Don Gooding, MCED's outgoing Executive Director shares on where-to-from-here for the start-up scene in Maine
Q. First of all, tell us what it is that inspires you to do what you do with entrepreneurs? Early influences?
A. I’m a third generation entrepreneur, and a second generation entrepreneur helper. My grandfather founded an industrial roofing company in Lancaster Pennsylvania still run by my cousins. Before my dad did his startups, he was helping minority business owners through loan preparation and business training, at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. But my own inspiration comes from a strong belief that in the 21st century, the US (and Maine) economy has to rely on innovative entrepreneurship to sustain our standard of living. The collapse of communism paired with globalization means the US has to compete as never before. For my two daughters and their future kids to flourish, the US needs to be really good at helping innovative entrepreneurs. So I’m doing my part to help figure out what that means.
Q. Maine is becoming known for its startup community ecosystem. What factors do you think have contributed to this?
A. First, Maine has an extraordinary quality of life that is attracting and retaining great people who want both to start a business and to raise a family, especially during prime startup ages of 30-40. Second, to pat ourselves on the backs, MCED through Top Gun and our other programs has built a community of high potential entrepreneurs and mentors who collectively have the “yes we can” attitude, and they are making it happen. Third, Sandra Stone and I led a revitalization of the Maine Angels that has helped fuel the “yes we can do it here” attitude. And finally, there are a number of other players who have contributed enormously, especially Jess Knox through Blackstone Accelerates Growth (and its absolutely critical $3 million of funding) and Maine Startup and Create Week, Maine Technology Institute, and the Portland chapter of SCORE led by Nancy Strojny.
Q. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing Maine's startup community?
A. First, the progress made towards breaking down provincial silos needs to continue. We have too few resources to hoard potential successes, and “it takes a village to raise a successful startup.” Second, we need to ensure the current enthusiasm for entrepreneurship in Maine doesn’t lead to political meddling or proliferation of half-baked “me-too” efforts. This stuff is hard, with unobvious subtleties, and the mile-wide inch-deep approach will lead to failures as well as lost opportunities. Third, there is a continuing global battle for top talent and Maine needs a more coherent approach to growing, attracting and retaining talent. “People people people” is the entrepreneurship equivalent to real estate’s “location location location.”
Q. If you could create a road map that would take Maine to the next level, what would be the stops be along the way?
A. We are now achieving one of those milestones I’ve been waiting for: big exits.
We need Maine’s most successful entrepreneurs to figure out thoughtful approaches to investing sustainably in both new companies and entrepreneur support infrastructure, to reduce dependence on state funding. We also need big global companies to take notice of Maine, replicating our recent success with Microsoft and Top Gun a hundred-fold. We need Maine to be a regular stop for a few Massachusetts venture capital firms. And we need smaller communities such as Lewiston-Auburn, Bangor, Rockland, Waterville, Brunswick, Saco-Biddeford and Farmington to stop the unproductive jealousy of Portland and instead create their own successes – something I’m calling an Entreplex. Fortunately great progress is being made on this last step.
If you could have one wish granted, what would it be? (No fair saying two more wishes.)
I would wish that all of the dreams of the many hundreds of great people I’ve had the pleasure of working with at MCED over the last five and a half years would come true. (I hope that’s not cheating!)