MACHIAS, Maine — An innovative business assistance program that has helped hundreds of local microbusiness owners and is becoming a model for similar programs across the state held its 22nd graduation Monday night.
Incubator Without Walls, a five- to 12-month program based on individual business needs, was developed in 1995 by the Down East Business Alliance in Washington County.
A dozen business owners — from those dealing in nautical antiques to soap makers, quilters, used furniture salesmen, farmers and cranberry harvesters — were feted at a ceremony and meal at the Schoppee Inn at Machias.
Leslie McSorley of Harrington said that when she first signed up for Incubator Without Walls, she didn’t expect much.
“I thought it was one of those buy-cheap, sell-high generic theory classes,” she said. “But this turned out to be amazing.”
McSorley, who provides a quilting service, learned to manage cash flow, business accounting, customer relations, risk management, goal setting, marketing and business planning.
“I could never pay for the help I’ve gotten,” said Alexis Souders of Prospect Harbor Soap Co.
“I can’t wait for the next one,” added Pam Hearn of PJ’s Snacks. Using the information she learned through Incubator Without Walls, Hearn has grown her dried fish jerky business by 500 percent and is ready to launch a secret new product.
The program’s overseer, Elizabeth Sprague of Down East Business Alliance, said there are dozens of similar success stories.
Jonesport Nautical Antiques completed major website work and increased its sales by 65 percent. Weownit Cranberry Shop redesigned its website to expand beyond local markets into other New England states. Rag Rugs & More created a rug-making kit and worked cooperatively with Calais High School students to create an instructional DVD.
“During the 15 years we’ve offered our IWW series, we have worked with more than 400 businesses to create more than 325 jobs,” Sprague said.
Sprague said microbusinesses — companies with fewer than five employees — make up about 34 percent of all county businesses and microentrepreneurs create 34 percent of all jobs in the county.
Washington County has 5,720 microbusinesses.
Sprague said the DEBA, a division of Washington-Hancock Community Agency, also manages three loan programs to help microbusinesses buy equipment, hire new employees and expand operations.
“On the way home from every class, I found myself inspired,” Hearn said Monday night.
Rosemary Winslow, representing U.S. 2nd District Rep. Michael Michaud, told the graduates the Incubator Without Walls program was inspiring.
“You are all working together for Maine,” she said. “Your example has been taken to Piscataquis County, and it is working there as well.”
County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald said innovative programs such as the Washington County IWW prove that “Washington County is not the end of the world. It is the beginning.”