– New minigrant competition aims to help Maine microbusinesses reach customers

AUGUSTA — Leane Morin was at a crossroads.

After spending several years designing and selling T-shirts with her daughter Kate as Painted Turtle Illustration, the time came to reassess what they wanted to do, and it was time for a change.

“I’m 62, and it’s taken me this long to say what I want to be when I grow up,” Morin said. “I want to be an illustrator.”

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Leane Morin Contributed photo

So with the help of a small business mentor over the course of about a year, Morin is rebranding and refocusing her business as Firefly Sky Design, which produces greeting cards.

In a world where electronic communication dominates, Morin treasures the moment of connection that greeting cards offer.

“I think people still appreciate the positive message between words and images and the fact that someone cared enough to choose and purchase and send a card is a really important thing,” she said.

To help complete the transition, Morin applied for and received a microgrant from New Ventures Maine geared to help microbusinesses like hers develop marketing tools to strengthen access to markets.

Jean Dempster, program director and one of New Ventures Maine’s regional directors representing Kennebec and Somerset counties, said the organization’s microgrant program has been offering funding yearly since 2014, with an extra round of funding offered in 2020 because so many people needed help in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many small business owners are experts on what they do, Dempster said, but they may not have had much experience in reaching out to markets and customers, without whom businesses cannot thrive.

“We talk to new business owners about having a team of people,” she said. “Not that you use them all the time, but you might work with a graphic designer on a logo or something like that.”

When Morin applied for the grant in 2021, she had already spent time and effort redefining her business, and she had developed a list detailing all the marketing tasks she wanted to accomplish. Chief among them, she said, was a new website.

Years ago, when her older children were young, she made and sold children’s T-shirts through Sweetpea’s Tees, but when her third child came along, she set that aside.

In 2016, she and her daughter Kate relaunched the T-shirt business as Painted Turtle Illustration after taking some classes at New Ventures Maine. They expanded into infant and adult T-shirts. Morin did the designs, and her daughter, who was home with her two young children, did the marketing, social media and built the website.

After four years, though, Morin found it hard to translate her ideas into T-shirt designs, and she spent most of her time ironing shirts.

But she had also launched a line of greeting cards, and she realized that was what she really wanted to do. She credits Brad Swanson, a mentor from the Small Business Development Center, for helping her reach that decision.

“That requires a lot of new everything — new logo, new website, new everything,” she said.

When she heard about the marketing grant at New Ventures, she knew it would be helpful; her daughter had returned to her teaching career and Morin needed help with the website.

Morin was one of two people in the Kennebec-Somerset County region to win the grant and she used the $500 to hire a website consultant to set up a website for her new brand identity and to help her navigate her existing website.

Reaching all of her marketing goals added up to more than $500, but she decided that her best option was the “luxury” of hiring someone to take on the website. While she’s learning how to run the website, she said it’s possible her daughter, who still is involved with decision making for the enterprise, would take that on.

New Ventures Maine, a statewide program of the University of Maine at Augusta, offers a number of workshops and classes as part of its self-employment program to help entrepreneurs develop a business plan and launch their businesses.

Dempster said the grant program, which is offered across the program’s six regions in the state, is designed to provide funding for a specific marketing activity, anything from running some ads to developing websites.

“In the last couple of years, it’s mostly been helping people put their businesses online and connect with the customers online,” Dempster said.

When Morin heads off to the New England Giftware & Specialty Show in Portland later this month, she’ll be ready with a new stand-up banner and cards as she makes contacts with shop owners from across the region.

New Maine Ventures was founded in 1978 as the Displaced Homemakers Program and operated as Women, Work and Community, becoming New Maine Ventures in 2015.

The grants are sponsored in part by Norway Savings Bank, Katahdin Trust Co. and Kennebec Savings Bank.

Eligible companies have five or fewer full-time equivalent employees, have sales in the current calendar year and have gross annual sales of no more than $150,000. The grant requires a 25% match. The match can come from business profits, personal funds or other sources.

More information about the program is available on the New Ventures Maine website, newventuresmaine.org.

The deadline to apply is May 6.


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– New minigrant competition aims to help Maine microbusinesses reach customers

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