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October / November 2001


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When Smaller is Better


When Smaller is Better
Since 1987, The University of Maine Cooperative Extension has been there to help the state's microenterprises every step of the way

About the Photo: Mayra Donnell of Verona Island has worked with The University of Maine Cooperative Extension business and economics specialist Jim McConnon for 12 years. Mayari goatmilk soap and other personal care products are now marketed worldwide.
 

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Mayra Donnell first added goats to her farm menagerie because her three children were allergic to cow's milk. Eventually, she also used goat's milk to make cheese to sell at the local farmers' market.

As her children grew, so did her herd. By 1984, Donnell had children in college and too many goats on the farm. That's when she decided to find another use for goat's milk, this time to make soap and other personal care products.

"Soap of goatmilk was so much better than anything I'd made before," says Donnell, owner of Mayari Inc., based on Verona Island, Maine. "I use my own formulas and all-natural ingredients, from the preservatives to the thickeners.

"What started with two bars of soap has turned into 27 different products sold around the world."

Donnell is one of Maine's more than 118,000 owners of very small businesses employing four or fewer people — from bed and breakfast proprietors and small-scale food processors to producers of Maine-made goods and childcare providers — who have successfully capitalized on their great ideas. Using creativity, ingenuity and independent spirit, these entrepreneurs have found ways to make a living in their rural communities and contribute to the economic vitality of the state.

Since 1987, The University of Maine Cooperative Extension has been there to help them every step of the way.

"I have been very impressed with the knowledge and integrity of Cooperative Extension educators and specialists," says Donnell. "I went from attending talks and workshops to individual consultations with them. I learned not only the practical nuts and bolts of running a small business, but I received validation for what I was doing. Extension guided us, keeping us on track. Having a home-based business can be so isolating, but the (Extension faculty and staff) help break that isolation through workshops and conferences, small business clinics and by networking us with other people.

"With their help, my business went from mail order and (participation in) a few shows to selling products through our own gift shop and marketing on the Web. I went from a sole proprietor business to a partnership and now incorporation. I also went from attending Extension's home-based business workshops and conferences to being a participant and presenting workshops to small businesses."

In June, Donnell's son, José, opened the doors on his home-based business called Engineering Commando, providing Web-based professional engineering consultation for customers ranging from homeowners to corporations. Like his mother, José has already consulted with Cooperative Extension's business and economics specialist Jim McConnon.

"In Maine, we are more active than many states in looking at the importance of small businesses in providing jobs and incomes to people, and in recognizing entrepreneurship as a viable economic development strategy," says McConnon. "As a result, we are a leader in this country in the way we're diversifying our economy by balancing small, medium and large business development."


The University of Maine Cooperative Extension, directed by Lavon Bartel, provides Maine people with research-based educational programs to help them live fuller, more productive lives. Its involvement in small and home-based business development strengthens families and communities, and contributes to the state's economic vitality.

In 1997 in Maine, microenterprises (including home-based businesses) represented a majority of business enterprises in Maine. These microenterprises provide about 20 percent of the employment opportunities in the state.

Approximately 50,000 Maine households have at least one person earning a significant income working in home-based businesses, McConnon says. Over the years, there have been declining opportunities in large-scale businesses in Maine. Especially in rural areas where job opportunities are limited or declining, small and home-based businesses enable people to live and raise their families in their communities.

Home-based businesses are integral to community building, says Joyce Kleffner, an Extension educator in Hancock County who has spent more than six years working in the field. By their very nature, small business owners can maintain closer relationships with customers and be more responsive to community needs for a product or service.

The success of small and home-based businesses in Maine can be attributed in large part to what a team of UMaine faculty and staff in Extension has been doing for many years. "Our purpose is to help these businesses succeed, and a lot of people are working to make that happen every day throughout the state. As a result, these businesses have been validated as a legitimate part of our business community," says McConnon who, in addition to his educational outreach activities, conducts research on retail trade patterns, microenterprise and small business development as a UMaine associate professor of resource economics and policy.

Extension offers individual, confidential consultations for entrepreneurs, and publications and information through a Web-based virtual resource library. It also co-sponsors the popular Mid-Coast Home-Based Business Conference, and produces a regional radio show.

More than 30 workshops on topics such as developing a business plan, pricing products and knowing your market are held annually throughout the state.

McConnon, who has worked with small and home-based businesses in Maine since joining the UMaine faculty in 1989, and his Extension colleagues assist people in any stage of their business life, especially if they are at the "thinking about it" stage. Extension's small and home-based business program has helped 600 small businesses form, continue or expand their operations.


In the past decade, a high-caliber, visible and supportive climate has developed for entrepreneurs statewide. Coupled with a significant recession and relatively high unemployment in Maine in the last 10 years, more people than ever have pursued or contemplated the start of a small or home-based business.

McConnon credits the success to an effective team of Extension educators, as well as to Extension's strong collaboration with other local, state and federal organizations.

"The most rewarding thing for me is being part of an effective team, and seeing the new skills that people learn and use to improve their businesses," says McConnon, whom the U.S. Small Business Administration named the Home-Based Business Advocate of 2001 for Maine and New England.

by Margaret Nagle
October-November, 2001

Click Here for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.

 

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