Recently there has been a lot of attention on the Maine startup scene, with national press and some high profile VC visits. But accolades and visits don’t count for much when you are battling to get your business off the ground. There is a large disconnect between what is going on at the highest levels and what is happening in the trenches. How do I know? Because my company is in the trenches and it’s a real battle.
Don’t get me wrong, the right steps are being taken, necessary changes are being made to support a more active and diverse group of startups – all being led by some dynamic and engaging personalities who will succeed. The desire is there, the drive is there, but the national startup/funding infrastructure is just not engaged in Maine and that is the problem.
Maine has done an amazing job in marketing the state as Vacationland. As a consequence, many top level founders have vacation homes here in Maine to live that dream. Unfortunately, those connections remain on vacation and not engaged as opportunities for the Maine fledgling startup community. That vacation engagement is vital to many industries in Maine, but it needs to be expanded to the startup community. We need these business leaders to buy lobster and engage in the local startup economy.
Maine has so much more to offer than just amazing views, delicious food and friendly locals. Maine has a great workforce based on ‘Yankee Ingenuity’, hard work ethic, and on the highly successful, often with many hidden talents. When X2X was looking for a retired family court judge who was also an author, it turns out our own David Kennedy lived less than a mile from my house in North Yarmouth. Delorme Maps – a mile from our office, WEX – 15 miles from our office, Tyler Technologies – a mile from our office, LL Bean – 6 miles from our office. All these companies started and grew in Maine. How did they do it? By engaging nationally and leveraging the hard working ethics of Mainers. Now we need to flip that model and get the national success stories to engage with the Mainers. A simple statement with a complex solution. The same reasons that Maine is attractive as a vacation spot, are close to the same reasons that we decided to keep and grow our business here.
Unfortunately for Maine’s startup scene, several highly successful Maine business leaders have formed a group to promote startups in certain sectors. This sends a disparate message to potential founders from outside those sectors and potentially discourages them from pursuing their dreams. The Maine startup economy is too premature to call a direction on startups and it shouldn’t be up to a select few to govern the industries that Maine promotes. To me this is a big step backwards. We have some great leaders who are in Maine, and want to promote Maine but by announcing a specific direction they cut their support for other industries other opportunities. Theoretically it sounds great moving everyone to the same drum beat; reality is a creative startup base is going to drive the entrepreneurial economy in Maine.
What are the right steps right now? The MCED has started Equity Path based on The Capital Network which I attended last year in Boston. A great program where entrepreneurs can learn about the path to funding or even if funding is right for their business. If you are thinking about starting a business or are in a startup, I strongly suggest you attend these events. This is huge for Maine. It takes the highest levels and moves them to the trenches. The next logical step would be for MCED to reach out to the group of mentors/angels and more that have vacation homes in Maine, and get them to participate in these events. Connecting the startups to potential mentors and more is the next wave on adding to Maine’s vacationland and more solution. That wave has begun. Maine StartUp and Create Week is the start to those connections as is Pubhub; there are many more programs that are working to bring these connections to light.
So as we wind down our epic seed round funding of X2X, I step back and look at how Maine’s startup scene helped me and it comes down to 2 connections. The first connected me with two amazing individuals, one who wanted to come to Maine and the other who called Maine home. These 2 mentors propelled X2X to where we are today and it was their Maine connection that made that happen. The second connection was a fellow startup founder from Portland who I just shared a beer with the other night. He had his feet on the ground and his head below the clouds. He was a sounding board for my realities and his insights clarified my thinking. In my case, the rest of Maine’s startup infrastructure was not ready for what I needed to do. I see that slowly changing now and I hope if you are reading this and you are in Maine you step out and take advantage of all that Maine is starting to offer. If on the other hand you read this while on vacation in Maine and you want to get involved in the Maine startup scene, email me and I will be happy to connect you with the startup leaders in Maine –we want your help.