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Southern Maine entrepreneurs learn how to turn good ideas into business successes

Posted Feb. 17, 2012, at 5:19 p.m.
Southern Maine Community College Entrepreneurial Center Director Michelle Neujahr organized Friday's &quotCalling All Entrepreneurs" event in South Portland February 17, 2012.
Southern Maine Community College Entrepreneurial Center Director Michelle Neujahr organized Friday's "Calling All Entrepreneurs" event in South Portland February 17, 2012. Buy Photo
Mandy Schumaker and Dante Vespignani spent part of the day Friday, Feb. 17, 2012, counseling small business people at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland as part of a &quotCalling All Entrepreneurs" event.
Mandy Schumaker and Dante Vespignani spent part of the day Friday, Feb. 17, 2012, counseling small business people at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland as part of a "Calling All Entrepreneurs" event. Buy Photo

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Donna Sano of York came in with a good idea, some good customer feedback and even some good — albeit a little stale — retailer contacts.

But like many Mainers trying to break into a cottage industry, there were a lot of things she still needed to make her “Tidal Top-off” fresh breadcrumb topping — for fish, meat or even veggies — a business success. Sano was one of five to sign up for 20-minute coaching sessions Friday at Southern Maine Community College’s Entrepreneurial Center, during the last in a statewide and weeklong series of “Calling All Entrepreneurs” events.

She hoped start-up business mentors Mandy Schumaker and Dante Vespignani could tell her where to look for a commercial kitchen to help step up production, stores to sell her products and maybe even a couple of employees to share the workload.

For Sano, as for many who took part in Friday’s event in South Portland, as well as sister events elsewhere in Maine during the state’s Entrepreneur Week, the spark of inspiration was the easy part of business planning. Others who stopped in for consultations had questions about marketing, budgeting, supply chain and legal issues, said Schumaker, while for some, words of encouragement were just what the doctor ordered.

Take, for example, Ry Russell, who as a University of Southern Maine junior last year came in for some coaching on his plan to take over the 70-plus-year-old Saco Drive-In with a pair of classmates.

“He said everywhere else he went people said, ‘It’s never going to work,’” recalled Michelle Neujahr, director of SMCC’s Entrepreneurial Center, where the local “Calling All Entrepreneurs” events have been held now for two years. “But when he came here, Mandy Schumaker said, ‘I’ll write you a check for $5,000 right now; that’s how much I believe in it.’”

Russell’s team did take over the historic drive-in, and with an injection of youthful optimism and innovative energy, the resurgence of the outdoor movie venue was a highly publicized success story during the summer of 2011.

Neujahr said those enrolled in the community college’s small-business incubator range in age from 18 to 60 years old, and hope to catch on with everything from video games to plumbing systems to Inuit paddles.

“What I’m seeing in the classroom is an openness I’ve never seen before,” Neujahr said. “I didn’t see this even five years ago. There’s no fear [of entrepreneurship]. People believe they can own their own business at 19. It’s just another career option for people now.”

That bodes well not only for Maine’s present, but its future as well, said Vespignani.

“Maine is a small-business state,” he told the Bangor Daily News on Friday. “We’ve got to promote that culture to survive. … We don’t know where the next idea is going to come from that creates 2,000 or 3,000 jobs.”

For now, Sano would be happy creating two or three jobs. But she’s confident that with the right guidance, that number could grow. The York woman started selling her “Tidal Top-off” at a couple of local stores four years ago before putting the business project on hold for personal reasons, and now she’s hoping to restart.

“I’m trying to get back into the marketplace,” Sano said after coming out of a consultation with Schumaker and Vespignani on Friday. “They thought my idea was wonderful. I’ve had people tell me, ‘As long as I have [Tidal Top-off] on it, my kids will eat anything.’ People love easy, and people love delicious.”

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