Rich Brooks: In her role as district director, she’s responsible for leading the Maine SBA team in the delivery of SBA’s financial assistance, entrepreneurial development, and contracting programs throughout the state. She received her bachelor’s degree in business management from Plymouth State College, graduating magna cum laude. During her tenure with SBA, she has been involved in key SBA loan program initiatives, including loan systems and lender relations, staff training, and development. She also has an extensive background in SBA resource partner management and development and implementation of marketing and outreach strategies. We’re very happy to have Amy Bassett as our guest on the Fast Forward Maine podcast. Amy, welcome to the show.
Amy Bassett: Thanks, Rich. Glad to be here.
Yury Nabakov: Amy, good morning. This is Yury. Wow, what an impressive resume. It sounded astounding. Thank you for leading this initiative in our fantastic state. My first question would be what drew you to the work at SBA?
Amy Bassett: Great question. I have to say I’ve been with the SBA for a very long time. Over the years, it has just really solidified all the great things that the agency does. As a federal agency, you don’t always get the opportunity to interact with partners and the public as much as we do, but we do that day in and day out, and so we’re really able to be sure that the programs that the agency has are getting delivered effectively throughout our state.
Rich Brooks: Can you talk a little bit to us about what your current role and responsibilities are, a little more detail than I shared in the bio?
Amy Bassett: Sure. SBA really has a lot of programs, but they’re sort of divided up into say three main sort of buckets. The first area, where we have really what we’re best known for and we have the most impact, is with our lending programs, so helping small businesses get access to capital. Our second space that we operate in is in the helping small businesses get access to technical assistance. These programs are delivered through partners, but that’s again under the SBA umbrella as well. Then finally, in the area of assisting small businesses with getting access to federal contracts, we have some specific programs that we manage.
Amy Bassett: They are certification programs, so if small businesses meet the criteria, those programs can be really helpful to them in helping them get greater access to government contracts as well. Lastly, as a sort of aside, we don’t do it as much here locally, but we would help certainly if it was the case, but in the case of a federally-declared disaster, it’s actually SBA programs that come in and provide a lot of help in the form of low-cost loans when those situations occur as well.
Rich Brooks: Okay. You mentioned, especially in the lending and the tech assistance, that it may not be coming directly from the SBA, but you’re either underwriting or facilitating that. What kind of local partners are you using in those situations, and how would a business actually become one of those trusted partners that the SBA works with?
Amy Bassett: Rates. There are, just about I would say every bank and credit union in Maine has signed the proper paperwork and can do business with us. We also have a group of entities that are regional development corporations that can also partner with us to make loans as well. So basically, that entity is the one that ultimately makes the loan, and then the SBA guarantees, at times, almost 100% of the loan to that entity. So we give them that backing that they can make loans to people that they can’t make on their own. That’s sort of how the partnership works. Any lender that may want to do business with us, we’d welcome the opportunity to have a conversation with them to see how we could sign them up.
Rich Brooks: Well, and that makes sense on the lending site for banks and credit unions, probably not loan sharks. I’m guessing you don’t do business with them. Then on the tech assistance, what kind of firms are you working with to give tech assistance to companies in Maine?
Amy Bassett: We have what we call SBA’s official resource partners. I mean, one of the great things about Maine is there is a lot of resources for small businesses, and we love to work with them all. But the official SBA resource partners would be the Maine Small Business Development Center, SCORE, and the Women’s Business Centers at CEI. So those three groups are the official partners. They get a good portion of their funding from SBA through a federal funding source, and then the requirement is that they provide no cost, one-on-one technical assistance business advising. They do a lot of other stuff too, but that’s the relationship with SBA that they have. Because we’re only a staff of six people, there’s no way we could meet the need without these great partners.
Yury Nabakov: You mentioned a lot of very interesting programs, and it sounds like they’re extremely beneficial for the successes of businesses in our state. I’m curious. Could you tell a bit more about the SCORE program and how popular this program amongst the Maine business owners?
Amy Bassett: Yeah. SCORE is, we don’t like to play favorites, but SCORE is a tremendous resource for us here in Maine. We are fortunate to have, actually the Portland chapter has been recognized nationally. So this is the caliber of assistance that small businesses in Maine can get at no cost. We have six chapters located throughout the state, and the great thing about SCORE is these people are volunteering their time to do the business advising. There’s probably about 120 to 230, the number fluctuates, but probably about that many SCORE volunteers just in Maine right now. They sort of are in two categories. There’s the traditional that does the one-on-one client services, but they also have this stable of volunteers who are really subject matter experts, so if they want to bring in somebody with a very narrow focus that has some real expertise, they have that resource at their fingertips at SCORE, and so they can just seamlessly help so many people in such a variety of things. Again, this business advising is at no cost to the small business owner.
Rich Brooks: It seems like a lot of what you talked about, you’re doing through these partners. It’s interesting because I’ve worked with the Maine Small Business Development Centers. I’ve worked with SCORE before. I never realized that SBA was behind it. Then, you also mentioned these federal contracts as well, so I’m just trying to wrap my head around this. It seems like SBA is almost like Oz behind the curtain, it’s like making things happen, but we’re not actually seeing it. For the federal contracts, is not something you work directly with small businesses in the state of Maine, or is that also through a partnership?
Amy Bassett: It’s funny you mention that. The administrator of our agency, Linda McMahon, when she started two years ago, her mission was SBA is the best-kept secret. So it is interesting, when we start talking about the programs, people are like, “Oh. We didn’t know you were involved there.” So it’s funny that you note that. Specifically with the government contracting, we have some very specialized programs.
Amy Bassett: If a business wants to do business with the government and they meet these criteria, so for example, we have one program called the HUBZone program. The federal government is the largest purchaser of goods and services in the world, and they have to meet certain goals and have certain amounts of their contract set aside for the certain groups, so for example, HUBZone. In Maine, we have various HUBZones throughout the state, so if a company is qualified, meets the qualifications to be HUBZone certified, we administer that program and work with them to try to help them get additional contracts because of that.
Rich Brooks: Where are these HUBZones?
Amy Bassett: Basically speaking, they’re kind of specific in some locations. There’s a map on the SBA’s website where you can put in an address specifically to see if you’re in a HUBZone. But generally speaking, the foremost northern counties are all HUBZone designated. There is a significant HUBZone right now designated all throughout the Brunswick Landing, the formal naval air station area down there. We have some spots down in southern Maine and out in western Maine as well.
Yury Nabakov: Perfect. Quick question. Amy, thank you very much for all the insights. It’s pretty remarkable, and I’m just fascinated to live in a state that has so many resources available to anyone who wants to succeed. You mentioned that there’s some people that may not really be aware or familiar with what SBA is doing and what kind of programs they currently running for all of us. Do you think awareness about SBA’s program may actually help to grow businesses or start more businesses in Maine?
Amy Bassett: I hope so. But absolutely, I agree. You know what? I have a fantastic team here, and I think the other thing that is really terrific about my group here in Maine and myself included is that even if we’re not the answer, I mean, we work really hard day and in day out to get the message out about what our programs can do to help small businesses in Maine, but if we’re not the answer, because we’re so connected into the economic development community and with all our partnerships, we can connect people to other resources to get them the best help. So we’re not above, it’s not all about protecting our turf or anything like that. We just want to do whatever we can to collectively contribute to growing Maine small businesses and Maine’s economy.
Rich Brooks: Who do you help, when it comes to small businesses, is there a business that’s either too small or too new? I know there are definitely agencies out there that focus on businesses of a certain size or at a certain point of maturity. Does the SBA have any kind of guidelines around that?
Amy Bassett: Yeah. I have to say, I mean, certainly startups are definitely an area where SBA is of great assistance because it’s a struggle in many regards to start up a business, so whether it’s gaining access to capital, or technical assistance, our programs are really helpful start up. But we’re also helpful for growing businesses because in a lot of ways, a growing business is facing some of the same hurdles as a start up because they’re looking to expand, and it’s unknown. People like safety, and history, and things that they can base growth on, and when businesses are growing, sometimes you don’t have those factors there.
Amy Bassett: As far as what is small, I will say SBA’s definition is fairly expansive, and probably 99% of the businesses in Maine would meet our definition of small. It varies from bit to bit, but our programs, so just another example, under our lending programs, we can guarantee alone up to $5 million. Most businesses in Maine aren’t going to need a $5 million loan, so a lot of the loans we do are significantly smaller than that. But I just sure that number so that you can see the breadth and scope of help that we could provide.
Yury Nabakov: You can definitely create a lot of business with $5 million and generate a lot of new jobs. That’s pretty remarkable, and it’s quite a source of inspiration and power to start something new. Amy, also, when you’re talking about starting new businesses and entrepreneurial spirit in the state, what industries do you see people actually participate in, or what categories of businesses do you usually see being created by the residents?
Amy Bassett: Yeah. I would say that given people tend to work with what we got here, and clearly tourism is a huge piece of the Maine economy, so we typically are seeing a lot of service-based businesses, tourism-based businesses, things along those line, but we are also seeing a lot of people, and I think we see this in a lot of other states too, but people are looking to kind of create their own job, so it could be this one-person shop that people are looking to start up with whatever expertise or background that they have. They’re trying to find that niche that they could then kind of create their own little space in the economy for themselves.
Yury Nabakov: Do you see an uptick in digital economy in Maine?
Amy Bassett: We definitely see a lot of increase in that space. I mean, there’s a lot of buzz and a lot of hubs where people are kind of connecting if they’re looking to have that type of a business. Some of those businesses aren’t as involved with our programs because we tend to, often times, it depends on the type of capital they’re looking for, so if it’s an investment type capital, that may not fit as well in our programs, whereas we’re more lending in that type of a capital piece. So we’re happy to support anybody with our programs though, and I would say our technical assistance programs through SCORE, [SBDC 00:15:05], are definitely helping a lot in that space of these tech type businesses.
Yury Nabakov: Awesome. Thank you.
Rich Brooks: Amy, you talked a little bit maybe about this before with the HUBZones, but what are some of the areas for Maine’s SBA right now, the areas of focus, I should say?
Amy Bassett: We are looking to help anybody possible, but we do get our directives down and areas of focus. One of the areas we’re really working on now, and this again comes from the top down, our administrator signed a memorandum of understanding with the head of the secretary of USDA, to partner the two agencies to really marshal federal resources to help businesses in rural communities. For us here in Maine, we’re already doing that because we’re such a rural state, but it’s really kind of powerful to have that sort of mantra that they’re all kind of working under because face it, those are the businesses that can really benefit most from our help right now as well.
Rich Brooks: If one of our listeners are running or heavily involved with a small business in rural Maine, what kind of advice would you give them, or where can they turn for help either with lending, or technical assistance, or other programs that the SBA may be backing? What is the exact steps that they need to take so that they can take their business to the next level?
Amy Bassett: That is a terrific question, and it’s a question that we in this whole small business assistance space have been kicking around. What we kind of have been operating under is there’s no wrong door, but we know that that’s not always a clear answer to those small businesses who are looking to be sure that they are aware of everything that’s possibly available to them. I mean, certainly from an SBA perspective, I would encourage any business in Maine to reach out to us and see if we have something that can be of assistance. If not, again, we can connect folks, but there are a lot of resources out there, whether it be folks reaching out to the state of Maine through the Department of Economic and Community Development, whether they reach out directly to a local resource who then connects them into their local community.
Amy Bassett: When I’m talking to a small business owner, again, I welcome anybody reaching out to my office, but I often think about telling people to start local because one of the biggest things for small businesses is you got to develop that support network. A lot of times, you need some key individuals and some key people kind of helping you in that endeavor. Often times, there’s a lot of people locally who want to help people in their community, and that is what I often tell people is a great place to start at.
Yury Nabakov: Fantastic. Amy, when we talk about resources, fairly often we think about human capital, people and funds or money available to spare on different initiatives. But when I think about resource, for me, information is extremely critical. I come to this conclusion after going to colleges and universities and learning that information is the most critical thing. Last night, when I was preparing for this interview, I found out that Brunswick, Maine, is among 60 locations in the nation that participates in the Emerging Leaders Initiatives. Can you tell me a little bit more about this program, and how did we get so lucky to be among 60 places in the nation to participate?
Amy Bassett: Yeah. I have to say, prior to being with SBA in Maine, I was with SBA in New Hampshire, and part of the process of standing up Emerging Leaders in New Hampshire. That experience, this is really one of the best programs that the agency has. Again, because we’re the federal government, the program is at no cost to that business owner, so anybody who participates in the Emerging Leaders program does so at no cost. Really, in a nutshell, the program’s been around for about 12 years. It was piloted in other parts of the country, and it’s expanded. But it’s a very intense program for business owners. I like to describe it as it’s the opportunity for that business owner to work on their business rather than in their business. So it’s not for startups. It’s for existing businesses. We have a few benchmarks there, so it’s for a business that’s at least three years old. There’s at least two employees, and they have sales of at least 250,000 per year. Yeah, and it’s a six-month program.
Yury Nabakov: Awesome.
Amy Bassett: It’s combined classroom time with peer group time, and in the end, they’re trying to develop a three-year growth plan for their business.
Rich Brooks: That sounds amazing, and being the owner of my own company, I’m certainly attracted to it. If somebody is interested in doing this, what does it look like when they’re done? What skills do they have at the end of this? Is this just that I’ve got a business plan for the next three years? Am I being groomed for something bigger? What should I expect if I apply for this and get into this program?
Amy Bassett: It’s interesting because again, it’s what the participant puts into it, they take away. We’ve seen varying things. Sometimes, it will help people, they come in thinking I’m going to develop this growth plan to start a new line of business, and then by going through the process, developing the plan, they may come away with that’s not even a good idea. I should just grow doing what I’m doing, so it really is kind of fascinating to watch people go through the class. Ultimately, we want to help people develop that three-year growth plan. Growth can be whatever that business is looking to do. For some people, it’s growing a business to then be able to sell. It’s been really interesting to see how they kind of go through the process, but there is follow-on. It’s not like at the end, these people it’s like okay, you’re all set, here you go. The program is designed to develop alumni networks and peer groups that will give them that support and help further on past the program. Fortunately, we …
Rich Brooks: It sounds like an amazing program, quite honestly. Do you do this every year?
Amy Bassett: … maybe unfortunately, when I started here, we were able to get the program for the first time in Maine last year, and last year, we held in Bangor as kind of our first shot because I want to be sure we’re getting resources to all over Maine. So this year, we’re moving it over to Brunswick to get some resources out there, so we’re really looking forward to starting that out.
Rich Brooks: But it’s for anybody in the state, like if somebody from Portland, or Bangor, or Fort Kent wanted to do this, as long as they’re willing to make the commute to any in-person classes, they would be accepted, [crosstalk 00:22:39].
Amy Bassett: No, absolutely. It could be anybody from Maine, but like I say and like you mentioned, the commute, because it is such a valued program, we do go through some pretty intensive screening because we want to make sure that we’re getting people into the class that are really committed, but we would welcome anybody from Maine, for sure.
Yury Nabakov: Wow, well, that’s awesome. Amy, it sounds like we’re on the same page about education and available resources that we definitely need to consume somewhat on a daily basis to stay on top of our game, but how do you personally feel about is it critical for businesses in the learning and training programs, and do you think that businesses take advantage of the available programs?
Amy Bassett: Just from my perspective, I don’t think enough do. When you’re a business owner, you get very focused on that day in, day out stuff, and then sometimes, you can lose track of the long game. You lose track of the farsighted goals, and working with, say, a business advisor from SCORE, SBDC, or the Women’s Business Center, you take that step back and you have that independent person that kind of gets your mind reset to start focusing on some of those long goals, and not just bogged down on the day-to-day stuff. So I really think more businesses would benefit by taking advantage of these no-cost services. Absolutely.
Yury Nabakov: That’s fantastic.
Rich Brooks: Not to mention the [crosstalk 00:24:16] podcast.
Amy Bassett: Endeavors like this are just so critical to us to help us get our message out too, so we’re all in this together, and that’s what really fun about doing this work in Maine.
Yury Nabakov: That’s exactly what it is. We are all in it together, and Amy, I’m pretty, pretty delighted and proud that you graced us with the presence on today’s podcast. That’s fantastic. As a follow-up to my question, I also wanted to know do you feel that we recognize our hard-working business leaders enough to inspire a new economic boon in Maine? Because sometimes, it feels like we turn the TV on and we hear all the same stuff, and we get upset by the end of the day, and we wake up in the morning, and we don’t want to do anything different. We just want to move on with life. Do you think if we recognize our business owners in the way that they really deserve, we can see a new wave of businesses [crosstalk 00:25:14].
Amy Bassett: We love to do that here, and actually, coming up the first week in May is National Small Business Week. We will be holding our annual small business week awards event. Right now, it’s slated for May 15, but during that week, we recognize Maine small businesses in a variety of categories. It’s twofold. It is probably one of the most fun things we do because you get to hear the stories, and you get to hear the stories from these business owners, challenges they’ve incurred, and what successes they’ve achieved. It also gives us the opportunity to show how we’ve helped them, SBA, and our partners have helped them, so we love Small Business Week. Then, regularly throughout the year too, we do events like Small Business Saturday where we can walk and highlight the efforts of small business and their successes. We’ll regularly do success stories on some of our clients with their permission because it’s inspiring, but it also illustrates how the programs can help people achieve success.
Yury Nabakov: I was on the Twitter a few days ago, and I was scrolling through your Twitter feed, and I saw how much praise you guys gave to the founder of Flowfold, Charlie Friedman. That’s a pretty exciting story, and do you think we’re going to see more creative collaborations among established and emerging Maine businesses similar to L.L. Bean and Flowfold?
Amy Bassett: Absolutely. Yeah. Flowfold was, a couple years ago, they were our Young Entrepreneurs of the Year. Even just in a couple years, they have just gained so much success. It’s really kind of incredible, and again, there’s been various services and folks along the way that have given them assistance. Another SBA program that they utilized was through the Step Grant program to get them doing international sales. Once you kind of get into the fold, there’s a lot you can take advantage of. I think, clearly, people will see that again, partnering leads to greater success. I just think that that’s a terrific example of while L.L. Bean’s a big business, they’re looking to help the small businesses grow, too.
Rich Brooks: It seems like there is a lot of resources out there for small businesses who are willing to be on the lookout for, and take advantage of these type of programs, but Amy, from your perspective, what would be the one thing we could do to improve the business [crosstalk 00:28:13]?
Amy Bassett: That’s a big question. I guess from my dealings with hearing from our partners and from small businesses, one of the biggest challenges, and this probably isn’t unique to Maine, but it really is focusing around labor and workforce, and workforce issues. Day in and day out, we hear stories about people who can’t expand their business or don’t want to even try to expand their business because they don’t feel like they can hire people or hire qualified people. So I think that’s an area that, I mean, there’s been a lot of work done around it, and I know there’s a lot of groups doing work in that space, and I don’t mean to minimize that, but that is just kind of a prevalent, really, big problem right now.
Rich Brooks: We definitely need more, and I’m guessing young people, but people of all ages, staying in the states, coming to the state, it sounds like. I’m assuming they have to be trained. That’s a whole nother thing right, it’s not like we’re just talking about anybody working at the local Burger King. We’re talking about at all levels of technical expertise, correct?
Amy Bassett: Correct, and we are fortunate here to have a very vibrant community college system. They do a lot of work with businesses to create some kind of customized training. There’s a lot of other groups in the area as well. Not to discourage growing through hiring more people, but now, what is emerging a little bit more is sometimes, businesses are now looking how can we grow without adding employees? So buying a different type of equipment that’s more automated or things like that, so it’s interesting to see entrepreneurs thinking in those lines. For example, if they want to buy a significant piece of equipment that might be able to streamline business so that they don’t need to hire as many people, their support from the lending site to help them in that regard as well.
Rich Brooks: Amy, is there anything as an individual business owner that one of us could do to help this? Can we get more involved with community colleges? Should we be taking on more interns? Are there things an individual can do, or is this really more at the state level, at the community college level, at the SBA level?
Amy Bassett: Yeah. I think everybody sort of has a roll to play in this. One of the things, if you take manufacturing, for example, we have some great resources here in Maine to help manufacturers of all sizes. One of the things that they’ve done in the past is the actual businesses hold sort of an open house, open doors type event, so the people, students, young people is kind of what they’ve targeted. They can come in and see what it’s really like, and that has been really kind of a help drive some of the, maybe people aren’t going to the traditional, four-year college, but that gives them an opportunity to think about a different type of career and gives the business that exposure as well. Internships are another great opportunity to gain exposure. I think businesses definitely have a role to play in this.
Yury Nabakov: That is fantastic. I just love the brave new world that we live in with the creative opportunities to start businesses, and collaborate, and participate, and move forward. Amy, for all of our listeners, can you tell us where can we find out more about you, about the work that you do, and the SBA online?
Amy Bassett: I would say the best place to start is our website at SBA.gov/me. That’ll bring you directly to the homepage for the Maine district office. And then, you can also link to all the websites for our partners from there, too as well. You can link to SCORE, SBDC, Women’s Business Center, right from there. Taking a step back, the SBA’s Maine website, so just SBA.gov, has a ton of information, resources, articles, templates that might be of interest to folks as well.
Rich Brooks: Fantastic. Amy, this has been great. It’s been eye-opening. It’s nice to know how much SBA plays a role in the business environment here in the state, and I just want to thank you for your time and expertise today.
Amy Bassett: Thank you, and thank you for the opportunity to participate. This is really helpful to us, and we appreciate the work you’re doing.
Yury Nabakov: Amy, that was great. Best of luck. Thanks a lot.