To become an entrepreneur, you might leave a well-paying job to pursue a single idea. You will probably spend your own money, or your family’s money, to get your product off the ground. You will undoubtedly work long hours and navigate many technological, legal, operational, marketing and financial challenges.
Many Maine people, though, have looked ahead at the hurdles and launched their startup anyway — with civic-mindedness, intelligence and even joy.
The startups growing here today offer a glimpse of what is promising about the state’s economic future. The enterprises usually begin with one or two people and an idea for improving something — an athlete’s performance, access to information or sales at local businesses. They survive because of the networks that need them and know their value.
In Maine, those networks of entrepreneurs and supporters will be evident at Maine Startup & Create Week, June 12-20, in Portland. With 30 events — including Startup Weekend, where people work together to create a startup idea and present it to judges; panel discussions and speakers; a Think Big Bash; achievement awards; a PubHub networking event; and a startup career and internship fair — the week will showcase the strengths of Maine’s startup community.
“This is about companies telling their story,” said Jess Knox, a business consultant, statewide innovation hub leader for Blackstone Accelerates Growth and an organizer of the event. “The attitudes and aspirations toward growth are contagious when other people are also talking about it.”
So let’s talk about it.
Here are the stories of three people who will be speaking at Maine Startup & Create Week and have figured out — or are figuring out — how to overcome the challenges that naturally come with starting a business.
Co-founder and CEO, Double Blue Sports Analytics
You might know Dan Kerluke from his work as assistant and then associate head coach for the University of Maine men’s hockey team. But a year ago, he decided to take a risk and leave that job. He wanted to pursue a business concept and create an app that could capture and analyze athletes’ performance.
The idea came when longtime UMaine goalie coach David Alexander was in the stands during one game, keeping track of a goalie’s plays and filming the game. With his paper diagrams spread out beside him, he marked where shots were taken on the ice and the results of those goal attempts.
In addition to analyzing the plays on paper, Alexander would later review the film and edit it into relevant clips — a task that often took hours — to share with coaches and players. During that particular game, Kerluke said, someone in the stands yelled down, “There has to be an app for that!”
Now there is.
Kerluke and Tim Westbaker, co-founder and chief technical officer of what became Double Blue Sports Analytics, created the 360 Save Review System, a digital interface to help tally goalie statistics within seconds — not hours. People can download a partial version of the app for free or can go to the company’s website at www.doublebluesports.com and pay to use all its features.
The biggest challenge the company has faced is a natural one: Finding enough money to develop the product and pay for four full-time employees before sales have grown. It’s a balancing act: Startups can’t earn profits until their product sells, but they can’t build and sell the product until they have money.
So Kerluke has sought out capital. In a year, the company has raised $250,000, from private investors and about $25,000 in grants from the Maine Technology Institute. The new company is already attracting high-profile customers. Sweden’s Olympic hockey team used the app in Sochi. The NHL Network is using it to present interesting analytics during broadcasts. AndNational Hockey League, college and youth teams have bought the app.
“It’s been a very eventful year for us. We’ve kind of hit a chord, certainly within hockey. We’ll eventually scale to other sports,” Kerluke said. The company is developing another platform to analyze team statistics.
A network of people has been ready to help along the way. “I think the biggest thing for us has been the immediate connection and support within the state of Maine,” Kerluke said.
For instance, Jesse Moriarity, coordinator of the UMaine Foster Center for Student Innovation, became “our guardian angel,” Kerluke said, by helping them understand how to expand their business.
Kerluke also participated in the Top Gun program at the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, which provides entrepreneurial training and connections with mentors.
His advice for others is to not leave Maine.
“You don’t need to move down to Boston to start a successful company. You can do it right here,” he said.
Co-founder and CEO, HistoryIT
HistoryIT, led by Kristen Gwinn-Becker, incorporated in Maine in September 2012. In the short time since, it has grown quickly, expanding to offices in three other states and hiring 46 employees. With headquarters in Portland, the biggest questions HistoryIT faces are about scale. How best can the company continue to grow — and even grow faster?
There is demand for the work HistoryIT does: digitizing historical collections and creating a methodology and technology that allows regular people to search through them. The company works with all groups — such as private companies, public universities and libraries — that want to digitize and connect a vast amount of information in a helpful way, whether for public or internal use.
The company is working with the University of Indianapolis to digitize the political archives of three mayors who served between 1950 and the 1990s. It will make available online, in a fully searchable manner, 2 ½ million items.
Gwinn-Becker, who has a Ph.D. in U.S. history and a background in computer programming and database development, said she is driven by her company’s mission.
“I care deeply about the stories that we tell about our past, and I firmly believe that our ability to tell those stories is going to rapidly diminish because we are essentially, as a society, making a decision to keep our history kind of under lock and key,” she said.
The goal of HistoryIT is to make the information more widely accessible.
So how does a quickly growing company avoid stumbling over itself as it leads the market? For Gwinn-Becker, it’s all about finding the right employees: “getting the smartest people you possibly can into positions of leadership.”
It wasn’t intentional, she said, but the company is 100 percent owned and managed by women. You can read about them at www.historyit.com.
How does she find those critical employees? Traditional advertising and word of mouth — networking.
The Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development also has connected her with people able to give good advice and feedback. And the company received an initial boost with a Maine Technology Institute seed grant and development loan.
Her advice for others: “If you have that thing that you believe in, the smartest thing you can do is build a plan, meet as many smart people as possible, try to get some of them to work with you, and keep on pushing.”
Co-founder, Buoy Local
Nearly everyone has purchased a gift card at some point. They probably picked it up off a rack at the grocery store or mall. It was easy. But what if, instead of supporting chain stores, you wanted to give a gift card to someone to redeem at a local business — or many local businesses?
Buoy Local, started by Sean Sullivan and Kai Smith, allows people to purchase gift cards that can be used at more than 85 independently owned locations in the Portland area. They include restaurants, clothing boutiques, bars and even kayaking tour companies.
“It’s the best names in town. We’re dealing with top-tier businesses that we feel passionate and excited about sending people to,” Sullivan said.
People can buy the gift cards and see a list of participating businesses online at www.buoylocal.com; or they can buy the cards at Longfellow Books or Casco Bay Frames in Portland.
The goal of the company is to help, well, buoy local companies. Businesses pay Buoy Local a fee based on their size, in return for being able to accept the gift card. The cards work with existing point-of-sale equipment; businesses don’t have to change their existing software.
Buoy Local is only six months old, and it already has sold more than $50,000 worth of gift cards, with more than $25,000 redeemed at local stores.
Being such a new endeavor, the biggest hurdle has been ramping up sales — getting businesses to buy in to the concept and letting consumers know the product is available, said Sullivan, who also is executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild.
So Sullivan and Smith have aimed to forge partnerships with other, similarly community-minded businesses. They leased centrally located window display space at Longfellow Books to advertise. And they partnered with curbside composting service Garbage to Garden, which gave out the cards as prizes for its poster contest.
They also have partnered with Casco Bay Frames, the chamber of commerce, and used social media to spread the word.
Another challenge for startups is obtaining that initial sum on which to build.
“I think it’s really hard to go from zero to, say, $5,000,” Sullivan said. While Maine has grant-giving groups, they generally requiring matching funds.
Sullivan and Smith spurred their start with an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign that raised about $10,000 and allowed them to make their initial capital investments.
One resource on which it’s difficult to place a value is the number of people willing to help.
“Whether people are into entrepreneurship or not, they’ve probably heard that Maine is a big small town,” Sullivan said. “Having that community could help you get over a lot of hurdles.”