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February 20, 2012
COMMENTARY

Portland's tight-knit network fosters the growth of tech startups

Tech startups are not synonymous with Maine, but some tech-based companies are calling Greater Portland home. While geographic location has long been the key driver for success, way of life is quickly replacing that sentiment. As highly skilled professionals look for creative ways to land a job, some are taking risks and starting companies in the places they are most familiar with. Business incubators and clusters make the leap easier with their programs that focus on fostering entrepreneurship by providing support services and development resources. Continuing this trend is not only important to job creation but also to the entrepreneurial spirit in Maine.

Small businesses in general are successfully capturing market share beyond the regions predominantly known for high-tech startups. I see agility and pure determination in these entrepreneurs as the factors that have contributed to this change in recent years. Getting noticed and getting capital are the prizes in the high-tech corridors, but the odds aren't in the entrepreneur's favor. Instead of relying on the tech-focused areas to be discovered and funded, some entrepreneurs leverage the resources available at home.

It all starts with collaboration and commitment to an idea. And with accessibility to consumers through the mobile, web-based and social media markets, those choosing way of life over location are able to level the playing field with their competition. The payoff of starting a business this way is a shorter product or service development lifecycle, which allows small companies to move to market quickly and often at lower costs compared with their larger counterparts. It's not an easy path but some are seeing great results.

Making connections

Greater Portland has a tech-rich small business community emerging organically, which is the result of collaboration and entrepreneurial-based programs. I believe networking is the core of this community. Entrepreneurship is based on ideas. Delivering those ideas to consumers takes commitment, creativity and capital. The commitment for entrepreneurs is easy because they are invested in the idea. In the early stages, creativity can be leveraged to find resources through peers and the use of interns if available. Support services are also available through incubator-type organizations. Capital in most cases is the greatest hurdle for startups. The real value of networking, though, is closing the gaps between the programs, grants and funding that are available to small businesses and entrepreneurs in Maine.

An important feature of programs that promote entrepreneurship is the sharing of ideas and experiences. Leadership coaches are often matched with entrepreneurs to help them bridge the gap between methodology and real-life application. The benefit of this is the transfer of knowledge that otherwise would only come with experience. Coaches are generally available in structured formats and offer specific expertise similar to formal education or career development programs.

Mentor relationships, on the other hand, are typically less formal than coaching and more flexible for entrepreneurs. Decision making and goal setting are typical themes, which are more detailed and long-term. The networking opportunities available in Greater Portland are ideal for mentor relationships to form.

Adding education

The collaboration between the college and university systems and local businesses also contributes to the cultivation of the rising tech sector within Greater Portland. Establishing relationships within the community, institutions are able to identify skill sets and program requirements to train the growing work force and meet local demand. As programs emerge and mature, startups and small businesses will have the opportunity to staff interns from the student populations for short-term projects. This approach allows small businesses to stay competitive within their market while supplementing staff levels with minimal impact to operating costs.

As the tech industry grows and more highly skilled professionals take the leap towards entrepreneurship, I believe we will see an increase in the number of people choosing way of life over geographical location. Maine offers a way of life that is like no other and the tech sector in Greater Portland will see growth as opportunities in mobile and health care technology are realized. The support available to entrepreneurs will continue with a focus on fostering entrepreneurship. Creativity will continue to be the tool that solves resource constraints for entrepreneurs and small businesses. Entrepreneurs will continue seeking innovation and will be committed to their ideas — and calling Maine home. n

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