MCED Blog

MCED helps innovators fill in the gaps between their deep industry expertise and the strategic business skills critical to launching a scalable, sustainable venture. Maine's unique economic and geographic challenges demand more that a traditional business incubator. They demand a catalyst.

Don't Quit Your Day Job Yet...

I decided to start farming oysters and mussels in Maine in the 1980's because I wanted to live here and I needed to create my own job. As an environmentalist since a young age, I also realized that shellfish farms are an economic argument for clean water, where you could create jobs, protect water quality, and work on the water. 

Early pioneers like Ed Myers who got the first seafarm in Maine in the early 1970's and those encouraged by early work at the University of Maine Darling Center made up the "first generation" of shellfish farmers, and most businesses folded because they didn't have all 4 of the key elements for success:

1. Growing the right species (native to Maine, would thrive and be hardy to local conditions), and for which was a strong market demand. 

2. Growing them in the right environment (literally every bay and cove is different).

3. Using a cost-effective culture technology (the story of failed technologies is a long one)

4. Using pragmatic, down-east fishermen's ingenuity to handle equipment, harvest, process and save labor (which is the highest cost category in aquaculture). 

The "trial and error" phase of aquaculture helped us "second generation" seafarmers, but in most cases it has taken us about 15 years to figure it out and another 15  to implement it.  During that process, some things have become evident and might be useful to new start-ups. 

1. Start small and don't quit your day job.  By testing each phase of the business, like getting permits for small test sites, getting to know the areas and local characters, trying different gear, densities, grow-out strategies, and test marketing, you get a good handle on what works where and how, before you have a large scale disaster that is financially unsustainable. If the test project works well, you can build a little profit and use that to grow the business slowly. 

2. If you can, get a job working for somebody else in a similar field.  I worked for several years for another mussel farm before starting my own, and that was invaluable experience.  Become as knowledgeable as you can about your business and all the factors that contribute to success.  

3. If you have limited capital, consider what they call bootstrapping - build the business without the need for big investors and giving up equity to unknown entities.  I happened to have a few close friends that had the skill my business needed - boat building, carpentry, bookkeeping and sales - and when combined by my knowledge of diving, marine biology and being a boat captain we were able to start a subchapter S partnership of owner/operators without the need for capital to get started. We were also willing to work a year or 2 without pay to get the cash flow up and running. 

4. Consider your business partners very carefully - its kind of like a marriage and you want to be sure you're ready, and have a good agreement that spells out the basics like who makes the decisions, how to buy out a partner, and basic operations. Also consider that 2 or 3 minds are much better than one - its the "bad ideas" that need to weeded out in early start-ups so always get a second or third opinion. 

5. Focus on quality - ultimately, its your product's reputation which will yield an excellent price and reputation in the market place.  When we started selling oysters the price was $.25 each - and then somebody said hey your oysters are so good we would easily pay $.50! So we said, sure! 

6. Cooperate with others in your sector - there are many advantages to working with others to advance your industry, and people from outside of Maine want suppliers that have a steady stream of product that has the ability to grow as the demand increases. There is also a good chance that somebody has figured out a way to make your process more efficient if you share information and developments. 

7. Always have a contingency plan and either know how to fix a potential disaster or somebody who can. Identifying your risks up front and thinking about plan b (if you need it) or maybe even plan c is very important because you can count on disaster striking. 

If you make money in the shellfish aquaculture field, as an old colleague of mine Jon Bol from the Netherlands said "invest in real estate".   
 

Carter Newell is President and founder of Pemaquid Oyster Co., Damariscotta Maine, and founder and managing member of Pemaquid Mussel Farms, LLC.  He has a Ph.D. in Marine Biology, a M.S. in Oceanography, and a B.A. in Biology, is adjunct faculty in the Schools of Marine Sciences and Civil Engineering at the University of Maine, is a founder a  board member of the Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center and chair of the MTI Aquaculture and Marine Tech Board. He has successfully commercialized 4 SBIR Phase II research projects, and is co-author of numerous research projects including an Alaskan Mariculture Initiative, the U Maine SEANET project, a satellite remote sensing project, and development of aquaculture GIS systems.

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