Sometimes all a business idea needs to take shape is a little encouragement. How many good ideas are never pursued in Maine because the right people never hear about them and help usher them forward? That could have happened to Sarah Newcomb, 36, of Orono. It almost did.
She had been thinking about developing a shopper-friendly phone app for a while and only entered the Oct. 22 Big Gig networking and pitch-off event on a whim, she said. The contest, which is happening again on Dec. 10 and Feb. 11, with a finale on April 8, required her to give a three-to-five minute elevator speech to a room full of people — and a panel of “Big Wigs” — at Verve in Orono.
Newcomb, a doctoral student in behavioral economics at the University of Maine, laid it out for the crowd. She proposed an app called “Who’s Your Daddy?” that would be available for a couple dollars to allow shoppers to scan a product in the store to learn two things: the name of the parent company and a score for that company based on its socially conscious practices. The score would be generated from publicly available data, such as whether the company pays a living wage and limits environmental impacts.
“As a shopper I want to be able to shop according to my values, and so in this information age you’d think we’d have everything we need to buy products that really reflect our values,” she said. Turns out, we don’t. (While there is a similar app to the one Newcomb wants to make, it gets low customer ratings and can’t be applied to many items.)
Market forces drive product development to an extent, but the reality is that it’s hard for consumers to know how companies’ practices differ from one another without doing a lot of research.
“It’s just a really simple idea — being able to make information that’s available, organizing it, sifting through it, to make it easily accessible,” she said.
And that simple idea? It just so happened to also be a winning one.
The competition, which was organized by Husson University, the University of Maine and the towns of Orono and Old Town, awarded her $100 — and the chance to earn $1,000 at the finale contest in April — but the real benefit, of course, didn’t come from the money. It came from people’s enthusiasm for her idea, Newcomb said.
Imagine if that same excitement could be transferred to potential entrepreneurs across the state.
“Giving that sense of, ‘Oh, no, you’re totally not crazy to think that idea can work, and we can help.’ There’s something about just believing in ourselves and that — why not? Why not try? Just a positive energy. If it doesn’t work, OK, but get out there and try,” she said.
Some places have developed a culture of enterprise. Think of Silicon Valley. Maine may have lots of entrepreneurs, but is there enough ongoing support? Is there enough excitement?
“I think what Maine needs more than anything is a spirit of optimism about business ventures,” Newcomb said.
It also needs to simply connect people. “It’s really important for us — and we’ve been talking about this at the Orono Economic Development board for years — to build relationships with these innovators and entrepreneurs to try to help them in any way we can to get them off the ground and going,” said Paul Riechmann, board secretary of the Orono Economic Development Corporation and an organizer of the Big Gig. “More often than not, these people go to Boston or Austin or Silicon Valley, and we want them here.”
What are Newcomb’s next steps? She has started putting together a team of scientists and programmers to begin the data collection process and determine the ranking system for the app. She will likely also need a patent to protect the rating system, an app designer and some startup money. The general estimate for creating a new app is about $125,000 and eight to 10 weeks of full-time work for the team.
As a full-time student writing a dissertation who is also a research assistant at UMaine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative, Newcomb is not planning to depend on the app for her livelihood. She wants to keep the process relatively simple and quick and ultimately provide a service that people will appreciate and use.
“We don’t need new technology. It’s simply about putting pieces that already exist together, making it easy to use, beautiful, and then putting it out there,” she said.
Sounds fun, doesn’t it? Does it make you want to try out your idea?
The next Big Gig event will be at 5:30 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 10, at Kosta’s in downtown Old Town. The following pitch-off will be at 5:30 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 11, at the Richard E. Dyke Center for Family Business at Husson. Pitch coaches meet with all of the potential participants before each event to select three to compete and prepare them for the contest. To learn more, visit www.biggig.org. Newcomb may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.