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In 2016, Jennifer Judd-McGee started a little shop called Swallowfield as an experiment.
An artist in Northeast Harbor, she had been selling her work online and through galleries, and also worked with commercial art agents doing freelance editorial and licensing patterns.
“But I’d always had a secret dream of having a shop,” she says.
She noticed a Main Street storefront on the market.
“It looked perfect and not too scary,” she says.
The idea was to sell Maine-made wares and her own artwork. Over the next couple of years, she did well enough, but realized she didn’t have a full understanding of what it takes to run a business.
In 2018, she enrolled in a new educational opportunity called the Mount Desert Business Boot Camp.
“I never went to business school and I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” Judd-McGee says. “I was trying to figure out what it would take to make a living.”
The three-day camp offered plentiful programming and business mentors.
“It was a little intimidating,” she says. “But once I realized that not just the boot camp leaders but all of the volunteers from the different banks and small businesses and organizations were there to help us, it felt great.”
“So many of our local businesses were founded by what I call ‘accidental entrepreneurs,’” says Jay Friedlander, a founder of the boot camp. “They are passionate, and talented and excited to do something they love. Later, often through the school of hard knocks, they realize they weren’t equipped with the business skills they needed to succeed.”
That “skills chasm,” as he calls it, claims businesses of all kinds.
“The boot camp is designed to fill in the skills chasms and quickly give these business owners the skills to succeed and prosper,” says Friedlander. “One of our past participants aptly called it a ‘three-day MBA.’”
The Mount Desert Business Boot Camp launched five years ago, when Kathy Miller, executive director of Mount Desert 365, emailed Friedlander to discuss ways to spur economic growth through sustainable business models and new business ventures that would work well in the community.
Mount Desert 365 is a community nonprofit dedicated to promoting long-term
economic vitality in the town of Mount Desert. Friedlander is the Sharpe-McNally Chair of Green and Socially Responsible Business at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor.
The first boot camp was held in 2018. Facilitated by Friedlander, there were 20 participants representing 10 local businesses, plus a dozen mentors.
“Before this program, many of the business owners had never made a PowerPoint presentation and few had a strong understanding of how to evaluate the financial health of their enterprises,” says a follow-up statement from Mount Desert 365.
A pitch competition was held on the third day. By that time, the statement says, “every one of them could perform a breakeven analysis of how key business decisions will affect their cash flow and balance sheet. They could also deliver a succinct sales pitch on how their business meets customer needs, with PowerPoint slides, to a packed crowd in under three minutes.”
Miller recalls wondering if the competition would draw the larger community.
“We did a lot of promotion, but you just never know who’s going to come out on a Sunday afternoon in March,” she says. “It was standing-room-only. And after all the pitches, there was a standing ovation. I think it’s because it’s a small community. People take such pride in these great small businesses.”
The second event was in 2019 and the third this past March, with 38 hours of programming, 18 participants and 10 mentors. Each competition attracted a packed crowd. Businesses presented three-minute pitches to a panel of judges and in-person and virtual audiences, competing for $5,000 to $10,000 in awards. Bar Harbor Bank & Trust sponsored the event; the Knowles Co. and Hannaford provided support.
This year, nine businesses were new, many launching just before or during the pandemic, and one in the planning stage. They include food, flowers, retail space, oyster cultivators, an “exercise lab,” and a proposed makerspace.
Boot camps have the ability to boost business potential, Friedlander says.
“Whether on MDI or in one of the programs we’ve done with startups from 13 states, all communities have a lot of unrealized potential,” he says.
As a destination community, he says, talented people come from all over the world to be on Mount Desert Island and figure out how to make a living.
“This program, and the work that Mount Desert 365 is doing, gives them greater odds of success,” he says.
Boot camps can be tailored to local communities, he adds.
“Here on MDI, we looked for relevant examples from aquaculture, retail, restaurants, hospitality, etc.,” he says. “We also brought in local experts who know MDI and can offer practical advice to the enterprise.”
The program is also designed to be accessible to anyone regardless of background.
“We dispense with the business jargon and make it easy for people to get what they need, when they need it,” he says. “For example, we have designed a custom program called ‘profit decoder’ where, in a few clicks, participants can see what it takes to become profitable.”
Benefits to the local community, to date, include $30,000 in growth capital deployed to pitch winners and over 60 business owners participating in the program.
“This is 60 people who have collectively received hundreds of hours of business education and have more skills to succeed in their business, benefiting everyone,” Friedlander says. “If you talk to local entrepreneurs, many of them feel like they are alone or they are the only ones facing a certain set of problems. During the boot camp, they realize that they share common problems and develop a bond between themselves, other businesses and the advisor.”
For Molly Friedland, the biggest lesson was how to realistically project profitability, thanks to resources and tools provided by the program, including a “profitability decoding spreadsheet.”
In 2021, Friedland and her partner Caleb Hawkins started Little Red Flower Truck, a flower farm and floral design business in Ellsworth. Their “flower wagon” is a red ’93 Toyota pickup.
Friedland won the Audience Choice Award this year.
“I have been witnessing the business boot camp happening in the community for a couple of years and always loved seeing the entrepreneurs in our community shine,” she says of her decision to enroll in the program. “It was always in the back of my head that there were probably a million ways this could help our business.”
That spreadsheet? She’s likely one of few who wax lyrical on the topic.
“I feel like they gifted it to us,” she says. “It was a beautiful Excel document that helps you see every cost you have and how it all works into your profitability.”
As someone with a passion who wasn’t a business expert, it was also helpful to learn she wasn’t alone and that mentors were willing to help.
“Another big takeaway was connecting with other business owners and feeling like part of that community and having that network,” she says.
Robyn Hanson had no business background when she started Acadia Outdoor Center, an outdoor clothing and equipment shop in the village of Seal Harbor.
“I was a teacher most of my life and always had a dream to start a business like this,” Hanson says.
Last year she made the leap, opening a seasonal shop in a former garage and convenience store where she used to buy penny candy as a little girl.
Knowing many people who had participated in the boot camp, she signed on this year.
“I was hopeful that participating would give me more of the language and more of the background,” she says.
Her hopes were realized. “But the bigger thing, which I hadn’t actually considered, was making connections with some of the mentors,” she says. “Just last week I had two Zoom calls with some of the mentors I met through the boot camp.”
Her goal? To build an indoor climbing wall for year-round use. Permits and plans are in place, but she needs financing.
“So I reached out to people from the boot camp to talk about it,” she continues. “That’s been a great outcome. It’s super-intimidating to reach out to people I don’t know. To already have a face to the name, it’s not as intimidating.”
Another participant this year was Lindsay Chaloux, who runs MDI Girl Pasta Co. in Bar Harbor.
“I wanted to push my business into the next level and hopefully get an employee,” she says.
Chaloux started the enterprise part-time four years ago, while working full-time elsewhere. That ratio gradually shifted. Today, she has a commercial kitchen, selling pasta at farmers markets, retail outlets from MDI to Bangor, and some wholesale. Stretched thin between production, packaging and delivery, she realized she needed an employee.
“The thing I was timid about was, Do you just get an employee and hope you can cover them, or do you get the funding first and how do you make that jump?” she says.
Coming out of boot camp, she realized she could hire her first employee.
“Now I can confidently say I can hire another employee next season,” she says. “At the boot camp, all of the businesses drummed up pages and pages of questions that needed answers. For me, at least, I got them all answered.”
Building those business skills is what it’s all about, says Friedlander.
“One thing I have noticed is that ‘accidental entrepreneurship’ is not a local phenomenon,” he says. “Whether you are a local enterprise, a scientist with a startup idea, or an engineer ready to launch a new technology, you are most likely facing the skills chasm. For local businesses and high-growth startups alike, getting these people business skills quickly can make a huge difference in their trajectory and the prosperity of their communities as well.”