ORONO, Maine — Christine and John Carney have built a business out of zombies and cupcakes.
Out of an office in the University of Maine’s Foster Center for Student Innovation, the husband-and-wife team design and manufacture quirky acrylic decorative ornaments to stick on the top of cupcakes.
The zombies were the initial spark, but they now have more than a dozen designs — everything from geek glasses to octopus tentacles. They sell them through their online store on the website Etsy.com.
Christine told the Bangor Daily News that the community has been incredibly supportive of their business, called Thick and Thin Designs. The pair, who are originally from the Providence, R.I. area, have received support from the university, where John is a graduate student in the Intermedia Program, and from other entrepreneurs in the area.
That entrepreneurial community was on display last month at Kosta’s Bar & Grill in Old Town, where Christine and John pitched their business idea to a crowd of close to 60 people. The pitch-off, the second such competition during a networking event called Big Gig, is part of a concerted effort by Orono, Old Town, the University of Maine, Husson University and other partner organizations to generate buzz around entrepreneurship and innovation.
The third Big Gig pitch-off is scheduled for Feb. 11.
“Honestly, in larger cities as small entrepreneurs you fade into background,” Christine said. “There’s no way … we would have got near the amount of support [in Providence] that we have here, where the community really matters.”
Christine and John’s pitch won. Though there’s a panel of experts — called Big Wigs — the winner is determined by the audience. For winning, the pair received $100 and the chance to compete for $1,000 at the Big Gig finale in April.
Though they’d already started their business a year before, Christine said the ability to pitch the business plan to an engaged audience was priceless.
“I think it’s invaluable to be able to get feedback from other entrepreneurs and successful people in a face-to-face setting,” she said.
After connecting with “mentors” with online sales experience, Christine and John have begun expanding their product line to include decorative ornaments for cakes in anticipation of the busy wedding season.
Forming connections among entrepreneurs and innovators is the goal of Big Gig, according to Paul Reichmann, a member of Big Gig’s steering committee.
Big Gig grew out of conversations among board members of the Orono Economic Development Corp., a nonprofit organization geared toward fostering the local economy, about how to better integrate into the community young entrepreneurs coming out of the University of Maine, said Reichmann, who is also a member of the OEDC board.
The board immediately got Old Town involved in the effort, and the first Big Gig was held in Orono on Nov. 29, 2012.
“We’ve got this Old Town-Orono sandwich with the meat in the middle is the university.” Reichmann said. “So I guess we saw a void for our two villages, Old Town and Orono, and we felt that we — more than whatever is going on in Bangor — can build off what’s going on at the university.”
The pitch-off component was added last year. The first competition took place in October and attracted 40 people to Verve in Orono. Sponsors include Blackstone Accelerates Growth and University Credit Union.
While the pitch-off has added structure and fun to the meetings, the biggest benefit of the event is still the networking, according to Reichmann.
“Our main goal is to build relationships with local entrepreneurs and innovators and support them, help them feel like there’s a network out there to help them out, and that this is a good place to start a business or a nonprofit organization,” he said.
Big Gig isn’t the only networking opportunity in the Greater Bangor region, but it stands out from the others because of its focus and format.
“It wasn’t just passing out business cards,” said Sarah Newcomb, who won the first pitch-off with her idea for a mobile app that would help people shop according to their values by scoring companies based on their socially conscious practices. “It was really an opportunity for me to get not just encouragement for my idea, but specific next steps that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise.”
Entrepreneurs inevitably have lots of questions about their business ideas. If they don’t have a place to get answers, that’s often a barrier people don’t move beyond, Newcomb said. Big Gig helps remove that barrier, she said.
“My experience is it’s a very supportive and encouraging environment, and that’s what you need in order to take risks,” Newcomb said.
“I don’t think I would have pursued it all, but being able to see the reaction from people about the idea really helped me say, ‘Hey, this thing will work when I’m ready,’” she said.
Jennifer Hooper, who pitched her idea for Spark, a nonprofit aimed at building community in Bangor, at the first Big Gig pitch-off, said there are two things that make the event unique.
“First, it’s the only venue in our region specifically designed to gather entrepreneurs and innovators in the same place on a regular basis,” she wrote to the BDN in an email. “Second, the pitch contest acts as a catalyst to get people in the room buzzing.”
Though she didn’t win the pitch-off that night, Hooper said she gained much from the experience.
“The feedback I got from the pitch coaches really helped me understand where my message was muddy and confusing; it gave me a chance to really make my pitch much better,” she wrote. “I was also able to share my ideas to an audience who had never heard them before.”
The Big Gig on Feb. 11 will take place at Husson University’s Richard E. Dyke Center for Family Business in Bangor. The panel of so-called Big Wigs will be Dorathy Martel, community development specialist at Eastern Maine Development Corp.; Steve Holt, owner of Shaw & Tenney in Orono; and Cathy Conlow, Bangor’s city manager.
People who want to throw in for the next pitch-off need to apply online by Jan. 31 and attend the Little Gig session, which will be held at EMDC’s office in Bangor on Feb. 3. The Little Gig session gives organizers an opportunity to help the pitch-off applicants refine their three-minute presentations and choose the three people who will pitch at the Big Gig the next week.
“If someone is not selected at the Little Gig, we encourage them to come back and try again,” Reichmann said. “We don’t boot them out the door. We‘re trying to hold their hands, encourage them and build relationships.”
The finale, where the winners of the three previous Big Gigs will pitch for the grand prize of $1,000, will be held April 8 at the university’s Foster Center for Student Innovation.
Big Gig organizers hope the events will highlight the benefits of starting a business in the Old Town-Orono area, rather than Boston, New York or even Portland, Reichmann said.
“Frankly, Orono has always felt like this sleepy village next to the university to me,” he said. “We’re trying to counter that. I want these entrepreneurs to look around and say, ‘Hey, it’s happening here.’”