CUMBERLAND, Maine — TechMaine, the technology-focused trade group that declared bankruptcy last year after losing too many dues-paying members, is getting a second chance, courtesy of its former executive director.
Joe Kumiszcza, who became synonymous with the nonprofit organization during his 13 years at its helm, has relaunched the organization with a new, for-profit business model.
The new model is an effort to insulate the organization from an over-reliance on membership dues, the problem that led it to bankruptcy in the first place, Kumiszcza told the Bangor Daily News. “The membership model, while it isn’t dead, is certainly evolving,” he said. “Organizations that try to justify dues through a top-down model have some adapting ahead of them.”
The organization was founded in 1992 as the Maine Software Developers Association, but had evolved over the years to reflect the changing makeup of Maine’s technology community. It eventually encompassed biotechnology firms, information technology firms, software developers, and various other sectors. In fact, because every company these days has an IT department, every company is a potential beneficiary of TechMaine’s mission to promote Maine’s technology sector and attract more workers into the IT fields, Kumiszcza said.
TechMaine, however, was hit hard during the recession. The organization’s revenue, gained primarily through membership dues and sponsorships, decreased from $240,155 in 2009 to $142,913 in 2011, according to bankruptcy court records.
Kumiszcza, who was hired as the group’s first paid staffer in 1997, left the organization at the beginning of 2011 “to focus on family and health priorities.” A new executive director was hired, but by October it was clear the organization could no longer survive and its board of directors disbanded it.
“There are a lot of economic challenges out there in the community,” Stephen Hand, president of TechMaine’s board and president and CEO of Know Technology, told Mainebiz at the time. “A lot of the small companies that were our members and provided revenue for the organization aren’t there anymore.”
Kumiszcza purchased TechMaine’s remaining assets out of bankruptcy court in June with the intention of bringing the organization back to life. He recently relaunched the organization’s website and got the job board back up and running. At last count, it had 235 tech-related Maine jobs posted. “Having a fully stocked job board is a good lure for new folks to Maine,” Kumiszcza said. “As the economy is suffering in other parts of the country, if we have 200 jobs in the past few weeks, it’s a good indicator that things are moving forward here.”
When Kumiszcza left TechMaine, “he was missed almost immediately,” said Peter Leopold, CEO of BioAnalyte, a small biotech firm in Portland.
Leopold was a member of TechMaine and found it valuable to have someone like Kumiszcza advocate for increased investment in Maine’s technology sector, and to have an organization that would keep him connected with other professionals in tech-related fields that could help him expand his business.
“I think I can speak for everyone affiliated that we’re very happy to see Joe back in the saddle,” Leopold said.
While the response to TechMaine’s return is generally positive, there was a note of caution in Jim Damicis’ voice when discussing the news. “Some of the same problems that led to [TechMaine’s] bankruptcy are still going to be in existence,” said Damicis, a senior vice president at Camoin Associates who was vice president of TechMaine’s board when it went through bankruptcy. “But I give Joe credit for trying to do this.”
One of those problems is the number of entities, whether it’s other trade associations, chambers of commerce or informal networking groups, all competing for people’s time, effort and resources. There is an overabundance of ways people can now “self-organize” with like-minded people through online networking tools, Damicis said. “I think people started to find value elsewhere,” he said.
An example is Maine Entrepreneurs, Damicis said, which began as a discussion group on LinkedIn and has grown into an organization that holds monthly networking events. It is planning a conference for October in Portland.
Another challenge TechMaine had before it went bankrupt was it lost sight of its mission and became too much of a top-down organization, Damicis said. “I’m worried [the new TechMaine] will still be centered on Joe and I don’t think that’s the right model,” he said. “In the future, it can’t be about one organization or one person; it has to be about companies saying we need to get X done … and organizing ourselves to get it done, and having no one person take ownership for that.”
The irony is that the new TechMaine will be competing for people’s attention against groups that formed to fill in the holes left by TechMaine’s bankruptcy. When TechMaine disbanded, it created a “vacuum” that people have been trying to fill ever since, according to Tim Brooks, president of Integra Strategic Technologies Consulting, a Portland Web development firm.
Brooks has been involved in a few of those efforts, including the Casco Bay Technology Hub, which has a physical office space in Portland where several tech companies, including Integra, are located, as well as a website that aims to be a virtual hub for Portland’s technology community.
The other effort is a more informal group that has been meeting since January to determine the best way to meet the needs of Maine technology companies. This group, which doesn’t have a name, surveyed a couple hundred Maine technology companies to ask them what they missed since TechMaine was gone. The answer? The networking, Brooks said.
The Casco Bay Technology Hub, like Maine Entrepreneurs and several other groups, holds monthly networking sessions.
Vying as a nonprofit for people’s time and money (in the form of membership dues and sponsorships) when there are so many competing efforts out there doesn’t make sense anymore, Kumiszcza said. As a for-profit, he expects the new TechMaine to survive or fail based on how much value he can provide the technology community. To bring in revenue, he plans to offer online educational courses and some other premium services he’s not ready to discuss.
“In a free market if I develop services of value, if the community stays active and engaged and populates the site with content,” TechMaine will survive, he said. “If it isn’t appreciated by the community and the content doesn’t get developed, then perhaps it won’t.”
Another challenge Kumiszcza hopes to overcome is an existing perception that TechMaine is a southern Maine-centric organization. Now that the group is not membership-driven, he can promote any group’s efforts and events across the state, not just TechMaine’s.
Despite his ambitions, Kumiszcza doesn’t have as much time to work on the relaunch as he’d like. He’s currently running for a seat in Maine’s House of Representatives, a pursuit he originally began because he said he missed the advocacy work he was doing as TechMaine’s executive director. Once he has worked his way through the campaign, he plans to invest more time in developing a successful revenue model for TechMaine.
The balancing act needed to run for public office while relaunching TechMaine, which had an advocacy role, was another consideration that went into how the new organization would be structured. “I don’t want to be involved in any ethics situations,” he said.
Leopold at BioAnalyte said he thinks Kumiszcza is “walking a fine line,” but is confident he’ll be able to do it in a transparent and ethical fashion.
It’s too early to tell whether the new TechMaine will succeed, especially with all the other groups that have popped up to fill the vacuum when its predecessor went under.
But Brooks from Integra Strategic Technologies Consulting says it’s possible for the various groups to co-exist, “provided that the organizations … are all working together and helping to promote one another.”
“There’s good intention everywhere,” Brooks said. “I don’t think there will be a sense of competition among these different efforts because what we all want to do is show people outside the state that technology efforts are going on in Maine, and that there’s a reason for being in the state and doing business here.”
As long as that message gets out, he said, all the efforts will be worth it.