GREAT CHEBEAGUE ISLAND — The theme that emerged at the all-day Sustain ME conference on Saturday, July 12, was that building businesses in remote settings brings undeniable challenges. But that fact was contrasted with first-person success stories, so entrepreneurs may have left more buoyed and inspired than daunted and down.
That was the hope of conference organizers, including the Island Institute, a principal sponsor (and publisher of The Working Waterfront).
An estimated 160 participants made their way to the island, itself a testimony to the need for networking among those laboring in island and other remote settings. Laura Summa, one of the coordinators, noted at the outset that the conference was atypical, given its setting.
“”You’re at a boat shed,” she said, “You’re not at a conference center,” referencing the large but empty building provided for the conference by Chebeague Island Boatyard. “We’re great at repurposing things here.”
Rob Snyder, Island Institute president, acknowledged the difficulties that come with island and remote communities.
“Not all entrepreneurship is the same” in such places, he said. Business owners must work “incredibly hard” to succeed. But there’s more than just going to work, he said.
“You don’t just get to go to work,” he said, because the pool from which volunteer boards draw in such places is not large. Snyder asked the group how many nonprofit organizations there are on Chebeague, and a reply from the audience was “20 to 30.”
Alan Caron, president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit dedicated to building a sustainable state economy, continued in this theme.
“You can’t be in Maine for more than ten minutes without realizing that people work hard,” he said. But with that effort, there also must be a hope for a better future. “This is something that’s been missing in Maine” in recent years, he said.
Entrepreneurship and innovation are deeply ingrained in the Maine economy and social fabric, Caron continued. Those who are not entrepreneurs and innovators “have to leave,” he joked.
Though the long tradition of cobbling together a few small businesses remains part of the economy here, endeavors that rely on 21st century technology must be welcomed and must be able to rely on such technology.
Fletcher Kittredge, founder and CEO of GWI, a state-wide Internet provider, provided some sobering news on that front.
“Nambia,” in Africa, “has faster Internet connectivity than Maine.” So does Belarus.
In fact, Kittredge said, 30 countries have faster Internet speeds than the U.S., and Maine ranks 49th among the states in that connectivity.
“It is vital to economic activity,” he said. Since other countries have Internet speeds 100 times to 400 times faster than Maine’s, the state’s economy is being hampered.
“Society is shaped by infrastructure,” Kittredge continued, noting how the rise of highway systems changed island and coastal communities, making their links through the sea less valuable.
“Taking the ferry ride out of choice, rather than necessity, will change the economics” of remote island communities, he said, if connectivity improves.
Asked for an explanation of the state’s poor connectivity status, Kittredge said Maine does not create competition among providers. He also noted that in such historic infrastructure leaps as rural electrification, expansion of telephone systems and roads, the government played a key role.
John Jordan, president of Calendar Islands Maine Lobster, a company formed to create value-added food products using lobster, talked about developing a business culture based on sensible goals. He recalled hearing about “a guy who will pay $3 more” a pound for lobster, but quickly wondered why a customer would do so. He rejected what he called the “this guy” business model.
At a meeting hosted by the Island Institute at Chebeague resident and Institute board member Leila Bisharat’s house, “I actually did meet a guy. And that guy’s name was Susan,” Jordan said, referring to Susan Wilson. Having other key people join the company or become partners in the effort was more important than a mythical perfect customer.
He also learned that making mistakes—such as a frozen pizza that would have retailed for $21—was part of the process.
“You need to act to learn,” he concluded.
Conference organizers plan to review feedback to determine their next steps.