This guest blogpost by Jennifer Hooper from the UMaine Foster Center for Student Innovation, is the first of a three-part series about the finalists in the Big Gig, a pitch contest for innovators and entrepreneurs. The Big Gig was created through a partnership among the towns of Orono and Old Town, Husson University, and the University of Maine and is sponsored by Blackstone Accelerates Growth. The grand finale will be held on April 8 at 5:30 at the University of Maine Foster Center for Student Innovation.
“We are born makers, shakers and motivators,” they say on their Etsy and Facebook pages.
That, they are.
Meet John and Christine Carney: artists, students, entrepreneurs, and married owners of the Maine business Thick & Thin Designs, an online purveyor of cupcake toppers. In just 15 months their business has transitioned from a mere nugget of possibility to a thriving online business, leaping and bounding its way through growth and success.
The couple didn’t learn how to run a business through trial and error; they had lots of help along the way. John is a graduate student at the University of Maine in Orono, with a graduate assistantship at the UMaine Innovative Media Research and Commercialization Center (IMRC). The IMRC is a makers space for students and community members. John prototypes his designs on an IMRC laser cutter, making just a few pieces to begin with. His wife, Christine, photographs the designs and puts them on their Etsy website to test the products. “We learned to start small before going big with each design,” said Christine. “We never want to end up with 10,000 of anything that doesn’t sell.”
The couple learned this “fail fast fail cheap” concept from the Foster Center for Student Innovation, another resource at the University of Maine. The couple runs the business out of the center’s student business incubator, which provides free dedicated office space and business coaching for students. Christine has also taken an Innovation Engineering ® class at the center, thanks to a scholarship provided by Blackstone Accelerates Growth (BxG). In it, she learned how to create, communicate, and commercialize ideas. She built on that foundation by taking the online entrepreneurship class called Top Gun Prep, offered by the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development (MCED).
The couple’s online sales have grown every month since they started. They’ve been saving their earnings to purchase a laser cutter of their own. Since their production needs are growing so fast, it makes more sense for them to buy their own equipment rather than to continue renting it at the IMRC.
In December, the couple won the Big Gig pitch contest. They earned $100 that night and a chance to pitch again and win $1,000 at the Big Gig finale in April. They hope to win and close the gap on the remaining funds needed to make their equipment purchase.
“The story of Through Thick & Thin sounds like a fairy tale, but it’s a true story. John and Christine show how successful innovators and entrepreneurs can be in Maine when they take advantage of available resources,” says Jess Knox, Blackstone Accelerates Growth Statewide Hub Coordinator. “Here is a business that immersed themselves in every opportunity they could find, and they’re thriving. That’s exactly what BxG is supporting: an intentional culture of innovators and entrepreneurs in Maine.”