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Working in Portland

Jumpstart Your Business Idea


Portland, and Maine in general, is a great place to set up shop and do your thing. Great lifestyle, beautiful place, smart people, very convivial and conducive to creativity.

But starting genuinely scalable businesses has been a little tougher. Perhaps, no matter from where we have all come from to settle here, the place itself exerts a DIY, self-suffiency ethos that can make us a little too insular for our own good. Being part of what author Colin Woodard refers to as Yankeedom in his book American Nations, there is an expectation of "outsiders to melt into the pot," and to improve the community "through civic institutions and engagement."

The challenge is to use our sense of civic engagement to draw us out of ourselves to collaborate on bigger projects. One attempt to do this will be the Portland Startup Weekend, that will be held at Peloton Lab on March 22-24. Startup Weekend is an organization funded by the Kaufman Foundation and supported by Google, Microsoft, Amazon and other large tech companies to foster new businesses and job growth in communities across the country.

The format of each weekend event is the same, participants (up to 75 in the case of Portland) pitch their ideas on Friday night, and then form teams around the winning ideas. Saturday morning, the teams get organized and meet with coaches to help refine their ideas and define what they need to succeed. By the end of the evening, the teams need to submit their basic business proposition, name and web address to the event organizers. On Sunday, the teams work on their presentations, get more input from coaches and check all of their technology requirements. After dinner, the final presentations are made and the winners decided. The exhausted—but hopefully exhilarated—participants then join the judges and coaches for some serious drinking.

Organizers include Liz Trice and Peter Bass from Peloton Labs co-working space, Don Gooding, director of Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Developement (MCED), Jean Maginess, founder of Mane Center for Creativity, Jon Voltz, executive director of the Blackstone Accelerates Growth program and designer Sean Wilkinson of Might & Main (the studio that redesigned this website) and president of AIGA Maine. Your humble author is also looking forward to serving as a user experience coach for the event.

I participated in an interesting recent thread on the Startup Portland LinkedIn group about the differences between lifestyle, growth and scaleable business models. In general, Maine has been long on businesses started by entrepreneurs who move here for lifestyle reasons but don't necessarily have the vision or motivation to turn them into the next Twitter or Instagram. The Startup Weeekend is a way to infuse the local scene with that kind of perspective and open the aperture of what a great idea can do in Portland.

Don Gooding from MCED is excited about the event. "I hope that Startup Weekend in Portland will be the final match that lights the simmering coals of entrepreneurship that have been getting steadily warmer over the past two years," he tells me. "There are promising startups across Maine, and across greater Portland, but this will hopefully show that cool, modern, high growth companies are not only possible to do here but actually are much easier than anyone realizes."

Got a great, new business idea? Enjoy collaborating with others who do too? Then Startup Weekend is for you. There are still slots available (at $99) for developers, designers and non-technical (but business, marketing & PR savvy) participants. You can sign up here.

I look forward to meeting and working with all of the teams and writing about the event for my blog on From my perspective, the insights into user experience provided by writers, designers and marketing experts can often be the element that turns a slow growth business into a scalable one. (See my post this weekend on a New Hampshire startup called HeatMeter using Kickstarter to fund such developement.) These are areas of expertise that Portland, in particular, is strong in. If Portland can pair the technical developments from sectors elsewhere in Maine with user experience smarts here at events like Startup Weekend, perhaps our hard-working Yankess can learn how to scale!

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