily Adams has advice for other entrepreneurs.

"Don't stop at the first barrier -- there will be 100 (more). Be persistent and strong and have faith," said Adams, 34, who started Windham-based ice cream cake company Dirt on a Cake in September 2010.

Adams has faced her share of barriers. She left a corporate job and created her company from scratch. She taught herself about small business ownership, sold cakes door-to-door and worked with business mentors. She even taught herself how make ice cream.

Now Adam's business is expanding, and she has ambitious goals.

Adams' career started in the office of Sen. Susan Collins, where she worked as a volunteer and, later, a scheduler in Collins' Washington, D.C., office. In 2001, Adams moved back to Maine and worked at Martin's Point Health Care.

After nine years, Adams left and started Dirt on a Cake.

"I wanted to do something that was my passion, not someone else's," said Adams, who is married and has two daughters.

The hardest part of her venture has been convincing retailers to sell her cakes. She walked door-to-door with her pricing sheet, pitching the cakes and giving samples to store owners.

These days, Adams sells roughly 50 cakes weekly to a half dozen retail stores like Bow Street Market in Freeport, The Good Life Market in Raymond and H.B. Provisions in Kennebunk. The cakes come in some 35 flavors and range in price from $4.95 to nearly $40 for a party-size cake.

Adams makes them in leased space at The Prep Kitchen in Freeport, but will soon work from new kitchen in the basement of her Windham home.

Adams plans to expand by selling cakes to food distributors and by opening a retail store.

"I want to see (Dirt on a Cake) everywhere; throughout Maine and New England," she said.

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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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