What’s your biggest challenge right now?
Hiring software developers. The job market right now is really tight, and it’s also hard to get folks who want to relocate to central Maine. So we have some remote employees. It’s just a challenging job market to find software developers. And we’re looking for software developers that are more on the engineering side and have experience with 3D and GIS (geographic information systems) or mapping. So it’s even more niche than, say, what the State of Maine might be looking for, or like an insurance company might need a database programmer. We have a very particular kind of software program that we need to find. (Central Maine) is a little bit more rural than some people like, and we’re a little bit off the beat. Maine is kind of the end of the line with the airlines and the trains and all that. It’s not exactly that easy to get to. So, that I think it can be a drawback for some people.
But on the other hand, it is a great place to live. It’s got a low cost of living, and you know, there are cities like Portland and Bangor. Then there’s the outdoors, all the outdoor opportunities that Maine has.
(Blue Marble announced Tuesday it will open a new office in Brunswick later this year.)
It’s just 20 minutes from Portland, so it’s definitely a commuting distance. So, you know, one problem we’ve had in the past is we’ll get younger folks who get out of school, entry level software developers. They work here for a few years and they make some money, then they want to go live in Portland. And then suddenly that commute is no longer something they want to do.
Then of course, Portland is just such a magnet now across the country. Everybody’s talking about it. So, we hope that we’ll entice and retain employees.
The one thing that we’ve been doing that’s worked well is we’ve reached out to the University of Maine system, a number of the different campuses, Bowdoin, Bates and Colby (colleges) to really work with their graduating seniors. Go to those job fairs and that kind of thing. For entry level software developers, young folks that are graduating that don’t have as much experience as GIS technical experts, and for sales and marketing people, we’ve actually had a lot of success getting those kinds of folks right out of college. And generally we’ve had a much better retention rate with them.
We have the emails of the chairs of the computer science departments at USM (University of Southern Maine) and UMaine. When we have a job we ask them, please post this. We really try to actively reach out to the different campuses. That has worked as far as getting graduates. It’s just the more senior people that we’re struggling with.
Who influenced you in business the most?
I’ve had a long and unique story in that I came on to do business development for Blue Marble back in 2003. The founder (Jeff Cole) just decided in that first year of mine that he was ready to retire. So I helped him sell the company, and then I took over as CEO.
Prior to that, I had run my own company called Cunningham Consultants for a few years after my wife and I moved back to Maine.
The person who inspired me was my former boss Carey Azzara (at the Hurwirtz Group in Massachusetts). He just was the kind of boss that gave me a lot of freedom to run with projects and to make mistakes and have success. He showed me through trial and error that I actually could be successful in business.
I was a recent graduate and me and a co-worker came up with an idea for a return on investment calculator for selling software. He let us go with it, and we turned it into a million-dollar business in a year. That wouldn’t have happened if he micromanaged us or restricted what we had for opportunities.
How do you manage change?
I like to think that I am open to learning no matter how old I get and improving how I do things. When I was younger, I was a little bit more stubborn and probably made some mistakes with staff and my approaches to things — not understanding why people didn’t want to maybe put 120% effort in like I felt like I was doing, or what have you, maybe more judgmental. As I learned over time, if you give people some room to breathe, they actually will be successful.
So for me, for change as we’ve grown, that’s the biggest thing that I’ve had to deal with. I need to retain people. I need to hire good people. And I need to develop a company where they want to work, that they own it, that they really enjoy what they’re doing. Part of that is changing how I do things and my approach.
You can’t have a fixed mindset. You have to be flexible. I think that’s exactly it.
What’s your biggest concern?
The thing that bothers me the most on a regular basis about doing business with Maine is, will the state of Maine, our government, actually embrace a tech economy the way, in my opinion, that Angus King did back in the day? I think he did a really good job of trying to move things forward — with a laptop program, with the founding of the Maine Technology Institute, with tax credits for research and development. I know that the current governor is working very hard on initiatives to establish kind of a brand based on a sustainability and environmentally friendly kind of approaches to business in Maine. I agree with that, but I think that we have to make some really hard choices to try to not only do the investment, but then do the marketing.
My thought is that we really need to think of ourselves as kind of the India of the U.S., and we need to really push our reputation and our investment to become a technology hub. That’s a big thing. We’ve got to invest in broadband; we’ve got to do more with tying in the university system to businesses. We’re making some progress there. We’ve got to invest in research and development. Then we have to market the heck out of it, so that we can get people that want to come here and live here so they realize, “Oh, I can live and work in Maine.” Maybe they’ll work for a company like ours in Maine. Or maybe they’ll just be a remote employee, and it doesn’t matter, because they can get fiber wherever they need it and they can live in Meddybemps or wherever.
We have to really dive into that. I’m watching and waiting and hoping, but I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do that. I don’t think people quite get how important, for instance, broadband infrastructure is and, and how much we could get back from that if we made a really big investment in it.
It affects me from everything to — OK, I hired this person who lives in Benton and they need to work from home during a snow storm. Oh, they don’t have broadband. Or I want to hire a software developer that’s in Texas and they want to move to Maine, but they don’t; there’s no broadband. Or they can’t work remotely for us because we can’t get fiber where our offices (are). We can now; we couldn’t a few years ago. So those kinds of things.
The (administrations following King’s) tried to (continue), but they just didn’t quite understand. They were handed the ball from King, and I don’t think they advanced that many yards. In my opinion, the prior administration that we just dealt with basically set us back many years. Maybe too political.
What I like (about) the current administration is they seem to have developed a plan for what they think is right. But I think they need to have other components. It’s not just the plan for investment, but also then to market it and really sell Maine beyond lobster and restaurants and nature.
We need a business approach. If we really want to grow the economy, we really have to push whatever the heck it is that we’re going to be to sell it. I think that the prior administration would spend their time denigrating everything about the state of Maine. Even though they thought they were helping, what they were doing was just selling us as a bad place to do business — oh, the tax rate’s high or this or that. You can’t approach it like that. Come up with your plan and then sell the heck out of it. That will help.
But, uh, it’s a long view as well. For me right now, I’ve been pushing to try to get some of the R and D (research and development) tax credits reinstated. There were some King-era tax credits that got cut under the prior administration. I’ve been quietly working with some other business owners to try to get those reinstated. And I don’t know if that will or not, but it’s difficult.
Where will your company be in five years?
In five years, I hope that we will be looking at establishing a new, much larger headquarters because we will have staffed up to 75 to 90 employees. And we will have a new research and development team that is pushing development around 3D virtual reality and new ways of doing mapping. That’s my hope, somewhere in central Maine, hopefully.