Shhhh… don’t tell anyone, but I have the best job in the world.
For the past seven years I’ve had the honor of working with Maine artisans and makers through the State of Maine Department of Economic and Community Development’s (DECD) Maine Made Program. That I would find such a connection with this talented group caught me by surprise, until that “aha” moment when I realized that I hailed from a family of creators: from my grandmother’s quilting, making heirloom pieces from scraps of retired aprons and pajamas, to my great-grandfather’s fine pieces of furniture, pieces that continue to function in family homes far and near.
I have a great appreciation for the members of our program. It’s an honor to be welcomed into their studios and workspaces—sacred spaces where creative juices ebb and flow. These artisans are resilient, humble, passionate and resourceful.
They’re parents who have little people at home, yet still fire up the kilns and create incredible pieces of pottery. They’re a fourth-generation owner of a family business churning out gourmet mustards using the same processes and techniques to maintain quality. They champion each other at shows, through social media and collaborative promotions. They’ve persevered through COVID; there’s not enough space here to talk about the hurdles: cancellations, lack of raw materials, shipping delays—all unknowns, but they handled each situation with grace.
Accompanied with that grace have been such impressive successes. I’ve witnessed a maker flourish from the infancy of artistic vision to having pieces displayed in West Coast galleries, a gourmet butter company transition from processing in a church basement to having a space to call their own, an artist who dared take a leap into selling her original artwork at prices she’d never imagined. These companies and hundreds of others are members of the Maine Made Program, utilizing our nationally recognized branding and services to enhance their business and grow their markets.
The Maine Made Program was created over 35 years via State rulemaking to promote quality products made in Maine, specifically those using our natural resources, maintaining traditional practices, reflecting authenticity and originality, embodying ingenuity and resonating “Maine” to consumers.
In turn this would lead to market expansion, increased revenue and job creation. Remember, 35 years ago there was no such thing as the internet or social media—the program relied on a biannual booklet of paid space that included one photo, an address, a phone number and a fax number. Yes, a fax number. Then, in 1998 we thought we were onto something by creating our own website. At the time, it was an exceptional format for highlighting more makers and allowing for placement in one of 20 product categories, along with a professionally produced video showing a home staged with a variety of member products. We had cutting-edge technology at our fingertips.
Then, 20 years ago (it seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?) this thing called the World Wide Web was gaining the attention of businesses big and small. Not wanting to be left behind, businesses started shifting marketing funds to creating their own websites. This was a time where you nearly had to mortgage your home to get a website built and hosted, minus the wherewithal or time to learn how to keep it updated and functional. This was also when I began my career in the public sector at the State of Maine DECD, working with the Community Development Block Grant Program, traveling throughout the state helping communities and small businesses grow and flourish, finding back roads that DeLorme hadn’t discovered, and meeting some of the most interesting people who made the most interesting products. Another “aha” moment: These small businesses were contributing to the livelihood of their local economies. Time to tell the world!
Meanwhile, with the Maine Made Program plugging along through administration changes, budget cuts and attrition, the program came to a standstill. Yet there remained so much more that could be done. In 2014, with the support of my department and the encouragement of colleagues, I took over management of the program.
The last seven years have been a blur, as our accomplishments have mounted. We now have a monthly newsletter with a distribution of over 2,000 consumers, wholesale buyers, media and others with an open rate averaging 46%. We have a very active social media presence via Facebook and Instagram. We have a new website, thanks to the unfortunate crash of the original site during the 2016 holiday season. The new site launched in March 2018; by March 2021 we reached over 1 million views.
Applications to our program have grown to an average of 150 per year. While most reviews are easy (of course we’d want that product carrying our nationally recognized branding), others need tweaking and improvements. For those needing additional assistance, we’ve built alliances with a plethora of organizations who have the staff and resources to guide these makers and artisans to the next level. We contribute these successes to our network: Maine Small Business Development Center, Real Maine, Maine Crafts Association, SCORE, Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, New Ventures and countless others.
Where do we go from here? The opportunities are limitless. We’re listening and responding to the needs of the creative community—our members—the backbone of our program. Without them there would be no Maine Made. Without them I wouldn’t have the best job in the world.
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