August 20, 2019
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Boston startup experts tell Maine entrepreneurs to work together, not try to be Boston or Silicon Valley

Darren Fishell | BDN
Darren Fishell | BDN
Four panelists from Boston speak about that city's startup community.

PORTLAND, Maine — More than 700 people are attending events at Startup and Create Week from Monday to Friday to do just what organizer Jess Knox and others envisioned: network and talk about Maine’s early-stage businesses.

“It’s like having the thing that you really hoped would happen actually happen,” Knox said after a Monday afternoon panel of four entrepreneurs who shared lessons about starting businesses in Boston. “It’s exceeded every expectation on every metric that we thought of, and we’re only halfway through day one.”

The backdrop for the talk Monday was, in part, not new news: Portland, Bangor and Lewiston-Auburn should not consider themselves to be Maine versions of Boston. Boston, in turn, is not Silicon Valley.

Panelists Monday said cities shouldn’t seek to replicate other places but should take account of their own assets and how entrepreneurs in other areas might help. That is happening across much of the East Coast, according to Devin Cole, a former Boston economic development official and director of expansions for startup incubator Workbar, but much of the development has spanned only up to Bean Town.

“There’s this concept that from Washington, D.C., to Boston is one urban area,” Cole said. “If we’re going to band together and beat California, we might as well start in Washington, going through Philly and [up to] Portland.”

That exchange is a goal Knox has for the entire week and something panelists Monday said is the foundation of a city or region that can support a healthy churn of startup activity.

“My dream is to work not only with folks like you guys but Burlington and Montreal and Reykjavik, [Iceland],” Knox said, addressing the panelists Monday. “That type of capacity can be game-changing.”

Throughout sessions Monday, speakers said building those connections — even within Maine, according to Knox — is a matter of culture more than anything else.

“There are great things in Bangor that people don’t know about, or in the midcoast, and we’ve got to facilitate some of those exchanges,” said Knox, who works as the state director for Blackstone Accelerates Growth’s $3 million initiative to support entrepreneurship in the state.

It’s something the entrepreneurs in Boston said they too experience in seeking out collaborations with entrepreneurs in New York City.

“The sports rivalry alone makes that virtually impossible,” said John Harthorne, director of an annual $1 million startup competition. “You run into this superiority complex about Boston and people that think we’re [a] backwater.”

Knox said entrepreneurs in Maine have floated ideas for a travel rental network, similar to that run by the website Airbnb, or carpooling arrangements. Those remain just ideas, but they’re part of the process of assessing what would help Maine entrepreneurs make connections within the state and elsewhere.

Abby Fichtner, the hacker-in-residence at the Harvard Innovation Lab, said those types of connections are what her two-year-old lab hopes to make across disciplines at the campus, which would be new for the university and is something she sees as necessary to helping entrepreneurs get started.

“You want different disciplines coming together,” Fichtner said.

In addition to free workshops and co-working space, the program has opened a 12-week startup incubator program to which students can apply. Fichtner said the program has generated more than 50 applications in its most recent round.

“Which is mind blowing, because we’re just one university,” she said.

At the city and regional level, panelists shared what they think contributes to startup activity. Harthorne, a co-founder of the international annual entrepreneurship competition called MassChallenge, said support for his competition and an environment that helps startups depends on six factors: government, research and development resources, entrepreneurs, corporations, investors and a combination of media and the public.

“You can overcome a few weak players out of the six,” he said, but helping startups requires a lot of support primarily because most startups fail. But while they operate, Harthorne said startups necessarily give more than they get.

“At the very beginning, you’re giving mostly everything away, and you have to build a fanatic following and have integrated it into their life and worldview,” he said. “And then you’ve earned the right to take value from that. And you can hopefully leave more value in the pie than you take out.”

Cole, with Workbar, said a successful startup community should also engage in public policy issues, citing a tax hike on business services that caught some startups by surprise.

“The tech community was really flat-footed,” Cole said.

In general, he said, local and state governments should serve as a “convenor” for the startup community.

“There’s a huge role for government to play as a convener, and they know everyone and they can help open doors that are hard to open,” Cole said.


Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the last name of John Harthorne.

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