When we talk about job creation, we often celebrate the next big employer arriving in our area. Tax incentives reward big business that bring big numbers. Even “small business” as defined by the SBA includes businesses of one, two, or 500 employees depending on the sector — and the vast majority of our businesses in Maine are small businesses by this definition.
But what about the smallest of the small? Nationally, according to the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis, businesses with fewer than 20 workers represented almost 90 percent of U.S. firms in 2009. Of the close to 150,000 Maine businesses included in the 2007 U.S. Economic Census, 72 percent were “nonemployers” — microenterprises run by one, two or a few owners. Despite the Dilbert image of a workplace filled with corporate cubicles, big business is the minority and small enterprises are the majority. What does job creation mean for this important sector of the Maine economy?
Cindy and Chris Johnson, founders of The Cubby, opened their first thrift store in Caribou in September 2010. Two years later, they have employed another 10 people to help run two stores in Caribou and Presque Isle and are working on opening a Houlton location. Thrift sells in a tight economy, and The Cubby’s mission to donate revenues to families of children facing life-threatening illnesses gives their business even greater purpose and resonance in the communities they serve. How did the Johnsons grow their business to 12 jobs? Cindy Johnson notes, “We had opened a small shop in 1,100 square feet. The concept and the culture of ‘smart thrifting’ exploded and expansion was necessary in order to continue our daily operations and meet the demand and need of our patron base. Within four months, we moved into a location of 12,000 square feet.”
The most important ingredients for business success and growth were finding their niche and selling a shopping experience as well as a clothing commodity. “We found ways to be creative in our field and established a unique culture,” Johnson stressed. “We chose to take a positive focus in a struggling economy to create rather than to sit back and wait for the economy to improve.”
Even sole proprietorships with just one owner/operator can be “job creators.” After graduating from college, Natalie St. Pierre worked part-time in administrative support and public relations positions. In the current economic climate, she knew that her job security and financial stability were far from guaranteed. She saw a need among other business owners for top-notch online marketing, event planning and media relations — and her skills were a perfect match to meet that need. “Working within the field of communications, I began to notice that many new businesses are taking stock of the role that social media plays in the success of a business but find it hard to carve out the time it takes to manage the business’ online presence while trying to juggle the other demands of owning a business,” St. Pierre said. When her job came to a close, St. Pierre’s new business, Social Envy Image and Event Consulting, was born.
“The idea of starting a business appealed to me for a number of reasons, one being that because I’m a person who happens to have a physical disability, I’ve always been searching for that place where I fit in, where I could really put both my mind and talents to work.” St. Pierre said. Her goal is job creation on the smallest scale: self-employment. “Because I currently receive supplemental security benefits, I am not allowed by government regulation to save or invest in my future without a great deal of complication or restriction, so the biggest goal for me from self-employment is the prospect of being able to have more control over my financial future.”
Ken and Clare Arndt, owners of Arndt’s Aroostook River Lodge and Campground, report that when it comes to job creation by their business, the bottom line drives decisions. Ken Arndt notes, “If revenues are not sustainable and growing, I’d doubt that we’d hire or create any sort of job other than a temporary or part-time job.” If the regional economy does not provide sustainable revenue, he continued, “we’ll work the extra hours and see what comes down the road. When we can no longer meet deadlines and can’t do the work ourselves, we’ll take time to reevaluate.” Arndt’s approach resonates with many business owners operating in a tight economy who do it themselves or contract out work for as long as possible before making the commitment to hiring.
Alain Ouellette, planning and development director with Northern Maine Development Commission, shared his view on the changing face of job creation. Ouellette notes that traditional job attraction initiatives are not enough: “Over the years, states pit themselves against one another for a very small piece of the economic development pie in hopes that some of those jobs land in our backyard. Are incentives necessary? By all means, but business decisions rarely are based on short term gimmicks.” Adding to traditional job creation tactics, “With an ‘asset based’ economic development strategy, the notion of creating an environment for job creation becomes much more localized. We are helping to create a new economy using the resources and talents that already exist.”
So the next time you think about unemployment rates, stop in a small business and thank them for making one more job. Better yet, take the talents you have and make your own.
Erica Quin-Easter is Microenterprise Coordinator for Women, Work, and Community in Aroostook County, where she offers classes and one-on-one assistance to entrepreneurs from Sherman to Fort Kent. The New Ventures Entrepreneurship Training, a free 12-week course on business planning, will begin September 10 in Houlton. For more information on upcoming classes and other resources, visit www.womenworkandcommunity.org, call 764-0050 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.