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Updated: June 27, 2022

Maine startups have a range of options when it comes to building a team

Renee Kelly standing outdoors PHOTO / Soubanh Phanthay Renee Kelly, assistant vice president for innovation and economic development at the University of Maine, at the Orono campus’ Foster Center for Innovation.

While marshaling talent can be tough for startups in Maine, there are various paths to success, from lining up smart interns and outside experts, to considering a “gig economy” business model like one young entrepreneur has done in launching a cleaning agency. Here’s a roundup of resources and ideas.

A ‘toe-dipping’ route to hiring

For Maine startups in need of smart interns for projects, the Innovate for Maine Fellows Program offers many upsides. The program is run out of the Foster Center for Innovation at the University of Maine in Orono.

Just ask Nick Rimsa of rural product studio Tortoise Labs, which will host an intern from the program this summer to help with sales and marketing.

“This is a great way to find affordable talent, and they’re going to work hard,” he says.

Flowfold, a Gorham-based maker of wallets, bags and outdoor gear from recycled sailcloth, reports similar success with program fellows.

“Innovate for Maine fellows consistently provide fresh perspectives that help our business see things we would have otherwise missed,” says CEO and co-founder Devin McNeill.

Since the Innovate for Maine Fellows Program was launched in 2012, it has matched 232 students from 37 colleges and universities with 220 companies. The program always starts with a brief boot camp, after which students are dispatched to host companies.

While participating companies pay a fee that may qualify for a subsidy, the program screens applicants and hires them as employees it pays directly and supervises with weekly check-ins.

Renee Kelly, assistant vice president for innovation and economic development at the University of Maine, touts the program as an attractive resource for startups.

“Some of these companies may not have a lot of experience hiring,” she says. “So this may be a way for them to get access in a toe-dipping way.”

MTI E-Residents at the ready

Maine startups funded by the Maine Technology Institute, take note: You may also qualify for free expertise from one of four E-Residents — a team of former entrepreneurs and business executives ready to lend a hand on strategy and growth.

MTI, a Brunswick-based organization created and funded by Maine state lawmakers, invests in companies in seven targeted technology sectors from biotechnology to precision manufacturing.

The E-Resident program, originally set up to help portfolio companies in trouble, was recast several years ago to engage with companies earlier and provide guidance to founders.

“When we’re making bigger investments in companies like large loans or equity investments, we’re using E-Residents as board observers,” says MTI President Brian Whitney. “They’re working with companies to help them be as successful as possible.”

The lead E-Resident is Matthew Hoffner, one of the original senior managers of the credit card company that later became WEX Inc. and a former chairman of the Maine Venture Fund. He says one of the biggest pluses for startups working with MTI E-Residents is that it costs them nothing.

“We have no axe to grind, and it’s not like I’m trying to sell additional hours to you,” he says. “All I want is the same thing you want, which is for your business to succeed. It’s easy to gain alignment with these businesses and a level of trust.”

As a further service to Maine startups, this summer MTI will launch the Maine Entrepreneurial Resource Corps, or MERC. The goal is to direct companies seeking project-specific consulting services with potential providers from a new database of preferred contractors that meet MTI’s quality assurance standards. After the company selects a partner, the agency will foot half the bill.

The program is open to all Maine startups as long as they are active in MTI’s targeted sectors, and for projects “we think have really good bang for the buck,” Hoffner explains. “It’s not meant to cover the cost of a bookkeeper coming in once a week, but if your books are screwed up and you need 10 hours to fix it, it’s a MERC project.”

Hussein Adan standing outside
Hussein Adan, 23, founded Cleaners Joy in early 2022. Instead of hiring employees, the cleaning startup works with independent contractors

‘Gig economy’ case study: Agency approach works for cleaning startup

Less than a year after graduating from the University of Southern Maine, Brunswick resident Hussein Adan founded Cleaners Joy early this year.

The 23-year-old immigrant tapped into the “gig economy” to get his cleaning business off the ground, working with independent contractors rather than taking on employees. He currently works with three solo cleaners and a team of five to 10 people who clean homes and businesses on behalf of Cleaners Joy, which has an online booking service.

“They are self-employed, and are already trained and insured, so it saves me so much time and money,” he says.

Noting that the arrangement also benefits contractors, he says, “I help them get the jobs and all they have to focus on is doing a great job for the client and doing a great quality cleaning.” He also notes that his prices are expensive.

For quality control purposes, cleaners are required to follow a checklist for each job, and the company calls customers for feedback after every assignment is completed.

Adan is new to business ownership but not new to being an entrepreneur, having run a Southern Maine-based small painting business in 2020 as a branch of Collegiate Entrepreneurs Inc., a Braintree, Mass.-based contractor that gives college students their first taste of business leadership. Because the company supplies all the materials and training needed, the branches have low start-up costs and are profitable in the first year. Adan ran his branch as a franchise for 11 months, bringing in around $50,000 in revenue, though a large percentage of that went to the owner.

Preferring to strike out on his own, Adan launched Cleaners Joy in January 2022, two decades after immigrating to the United States from the Kenyan refugee camp where he was born during the height of the Somali Civil War. He grew up in Lewiston and graduated from Lewiston High School in 2017. Now as an entrepreneur, he has found the agency model to work well for him, and one he believes can be replicated.

“It’s a great model for anyone in a service-based industry,” he says. “You just have to plan and strategize and be consistent about talking about your businesses, whether through social media posts or at networking events.

Eventually and only when it makes sense to do so, Adan hopes to bring on employees.

“It’s definitely something I’m looking forward to doing because it gives you more control,” he says, “but you have to make sure you’re not cutting too much into business expenses.”

Jim and Sabin on a lobster boat on the water, they're clad in orange jumpsuits
Cousins Maine Lobster co-founders Jim Tselikis, left, and Sabin Lomac, are real-life first cousins with Maine ties.

‘Keep hiring’ and other tips from two lobster pros

Cousins Maine Lobsters co-founders Jim Tselikis and Sabin Lomac — real-life first cousins with Maine roots — know a thing or two about talent development, having grown their Los Angeles-based business from a single food truck into a nationwide operation with 50 trucks and eateries.

Here are five tips the duo shared with Mainebiz on hiring and maintaining a workforce in a startup.

1. Throw out the resume: “Resumes and specialties are important, but some people are too focused on that. They cannot tell you how hard someone will work, if they care about your business or your brand, or if they have fire in their belly,” Lomac says.

2. Keep hiring: “Hire if you’re not even sure you need the position or even if you aren’t sure what the position is. Hire before you think you need to — always be growing and never take your foot off the gas. New people add new perspectives on your business and opportunities; they add creativity and possibility which is essential for growth and innovation,” Lomac says.

3. Establish a fun business culture: “It doesn’t matter what your business is, whether you’re in an office, or you’re remote. Work can and should always have an element of fun. Our corporate team is split between Maine and California, and our franchisees are nationwide. We all work hard, but we are intentional about bringing fun and creative people into our corporate team and our franchise system. We have annual retreats to bring the whole operation together and the regional teams get together regularly — the Mainers like to take breaks for a quick cribbage game, while the L.A. team is really big into ping pong,” Tselikis says.

4. Don’t micromanage: “We believe in giving guidance and goals and then just letting the person go for it,” the duo says.

5. Share in the successes: “Show gratitude for the people that work with you,” the partners say.

‘Activating’ advisors and building networks

Becky McKinnell standing outdoors with one of her handbags on her shoulder
Photo / Tim Greenway
Becky McKinnell is the founder and president of iBec Creative, a digital marketing agency in Portland, and the founder of a craft handbag maker called Wildwood Oyster Co. She is shown here with one of her leather totes.

As the founder of two businesses — Portland-based digital marketing agency iBec Creative and craft tote brand Wildwood Oyster Co. — Becky McKinnell relies on advisors from professional and personal connections to paid consultants.

“Whether it’s mentorships or support groups of networking, it helps you see where your blind spots are and shines a light on things that maybe you haven’t thought of from a certain angle,” she says. “It’s just really nice to always know you have options.”

She’s worked with one consultant, for example, for several years who’s helped iBec Creative in areas from cash flow to human resources challenges. She also recalls the time she got her first big wholesale order for Wildwood Oyster, and was introduced by a neighbor to a retired handbag-industry executive she turned to for guidance.

To an entrepreneur looking for an advisor, McKinnell has this to say: “Be specific about what you’re looking for and who you want to be introduced to. The more crystal clear you are in terms of what type of expertise you’re looking for, the easier it will be to find someone who can introduce you to your perfect match.”

Another founder, Amy VanHaren of breastfeeding support app Pumpspotting, says, “Only activate people who lessen your load — be it by mental energy, time or connections straight to an investor or sale. With so much always on your plate, you want advisors and mentors that give you back time, not take more time out of your days.”

Tackling the ‘tech talent war’

With its $50,000 prize money from Gorham Savings Bank LaunchPad business-pitch contest in 2021, Portland-based industrial software startup HighByte invested in recruitment.

Torey Penrod-Cambra seated on a chair indoors, colorful carpet
Photo / Jim Neuger
Torey Penrod-Cambra is co-founder and chief marketing officer of HighByte.

“We improved our compensation packages for open positions and pulled some roles forward that we were not planning to recruit for until later in the fiscal year,” says co-founder and chief marketing officer Torey Penrod-Cambra, who referenced the “tech talent war” in her winning pitch.

This year alone, the company has grown from 12 employees to 20, with plans to reach 27 by year’s end. Nevertheless, Penrod-Cambra says that the position of technical seller is a hard one to fill, given strong demand and the field’s high compensation packages.

To anyone interested in working for a tech startup in Maine, she recommends speaking to people currently working at startups to understand the opportunities and challenges. Another hint for potential applicants: “Educate yourself in stock options and equity — and apply!”

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