AUGUSTA, Maine — Apple computers started in a garage in Palo Alto, Calif.
SandraB. Dressage and Designs started at a home in Dover-Foxcroft.
And while it remains to be seen whether the Maine equestrian/design business will boom like Steve Jobs’ brainchild, Gov. Paul LePage is banking on Maine’s “microbusinesses,” or companies that employ five people or fewer, to help shake Maine’s economy out of its lingering torpor.
On Tuesday, the governor held a working lunch with about a dozen microbusiness owners at the Blaine House, where he listened to the entrepreneurs outline the challenges facing the smallest of economic players. Chief among those challenges were access to start-up capital, Internet connectivity and marketing training, according to several attendees.
“The hardest part is I’m teaching myself everything from scratch,” said Sandra Beaulieu, proprietor of SandraB. She said it’s hard even to connect with other start-ups to get advice.
“There’s no coffee shop, no place to go to meet other entrepreneurs,” she said. “I’m not well-connected in the business world.”
Media were not allowed to attend the lunch meeting, and the governor left the Blaine House without speaking with reporters.
“Microenterprises start small, but can grow into large businesses,” LePage said in a press release. “We must be able to support these growing businesses because they are a critical driver of our economy.”
Maine employs a higher percentage of its workforce in these very small companies than any other New England state. Of the more than 133,000 microbusinesses in Maine, four out of five operate with no employees, meaning the business owner is a one-man or one-woman show, according to information compiled by University of Maine professor James McConnon.
More than 171,000 people are employed in microbusinesses. That figure does not include farm employees, but still represents nearly 22 percent of the state’s total full- and part-time workforce.
The area most dependant on microbusiness is Waldo County, where 32.7 percent of workers are employed at one of these small operations. Androscoggin County is the least reliant, with just 15.8 percent microbusiness employment.
The governor and business owners were joined by Commissioner George Gervais from the Department of Economic and Community Development; State Director Mark Delisle of Maine Small Business Development Centers; Beth Bordowitz, CEO of the Finance Authority of Maine; and others.
Theresa Secord, of Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance, said that there are more than 200 entrepreneurs from the state’s four Indian tribes, all working as independent basket weavers. She said each artisan faces a set of challenges unique to microbusinesses.
“The rural nature of where people live in tribal communities means a problem of exposure,” she said. “Plus, handmade means you can’t mass produce. So websites and marketing are very important.”
Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s press secretary, said programs such as SBDC and the ConnectME Authority — which awarded a total of $1 million to 15 grant recipients to expand broadband in Maine — are already available to small businesses, but the state could do a better job of advertising that fact.
“We’ve got 170,000 jobs in microbusinesses in Maine, but how do we turn that into 300,000?” she said. “It’s about awareness. We have the ‘ Business Answers Hotline’ at DECD, but some people here didn’t even know that existed. So we need to do a better job promoting the resources available.”
Bennett said the governor’s office is also working on a “branding initiative” to attract businesses to the state, which could be unveiled by this autumn.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.