October 15, 2012

Don Gooding trains Maine entrepreneurs

Don Gooding, executive director of the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, says the organization focuses not on companies, but the training and mentoring of individual entrepreneurs

Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development

Address: 30 Danforth St., Portland

Executive director: Don Gooding

Founded: 1996 (as the Maine Center for Enterprise Development)

Employees: 4

Services: education, networking and mentoring for entrepreneurs

Operating budget: $400,000

Contact: 774-8111

If it takes an entrepreneur to know one, then Maine's budding entrepreneurs are lucky that Don Gooding is executive director of the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development.

Gooding describes himself as a third-generation entrepreneur who's seen both good and bad business outcomes. His grandfather built a successful roofing business in Lancaster County, Penn., shortly after World War II. His father, on the other hand, was part of a "somewhat disastrous tech startup in the late '70s." Gooding's own journey led him to a 10-year stint as a research partner at the venture capital firm Accel Partners, where he focused on new telecom and networking markets. It was cutting-edge stuff, he says, but it wasn't what he ultimately wanted to do with his life.

"I got to be involved with some cutting-edge companies, but I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur or thought I'd go and start a company until I actually did," he says.

After settling on Mount Desert Island with his wife, Gooding started Mainely A Cappella (the predecessor to Primary A Cappella), selling recordings and sheet music to singers around the world.

"I figured if L.L. Bean could make it work with a catalog in Maine, so could I," he says. "It's so much easier now with the Internet."

Gooding's successes as an entrepreneur and a desire to help others succeed were what drew him to the opportunity to lead MCED.

"I love working with entrepreneurs, especially now when there are a lot of good things happening here," he says. "We're at a point where a lot of these things have been building for a long time, and I'm lucky to be one of the people to help light the fires."

Top Gun

MCED's most visible program, Top Gun (now known as Top Gun Maine), is designed to accelerate growth and progress for entrepreneurs and their companies through a curriculum, mentoring, networking and community. Since it was first offered in 2009, the program has graduated 64 entrepreneurs, most of whom are still in business, Gooding says. One company, mobile lead generation firm Liquid Wireless, has "already made it to the exit," having been sold to Publishers Clearing House earlier this year.

While it's gratifying to see successful companies come out of the Top Gun program, Gooding says companies are actually its secondary focus.

"Top Gun is more about the entrepreneur than the company. We see it as a long-term investment in the entrepreneur, especially if they're a serial entrepreneur," he says.

In an effort to reach entrepreneurs from even the most remote parts of the state, MCED launched Top Gun Prep, a nine-week webinar series to teach entrepreneurs how to increase the speed — and decrease the risk — of building, launching and/or growing their startup company. The program went live on Sept. 19 and within three weeks had 64 participants from all around the state. The program was spurred by the lack of "critical mass" of support in Maine for entrepreneurs, says Gooding.

"There are entrepreneurs everywhere, so we needed a way to aggregate the most promising entrepreneurs and help them get going," he says. "We have to reach into the more rural areas and make sure no entrepreneur gets left behind."

Once entrepreneurs have completed Top Gun Prep, they can apply to be one of the 20 companies selected for Top Gun Maine, which will start in January, the majority of which will likely be Top Gun Prep graduates, Gooding says.

Upon completing Top Gun Maine, graduates move to Top Gun Next, which provides further assistance, mostly in the area of connecting with the right mentors, advisers, investors or others who can help a company grow.

The 'big mistake'

One of the biggest challenges Gooding and MCED face has been the long-term impact of what he calls "the big mistake," namely the Maine Legislature's creation of a network of seven technology incubators. The initiative created incubators across the state, each with a very narrow industry focus. The amount of funding allocated to the incubator network, which ultimately failed, hobbled MCED, whose enterprise development work had been associated with it.

"That's challenged MCED as an organization for a long time," he says. "In Maine, there's no critical mass to do industry-focused incubators. With the amount of money put into that in the early days, the negative perception lingers in the minds of potential corporate supporters."

Building on the foundation laid by his predecessor, Steve Bazinet, Gooding has worked to build partnerships with organizations, such as the Maine Technology Institute and the University of Maine, as well as a small number of companies, notably GWI. That support system, Gooding says, has put MCED on the clock to start getting results.

"We have two years to prove our model is really going to do good and that we really deliver value to the Maine business community," he says. "The early returns are good, but I'm as tough a critic as anyone. It's important that we be constantly delivering."

Investing in the future

In addition to his work at MCED, Gooding also serves as vice chair of Maine Angels, the private, collaborative investment network. Practicing what he preaches, he's been very active in investing since the 1990s.

Like MCED, Maine Angels has itself been something of a turnaround project, Gooding says.

"It had gotten this deserved reputation as a tire-kicking social club, and the terrible market in 2008, 2009 and 2010 didn't help," he says. Gooding and Maine Angels Chair Sandra Stone of Seacove Solutions have worked together to change the way many things have been done at the organization. As a result, 16 new members, including Jason Cianchette of Top Gun success story Liquid Wireless, have joined in the last year.

The group signed a due diligence treaty with other Angel associations in New England, which allows the organizations to freely trade information back and forth with other active investing groups. It also began a monthly screening committee to look over submissions and choose which businesses to present at full meetings.

"I'm excited to be bringing state-of-the-art entrepreneurial innovation to up-and-coming entrepreneurs in Maine," says Gooding. "This moment in time is extremely rewarding, especially with MCED and Maine Angels being turnaround situations. There's a big risk, but also a big return."

Derek Rice, a writer based in Saco, can be reached at

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