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August 18, 2020

'Stick to who you are' and other tips from startup stars in Mainebiz forum

Screen shot of five CEOs and session moderator in the CEO panel on Zoom. Screen shot The Mainebiz Small Business Virtual Forum kicked off with a CEO/business owner panel moderated by Startup Maine President Katie Shorey, upper left.

From storytelling to succession planning, five Maine entrepreneurs shared practical tips and insights in Tuesday's hour-long virtual Mainebiz Small Business Forum — along with missteps they've learned from.

Recalling when he started the bottle- and can-redemption company Clynk, Clayton Kyle said he put himself under a lot of pressure early on by risking his own capital and that of people he knew and institutional investors. He cautioned, "That kind of pressure can make you risk-averse as an organization."

His suggestion: "Encourage independent thinking among employees, [which] requires that you don't put too much pressure on the outcome being successful." In other words, focus on learning from the process more than the outcome.

Kyle retired from his position as CEO in 2018 and now serves as executive chairman. He was joined on the panel by Heather Ashby, co-founder and CEO of coworkHERS, a Portland coworking space that caters to women; Joshua Buck, co-founder and owner of Maine Malt House in Mapleton; Erin Flett, founder and creative director of Erin Flett Textiles & Home in Gorham and a 2020 Mainebiz Woman to Watch; and Rob Simopoulos, co-founder of Portland cybersecurity firm Defendify. 

More than 100 people registered for the webcast, which kicked off a two-day virtual Small Business Forum. Today's sessions are on financing and real estate, as well as a recorded interview with U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, on resources available to small businesses in Maine.

Startup Maine President Katie Shorey kicked off Tuesday's CEO and business owner forum with a question to the panelists to share something about themselves that others don't know.

Among the personal reflections, Simopolous said was born and raised in Canada and recently became an American citizen, Ashby said she started a business without a college education, Flett said she went to college on a cross-country running scholarship and Kyle has played hockey for years though "I'm a lot slower than I used to be."

Buck, a 2017 Mainebiz Next List honoree with his three brothers, spoke about working in construction before returning to the family farm in Aroostook County and starting Maine Malt House with his brothers in in 2015.

What startups and small businesses should know

On the practical side, panelists shared advice on what they think startups and small businesses need to know, starting with Kyle's advice about the usefulness of taking risks and giving employees the freedom to make mistakes.

Simopoulos underscored the importance of trusted friends and advisors as "test pilots" on ideas when starting a company as he and business partner Andrew Rinaldi did. He also said he is a "big believer in pivots," including ones as small as price adjustments or small tweaks to the business.

"As an entrepreneur," he said, "looking for those pivots has really been beneficial to my career. He later spoke about a shift the company made during the pandemic, in offering its platform free of charge to small businesses.

Buck spoke of the importance of networking and relationships in the wider community, while Ashby explained how she makes use of apps to run her business more efficiently.

"There is literally an app for everything," she said. "I can literally sit on a beach in Mexico ... and run my business from there."

Ashby said she uses apps for everything from unlocking her door to managing cameras and  and bookkeeping, all of which add up to a smarter and more efficient way of working.

Flett talked about having a strong brand and a consistent voice on social media as she has sought to do with her own company, advising: "Stick to who you are and ground it in that ... I feel like that's been very successful for me personally."

Later in the discussion, Flett urged fellow entrepreneurs to listen to their intuition and not let themselves be swayed by others.

"Ultimately you are the pilot of this plane and you are in charge," she said.

Lessons learned the hard way

As for lessons learned the hard way, Buck talked about how he and his brothers were initially shooting themselves in the foot by talking to potential customers about how small their business were, while Kyle said he could have handled succession planning better at Clynk.

Panelists also gave recommendations on a wide range of resources for startups.

Resource that were mentioned include the the Entrepreneurial Operating System business methodology (Simopoulos), having a third party look over the books (Buck), SCORE mentors (Ashby) and the FAIRE virtual trade show platform (Flett).

Kyle mentioned the Small Enterprise Growth Fund, which is now known as the Maine Venture Fund, as a useful funding source for small businesses.

Ashby shared a story about two hiring mistakes she ultimately resolved by enlisting a cleaning company, which allowed her to "really relax" and focus on marketing and membership of the co-working space.

"Those are big mistakes," she admitted.

Portrait of Katie Shorey sitting down
File photo / Jim Neuger
Startup Maine President Katie Shorey

Reflecting on the session afterwards, Shorey said, “It was apparent that each of the panelists had their own style of grit. A lesson I took away is that a level of risk taking is required for entrepreneurs — but it always looks different. A common theme I heard is trusting your intuition and asking for help along the way. And communication is key — be transparent with your employees, your investors, your customers, your co-founder ... but most importantly with yourself.”


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