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Updated: August 2, 2021

Bullish on entrepreneurship

Photo / Tim Greenway Tom Rainey, executive director of the Maine Center for Entrepreneurs, says diversifying and having a back-up plan are important strategies for entrepreneurs.

Tom Rainey is executive director of the Maine Center for Entrepreneurs in Portland. Through training, connections, coaching and mentorship, MCE helps innovators fill the gaps between their industry expertise and the strategic business skills critical to launching a scalable, sustainable venture.

Established in 1997, the center has accelerated the growth of hundreds of businesses. It is a partner in Maine Accelerates Growth, or MxG, a network of organizations supporting entrepreneurship through collaboration. We asked Rainey to look back at the past year and what’s ahead for entrepreneurs. Here’s an edited transcript.

Mainebiz: How have entrepreneurs fared over the past year?

Tom Rainey: It’s been a mixed bag, as some have greatly benefited from the pandemic and others have really suffered. Fortunately, we haven’t seen any companies in our network fail. I’m impressed by how resilient they’ve been. Companies hunkered down and, while some had to shed employees, they all made it through. In the case of our food and beverage clients, it forced them to accelerate online sales. Adopting e-commerce strategies to sell direct-to-consumer opened new sales channels and has been very beneficial.

MB: What lessons emerged from the pandemic?

TR: One of the obvious big lessons learned is to diversify and have a back-up plan. You have to be willing to adapt and pivot quickly if necessary. The other important lesson is you don’t have to go it alone. There are a lot of very talented people and organizations here to help you.

MB: What industries are particularly strong now?

TR: We have 28 companies going through our food accelerator program. After the initial shock of the pandemic, quite a few pivoted and were able to grow their businesses. Seafood companies really struggled initially. Seventy percent of all seafood is sold into food service establishments such as restaurants. People weren’t going to restaurants, so they had to find new ways to get their products direct to consumers.

We worked closely with companies to help them leverage new sales channels. Telehealth, digital applications and e-learning are also areas that are coming on very strong. It’s part of the major shift in how people consume products and services.

MB: How does MCE connect entrepreneurs with funding resources?

TR: We de-risk companies by making them more sustainable and that’s important to potential funders. We help them with business strategies and marketing and refine how they approach their customers. For example, our MarketShare food program helps companies find strategic trade data to inform where they invest their limited marketing dollars. By putting companies on a more solid business footing, they have a more compelling story to tell.

MB: How does the funding ecosystem work?

TR: We talk a lot about the ‘continuum of care’ we provide at MCE. While we don’t provide funding ourselves, we understand the funding parameters of the organizations that do. Our client entrepreneurs are at different stages of development and our goal is to direct them to the most appropriate sources. Last year, for example, we partnered with Maine Technology Institute to provide training to 200 entrepreneurs on how to obtain federal grant funding through the SBIR [Small Business Innovation Research] program.

MB: How does Maine Accelerates Growth help?

TR: Maine Accelerates Growth is a consortium of economic development organizations that come together to share information so we don’t overlap too much. To a new entrepreneur, all of these organizations can be confusing. The good news is that Maine’s support organizations are closely coordinating our activities.

MB: Where is Maine entrepreneurship today?

TR: I’m very bullish on entrepreneurship in Maine. Whenever there’s an economic disruption, you see an increase in entrepreneurship. We’re fortunate that we’ve been able to expand our operations to support more businesses. We have over 220 volunteer business mentors in our network now. I’ve developed incubator and accelerator programs in eight states and I’ve never seen a place as collaborative as Maine.

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