Trade Day ’13 Offers Lessons in Authenticity for Entrepreneurs

Trade Day ’13 had some great speakers and presentations last week in South Portland. Put on each year by the Maine International Trade Center (MITC or “Mitt-see”), this year the morning opened with a great presentation from Harvard Professor and midcoast Maine part-time resident, Dr. John Quelch, who had some great points for entrepreneurs about their relationship with their customers.

Dr. Quelch hit on many relevant themes, but one specifically hit home for me, which coincidentally also segued well into the panel on marketing that came immediately after him (that panel included folks from L.L.Bean, Thomas Mosher, Maine Office of Tourism, and Planet Dog). That theme was the challenge of getting your customers to believe that what you do is better then your competitors (since whatever you do is from Maine).

It spurred a lot of discussion on the panel about credibility, authenticity, branding, etc. For me it was about how you build trust with your customers. Trust in your product, your services, your processes, etc. Each of these influence your brand.

Separately, this event had a very different feel to it than than others that I’ve been to in Maine. These were companies currently involved in expanding their efforts into new business opportunities and new markets. Attendees were already comfortable with whatever those unknowns and risks laid ahead in those endeavors. Frankly, there was more of an aspirational feel to the conversations. This is incredibly important for Maine, as I’ve written about earlier, to beat back the doom and gloom. There are some incredible companies here and they are doing amazing work. That feeling was really present at this event and their stories were getting told.

Here are a couple of other really tidbits from the event:

  • Thomas Mosher, the co-founder of the company, spoke at length about the importance of authenticity for Maine companies and for Thom Moser. He told the audience and incredible program that they have that adds significantly to their effort to bolster the authenticity. The program allows customers of TM a real hands-on experience in building hand-made furniture in Maine. Customers can, for between $6k-$8k, spend a week at TM in Freeport and work to build their own future. While some listening might see this as like “fantasy camp” for woodworkers, Moser was clear: “This isn’t a school,” Moser commented, “it’s real work, people have to be there by 6:30 a.m. each morning.” He also made it clear that participants in the program (almost 300 to date) aren’t even all woodworkers. But it is a critical part of the company’s effort to reinforce their “Maine authenticity” and their “ethos” for their customers. Interestingly, they have hundreds on the waiting list or scheduled, including at least one former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and his son.
  • Another moment related to branding came up immediately prior to the when the President of Iceland gave his remarks. It was a little awkward, but it certainly made me interested in visiting Iceland. It was an incredibly entertaining video worth the watch called “Inspired by Iceland.” It reminds me of the “Iowa Nice,” which has been viewed over a million times from around the world (Warning: The Iowa Nice video includes explicit language). Both videos attempt to build on the brand of the area they describe; Iceland’s is about how fun it is, while Iowa’s is about how it’s more than just corn and nice folks.
Jess Knox

About Jess Knox

Jess Knox is a former political consultant and high-ranking SBA official who is passionate about entrepreneurship and Maine. These days he helps companies manage growth through his firm Olympico Strategies.