The Rise of the Black Bears


Last week, I flew from Omaha to Maine to talk about the State of Maine.  My friend, Jess Knox, who is one of the partners in Venture Hall and Maine Accelerates Growth, and a founder of Olympico Strategies, a few months ago invited me to Maine to talk about ecosystem building and metrics.  I took him up on the offer because of Maine’s somewhat embryonic ecosystem that is yet rich with potential for growth and maturity.   

 Visiting Maine, meeting some of the event attendees, and engaging in Portland’s startup scene was an absolutely worthwhile and instructive experience for me, and hopefully for guests of the lecture.  I learned great stuff about Maine.  First of all, put your forks down, you haut monde, because it is proper to eat a lobster roll with your hands (even whilst wearing a suit and tie).  There is a lot of variety in flannel.  Maine has the highest per capita number of Etsy stores/users.  There are 17 co-working spaces in Maine and a wide variety of programs that help entrepreneurs.  And generally, everyone seemed a little afraid of success.

Maine startups are kind of kicking ass, but the attitude is “aw, shucks” we can’t do it – we are Maine.  But, the reality is that they can build a vibrant ecosystem with lots of cool stuff.  And they are already moving that needle.  Here are ideas that I shared that I think are generally applicable.  

1.  Founders First.  In the room that I talked to there were a lot of service providers.  And one challenge affecting startup ecosystems right now is the advent of the startup service provider – accelerator founder, co-working space mentor, etc.  The problem with many of these roles is that they think that they know what the ecosystem needs because they are in it – but they are non-essential parasites (including me – by the way).  Instead, it is vital that everyone hear what is needed loudly and regularly from the actual founders.

 2.  Help companies find customers.  Maine has about 15-20 high growth startups of note right now (and maybe the number is 50) – not 500.  This is a game of small numbers. So helping a potential company find its first or third customer can have a disproportionate impact in the overall success rate of the respective company.  In communities such as Maine (or Lincoln or Omaha), helping find one or two customers is more important than having a killer event.

3.  Build networks.  The folks in Maine did something super smart.  They followed the path laid by the Kauffman Foundation regarding measuring their entrepreneurial ecosystem (click on the image below to read the report).  One of the key measurements that this study uses is connectivity.  Maine should continue to build on its proximity to Boston – but also New York City and Philadelphia.  One attendee approached me afterward and explained why Omaha was so much less remote than Maine, while citing Omaha’s proximity to Boulder.  Omaha to Boulder is 551 miles.  Portland to Philadelphia is 426 miles.  So, Maine is within a single day’s drive of three of the ten largest venture markets in the WORLD.  Maine actually imports thousands of potential mentors and angels every summer.  The startup community in Maine should capitalize on that summer migration to build connectivity. 

4.  Know where you want to go.  Maine knows it wants to have a better entrepreneurial culture – but it does not really know what that means.  Is it a cultural campaign – diversity, inclusiveness, etc.? Or is it a business ballgame – startups, exits, etc.?  Or perhaps it is a mix of those.  But once Maine’s startup community establishes its vision, the next step for Maine is to figure out where it lies on the road to materialization of that vision.  Using meaningful metrics will help in that effort.   

One of the challenges of the Kauffman report I mentioned above is that it has significant time lag with many of its metrics.  I believe that a full entrepreneurial cycle (where cohorts of companies move from startup to scaleup, or they die) takes about two years in Omaha, for example.  Some of Kauffman’s report is built on data that is three and four years old.  So, for our ecosystem, it is measuring two cycles old data – that is not useful. However, in the same sense, measuring something just because it is current may also be inaccurate because it hasn’t had time to settle into a pattern that reflects reality.  I recommend focusing on information that is “rightish” – not right – because the goal in this nascent field is tactical, not publishable. 

Overall, I was impressed with Maine and I am hopeful that they will have me back.  My sincere thanks to Jess for the invitation to meet and get to know several of you over the two days I was there.  Oh, did I mention that they have 11 James Beard semi-finalists this year… 

Read about Maine's startup community at the following link:

Please click on the image below to read the Maine Accelerates Growth Report.



Tom Chapman