Seven Maine entrepreneurs — participants in the Top Gun Program — recently vied for the highest scores in a pitch-off competition on Tuesday, May 28.
The prize? A chance to pitch for a big audience, on a big stage for $10,000.
We talked with the top three — each chosen to go on to the grand finale — about what it means to be an entrepreneur and how to start a business in Maine.
Chuck Donnelly: 56, the CEO and co-founder of RockStep Solutions Inc. — a software startup company focused on providing advanced solutions for biomedical research information management.
Matt James: 32, the co-founder of CourseStorm — web software that aims to connect everyone to local education and makes registering for any class simple
Emma Wilson: 22, the president of Zeomatrix — a company that designs and manufactures composite materials made from renewable resources.
When you want to start a business, you’re not alone
Even though Chuck Donnelly is on the verge of $10,000, he realizes that the success he and his company have found is due in large part to the help they’ve received.
“The thing I didn’t know [about starting my own business in Maine], is how much support there is through various programs,” Donnelly said. “[Resources such as] SCORE, Top Gun, MTI, SBDC… there’s a huge network of support. When you start doing this, you quickly realize you’re not alone.”
Failure is inevitable
Being an entrepreneur can be hard work, exacerbated by the popular motif of coming up with the “next big thing” in your garage. Matt James ran into this problem himself.
“You hear all of these success stories — Apple, how Steve Jobs was a genius — but what I’ve learned is that you can’t go into it thinking like that. Apple hit a mountain of problems … you can’t look at [entrepreneurship] with rose-colored glasses. When you’re hitting walls, making mistakes, that’s not your fault; that’s the process.”
Emma Wilson agrees.
“It’s okay to fail,” Wilson said. “Failing is a large part of being an entrepreneur. Failing on a small scale on a daily basis.”
“Fail fast, fail cheap” is one of the maxims of Innovation Engineering: the academic minor which is taught at the Foster Center for Student Innovation where the regional pitch-off was held. It’s also one of the first things the entrepreneurs who sign up for Top Gun are told.
Why? Because to do something new, to really find a niche, you’re going to have to do something you haven’t done before, and it’s going to be an iterative process.
Get out of your comfort zone
“The only way to make progress is to get out of your comfort zone,” said Donnelly. “Starting a new business, you are definitely going to do that. [But] it’s a really great way to run your life — to get out of your comfort zone and do it.”
The people of Maine are used to getting out of their comfort zones: evidenced by the long, harsh winters we endure. With our environment necessitating resilience, both Matt James, and the Top Gun program, have high hopes for Maine’s innovation and entrepreneurial future.
“If we can grow the startup ecosystem and build a startup culture in this state; if we can show that failure is okay and common; if we can show the fortitude that Mainers are known for; we [Maine] could surprise a lot of people,” James, said. “We are considered small and rural. Maine has a competitive edge in that regard.”
Maine ranked 49th in innovation and entrepreneurship, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in its Enterprising States report from 2013. The business birth rate in Maine, however, is ranked 24th. Programs like Top Gun — Maine’s only entrepreneurial accelerator program, which runs for five months and provides mentoring and guidance for entrepreneurs who want to grow their business — are aiding in the initiative to improve the startup climate.
“[That’s] what I love about startups and technology,” James, said. “ Never settling for what used to be, but what can be.”
These entrepreneurs will pitch their ideas at the Top Gun Showcase this Wednesday, June 3 at USM’s Abromson Center in Portland. The pitches kick off at 5 pm.