WINDHAM – One look at the Maine Successful Thinkers Facebook page will reveal the group is gaining in members and popularity.

Photographs from weekly business get-togethers, comments from visitors, and about 500 “likes” show the group has a lot going on. The group was established by Jeff Ball in 2009 and is an outlet, similar to Rotary or a chamber of commerce, to connect business professionals. With no membership dues, however, it’s a handy tool for owners of start-ups looking to spread their brand and get to know other professionals without investing a lot of capital.

While Ball’s group has a statewide reach, with the Portland area its hub, Windham plays a part in the mix as weekly “meetup mixers” occur at the Maine Real Estate Connection office on Route 302 in North Windham.

Ball, a South Portland resident and sales manager for Time 4 Printing in North Windham, leads the weekly groups at 8:15 a.m. Thursdays, along with numerous other meetings in the area. With a former career in the nonprofit world working with the YMCA organization, Ball has an entrepreneurial spirit and wants others to realize the benefits of networking face-to-face.

Ball, 49, is also the PTA president for Kaler Elementary in South Portland, leads a men’s group at The Rock Church in Scarborough, and comes from a line of Baptist preachers.

The Lakes Region Weekly sat down with the wide-ranging Ball, who evangelizes entrepreneurship when he’s leading Successful Thinkers, to ask him about the organization with a catchy name.

Q: How did Maine Successful Thinkers get its start?

A: I was running a small one-page paper called Coffee News and I had the franchise areas from Portland down to Kittery. When I was doing that, I’d set up a networking night and I’d give my advertisers a free booth. We’d do like a mini-expo. I’d put them around the perimeter of the room and I’d invite my family and friends, church people, business people, whoever I could get, to be in the middle so it would give these advertisers extra exposure, whether they were selling real estate, mortgages or insurance.

A friend of mine from California, Jim Bellacera, came up with this group called “Successful Thinkers.” So instead of being this little Coffee News group, we basically called our group Maine Successful Thinkers and we’re loosely affiliated with them. It’s kind of a national organization. It’s big in California and in Maine but not a whole lot in the 3,000 miles in between. Maine actually has the largest monthly meetups in the nation on a consistent basis.

We attract a lot of small businesses because we have free membership. And for the small business owner, whether they sell pencils on the street or they have a real estate office, sometimes when people start out they don’t have the $60 to $70 to buy business cards so how are they going to pay the $300 to $500 for membership in business organizations. I love chambers, I’m a member, but it’s $300 for one person. So we come along and we have free membership, and that’s nice. That definitely sets us apart. We have an online community but we’re also boots-on-the-ground, so once a month we meet. In Windham, we have a weekly meetup and the reason we do that is because our organization is all about building relationships. You will buy from people you know and trust. That’s really what we do, we’re building trust around the table and building relationships in the business community.

Q: What’s your background?

A: I have a bachelor’s degree from Westchester University and a master’s degree in education from Temple University and I’ve worked in nonprofits pretty much all my life. But we always highlight a nonprofit for our big monthly events, and that comes from my background. We’ve done American Red Cross, Keeping Kids Safe, the Winterkids, Make-a-Wish Foundation. That’s an important component and Maine Successful Thinkers is really run in Maine like a nonprofit. I have an advisory board which really give me direction so it’s really run as a nonprofit.

Q: How is the Windham chapter doing?

A: The group is growing. We started with a dozen people and now we have over a thousand members with about 50 in Windham. It’s very exciting. We’re free. We’re open. We’re not exclusive. There’s other groups that if you’re a real estate agent that’s it. Rotary, BMI and some other groups, if you have filled a category, no other groups can get in, which is good in a sense but our philosophy is we let those people in, because we think we can help each other. There’s a certain synergy. Even if you’re in the same type of business that you can help each other.

Q: Where did the name come from?

A: The “Successful Thinkers” part comes from California. We tacked on Maine. The title is catchy, because, do you want to be a successful thinker? Well, of course you do. And a doer. And that’s really what it’s all about. You want to think in a positive way. You want to think in a successful way. When you come to the group, you have new ideas. You’re being creative. You’re moving forward. There’s excitement, there’s synergy. Notice there’s no money sign there. It’s not about money. Being successful is not about how much money you make. Obviously you want to be able to pay your bills and have whatever lifestyle.

Q: Is a positive attitude required to run a successful business? Do they go hand-in-hand?

A: Personally I think yes, but I’ve been into hardware stores or some type of store where I have to buy some type of widget and it’s hey, I need this L-pipe thing and they could care less if you’re dead or alive. But I think if you’re going to start a home-based business or you’re starting out brand new, I think that, yes, I don’t see those people going very far if they don’t have a very exciting and positive attitude.

Q: Do you get paid to lead the organization?

A: What’s happened to me, I’ve kind of stuck with it from an entrepreneur idea to keep it going to be a part-time income for the Ball family. It’s not a big income but it’s a small part-time income. How that works, because it is a free membership and it’s free to attend the weekly meetups, every month we have a big event where we go back to how we originally started with putting vendors, if you will, in a little mini-expo. People can set up and show their wares and that would cost them a certain amount of money. Also at those monthly events are sponsorship opportunities. So, that would cover a lot of the incidental costs. We do a lot of trade but at every monthly event we have some sort of speaker or something exciting going on. We have music, food, usually we have a cash bar.

Q: How many people attend the monthly gatherings?

A: Usually over a 100.

Q: What do you do during the weekly meetups?

A: Obviously the biggest thing is building relationships, but to get to that point we have a little formal meeting. We have a president and membership person. We have a greeter and program person. So we have a little bit of structure. It’s about an hour long and we go around the table and everyone gets 30 seconds to a minute to introduce themselves. We’ll have an inspirational moment, an educational moment, all related to business. Marketing, social networking – topics such as those are brought up, so there’s education and inspiration. Then we’ll go around a second time and ask, what good referrals did you get from this group? The weekly events are really where the magic happens. People also take it a step further with one-to-ones where people go to coffee afterward and really get to know one another.

Jeff Ball, sales manager for Time 4 Printing in North Windham, heads Maine Successful Thinkers, a group meant to connect, educate and inspire business professionals. (Staff photo by John Balentine)

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