How to Grow a Successful Business in Maine – Bradshaw Swanson

With decades of experience consulting with growing SMBs in Maine, Bradshaw Swanson of the Maine SBDC shares what it takes to be successful. 

Rich: My guest today is a Maine certified Master Business Advisor with the Maine Small Business Development Centers at CEI. He’s a trained mediator and facilitator, and iPEC certified life coach specializing in personal leadership. He received his BA in psychology from the University of Maine at Orono back in 1977, and his MBA from Whittemore School of business and economics at UNH in 1986. 

Previously the Center Director for the Maine Small Business Development Centers at CEI, he currently manages two service centers for that program, one in Augusta and one in Brunswick at CEI central, working with a broad range of companies and industries.  

He’s a graduate of the Maine Development Foundations leadership program, Pi class, a certified instructor of the Franklin Covey Seven Habits of Highly Successful Small Business Managers, and a certified perspectives facilitator with the Edward Lowe Foundation. 

And honestly, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’m looking forward to chatting with Bradshaw Swanson on the lessons learned over 30 years of working with growing Maine businesses and the entrepreneurs behind them. Bradshaw, welcome to the podcast. 

Bradshaw: Yeah. Thanks, Rich. I appreciate the kind introduction and look forward to working with you today. 

Rich: So actually I just started the MDF Maine Development Foundation’s ICL leadership program last Friday. It was my first session. Is that the same one that you did? 

Bradshaw: Well ICL and Maine Development Foundation I think were two programs and they’ve merged. I think I have that correct. But the Maine Development Foundation Leadership Maine had a mission of training a thousand leaders in a macroeconomic look at Maine as a state, it’s industry, it’s job creation, it’s health, it’s education, systems, it’s infrastructure, a lot of different perspectives. So that was great. Great to get that broad overview of Maine. We worked together as classmates on research and a big project presentation, which was the Capstone. 

Rich: Excellent. Well, it seems like you’ve done just about everything when it comes to helping businesses grow and thrive. Looking back, what’s one of your favorite things you did in that arena?  

Bradshaw: Well, this is kind of a broad answer, Rich, but it’s always been a pleasure and a privilege for me to work with the owners and managers who take the risk to create the businesses, which drive the economy.  

And so many of them are really talented in many different ways, trades people, craftsman, professionals, people with a passion. And what they need from each of us who do the business advising with our Maine small business development centers or our sister organization, the Women’s Business Center. They need some coaching and support around organizing and profitably, managing businesses, its own operating system and knowing how marketing works, how strategy works, how to manage resources  including time and money, and then how to read your financial results and plan for the future. All good stuff, but not always really apparent if you don’t have a background in business.  

Rich: Absolutely. And I am definitely one of those people where I never took a business course in college, and then just started business really without the foundations, the exact things you’re talking about, which could be the reason I started this podcast. 

So there may be a belief – there probably is a belief – that Maine doesn’t take business seriously. It’s “Vacationland” after all, or that our businesses aren’t built to scale up. And I’m curious if you believe that, and if there’s something that keeps Maine businesses from growing?  

Bradshaw: Well, no, I don’t believe it. If you look at Maine as a state and with our population, and you look at the number of small businesses that drive the economy, and then you look at the number of support services, private and nonprofit public, we’re actually very, very focused on small business growth and development. Maine is a lifestyle. As many of us know, we live here because of the environment, because of the quality of the people we work with. And a lot of people will start jobs here to have an income to live here. So that’s one type of business.  

Another kind of business is one that is built to grow and sell or provide equity income for the owners once they’ve grown into a certain scale. So I think it’s a fallacy to think that Maine doesn’t care about its small businesses. I know from 30 years of experience that we in fact really want to see those people willing to take the risk to get started and grow, create some jobs, create some income, create some equity. We want them to succeed. I think where we Maine was a mill state for so many years, whether it was textiles or shoes or wood paper products, and a lot of this small business to support those big industries that that day and age has been. What we need in our economy now is new jobs, new kinds of businesses. We will always be a destination for tourists and visitors because it’s a gorgeous place to live. Those are seasonal businesses mostly that we see serving that industry. Not exclusively, certainly many of them are able to stay open year round. But the idea that we’re just “vacationland” just isn’t correct. We’re much more than that. Well, as business is concerned.  

Rich: What are some of the mindset issues that you see in Maine’s business owners and leaders?  

Bradshaw: Explain that to me a little bit, mindset issues?  

Rich: Yeah. Do you feel, and maybe this is tapping into the previous question. Sometimes there are things that prevent us from growing our business the way that maybe we’d want to. And sometimes when I’ve talked to people, it’s like they don’t think that they deserve this, or they think it’s too big. Do you run into stuff like that? Do you talk to business owners over your career who have just not had the right mindset to scale up a business? And does that keep them from their potential? 

Bradshaw: Well, first of all not every business can scale. Scale is large growth and revenues and other resources. But what I find in many of my small business clients is that the first imperative is just to get started and exist and learn how to survive as a business. That their business premise is that there’s something that they can sell profitably, whether it’s a service or a product, a value add that that can work.  

Once they actually prove that out, then they have to do it at a level that’s a profitable, you know, you get started. It’s really, you. Maybe you and your spouse or your partner, maybe you get a part-time person, but you’re really struggling to penetrate the market, increase your revenues, get to a profitable level that’s both satisfactory and allows you to be sustainable. 

And then beyond that, you have to realize that you survived, and you have to make a choice. You know, at what point do you have the right organizational structure, with the right people in place, the owners doing the right work, to sustain the business at a level that’s, I will say comfortable. But what I mean by that is it’s certainly providing with the owner enough income and challenge to keep them engaged. There’s another level of growth beyond that, where you take off. And we do see businesses that have a business model or a product or a service that allows them to scale or really grow.  

The mindset is sometimes driven by the market. Growth happens and it’s crazy and it’s wonderful. You probably know this, Rich. It’s the kind of thing where you’ve tapped into a want or a need in the market, and you’ve got a sufficient audience, and you’ve strategized well enough to capture market share, and it’s just going to keep growing. But you do need a strategy to grow.  

Rich: Absolutely. As the person or the people that you’ve been talking about and getting some of those fundamentals down, and just so they can get kind of make sure that, there is a business there that there’s a business model that’s going to work. Where do you advise the most? Where do most people kind of struggle during those first getting the fundamentals down stage? Is it marketing? Is it financials? Is it something else?  

Bradshaw: Well, my approach, once somebody comes to me and said, “Here’s what I want to do”, is I ask them what do you want to accomplish and when do you want to accomplish that by? So really work on the goals, time phase and measurable goals. People need to understand that it’s one thing to want to start a business, but you need a plan to take it someplace. 

So if you start with the end in mind, which is a pretty solid business fundamental principle, start with the end in mind. Then let’s build a plan to get them marketing, marketing strategy. That’s all about revenue generation. Know your customer, know what they want, know your competition, right? 

Management is about resources. So what do you need to get started? And where are you going to get the capital to do that? And how much working capital cash do you need to run the business until sales provide enough liquid cashflow for you to have money from your business operations to pay all your bills and pay yourself. 

And then you have another question, what do I do from here? And that’s either plateauing and running a very successful business at a certain level or deciding to grow. But start with the end in mind. That’s always my advice.  

Rich: It sounds like you’ve worked with both kinds of people. People want to take it to that next level, and people who are more than happy to keep things as they are. And of course in business and in life, you can never think to keep things exactly as they are, but like that they’re not looking for growth. Are there different approaches when you’re advising them on how to kind of maintain that lifestyle so that they don’t grow too fast and that they also don’t miss opportunities so they suddenly find themselves in hot water? 

Bradshaw: Yeah. Let me just rephrase. If you do have to continue to grow, because we know if you’re not growing, you’re dying, right? There are graphs and cycled maps and things like that, where you can see how a business grows. And then it becomes stale in the market because consumers want new and different things, even from an existing business. So you’ve got to be on your toes to see what’s new and exciting for your consumer in order to sustain. And it may even not be 10% revenue growth year in and year out. But maintaining a level of sustainable revenue is a marketing challenge. I forgot the rest of your questions.  

Rich: Well just in terms of the advice. And I think you gave good advice in terms of, you cannot stand still, even if you want to kind of maintain your current revenue. And I agree because the bottom line is there’s always a certain amount of clients or customers who drop off, who age out, or whatever it may be. And so there’s always got to be that new work coming in. And I think to your point, that’s where some of that marketing comes in.  

Bradshaw: Well, there’s also an issue of what role does the owner want to take in the business? Because one inhibitor to growth is control. And if the owner really wants to operate the business, then it becomes very hard for them to shift into marketing and sales, which grows revenues ,penetrates the market, increases the business capacity to serve more, generate more revenue, generate greater profits. 

So giving up the operating role and moving into the manager executive role is a very important transitional point for a lot of businesses. And that’s maybe just not the lifestyle that many of our small businesspeople think about. If they start to grow, we help them think about it. Because growth happens, as I mentioned earlier, and you need to be able to organize the business in a way to grow profitably and not overly stress yourself out. Growth is, as you probably know, it could be very exciting, and it can be very tiring. 

Rich: Yes. A lot demands. And I’ve definitely seen over the past 24 years that I’ve been in business, multiple times where I became the bottleneck. Where all of a sudden I realized I had to step out of the way, I had to elevate people to a new level of responsibility, I had to let my own skills atrophy. And there definitely is these mindset ideas where all of a sudden I’m like, well, wait a second, I thought I was a web designer. And if I want to grow my business, I have to stop being a web designer and I have to move on to something else. So I think maybe a lot of business owners might struggle with that, that almost identity crisis. I’m a builder, I’m a creator. And suddenly it’s like, well, no, you’re actually in charge of HR and finance and everything else. 

Bradshaw: Well, that HR is such a key issue. And especially today where we see labor shortages in so many different businesses. One of the things that a business owner has to realize is when they take on employees, they also become a leader. And management and leadership are very different functions. Management does the things right, and leaders do the right thing. You know what I mean, in terms of guiding the business forward?  

So what you have to understand is that working with people is a challenge. We all bring ourselves into work and we want to know that we’re appreciated and well compensated fairly, and that we know where the business is going, and we like that direction. So as employees, we look upwards to the owner as somebody who’s going to lead us. So that’s a difficult role for some people. 

Can you learn how to be a leader? Absolutely. Leaders are not just born, they’re developed. And so one of the things that we look to in small businesses is what are the necessary skills and attributes of a leader within a business when the business is growing. And that includes growing its workforce. 

Rich: I’m glad you brought that up. Because I did want to talk a little bit about this. You know, many of us start a business where it’s just us, we’re just sitting there, we’re doing whatever we’re doing. And then all of a sudden it starts to become overwhelming. We think about hiring our first person and suddenly now we’re dealing with employees. So I’m curious about what were some of the common mistakes that you saw when owners and new bosses, new leaders, were dealing with the Maine workforce? And what advice do you give owners as they add to their own payroll? You know, you mentioned the fact that right now we’re going through a real hiring crisis. Almost every business is looking for help, and there doesn’t seem to be enough workers out there. So what can we do?  

Bradshaw: Well, it’s a real challenge right now. And I’m going take us out of the present time and generalize my remarks. In order to grow, you need to know where your growth is coming from and what skills you need to grow further. What I see in a lot of cases is, the best choice is to help somebody organize and manage the business administration. The bookkeeping, the record keeping. Maybe if this appropriate and the right proper controls are in place, somebody to help you with the financial risks, the receivables, or the payables. These are time-consuming but necessary functions that take the owner away from the core revenue generating activity. If you’re charging $75 to $100 dollars a day, it’s much better to hire somebody competent and capable and with the right fit at $25 to $30 an hour to help you run the business office. Communication, bookkeeping, record keeping, those sorts of things are critical as a business grows because they become the systems by which a business understands its performance. Because it has record keeping system, has it has reporting systems. And the owner can go on and then manage the revenue generating side. The next person in after that may be a revenue generator, not an overhead person.  

And at that point in time it becomes very clear that culture of the owners way of working is important to the success of the business growing. They need to find somebody who fits their needs, their communication style, the work responsibilities. And we just say work with our clients to understand what is the job you want to have done, and what’s the right profile of the person who’s going to be the best fit to do that. And let’s see what it’s going to take to find that. 

So growth can go from an administrative level. And we see this in a lot of couples and spousal, and one man or one woman working in the business and the spouse or partner administrating. And then if it keeps growing, then we do need to bring in somebody from the outside. And that’s a whole different conversation about job roles and responsibilities fit. Which is, obviously somebody who shares your values, shares the work ethic that you have, and is going to work out well and be compensated for it.  

Then we go into the question of, well, how do we retain that person? What does a business need to do to make this a long-term viable opportunity for their employees? And that raises all sorts of questions about benefits and insurance and work structure, schedule. It’s hard to be an employee these days, it’s difficult out there. I think we’re seeing some of that in the workplace, and not back-filling jobs. It’s just things shifted very quickly and a very tragic way for many people and business needs to reconsider what does it mean to have and hold employees.  

Rich: Well without getting too much into the weeds, because you mentioned a lot of great stuff in there. Some of the overreaching themes, what are the ways that we can retain our best employees? You know, there’s obviously the compensation side of things. Everybody wants to be paid a good salary. There are benefits, whether it’s flexibility or gym memberships, health care, whatever. But then there’s also maybe those intangibles of like people just like working in the business because of the values of the owner, or the purpose behind the business, or they have their own autonomy. What do you feel, regardless of industry, are some of the most important things that we can build into our own company so that people want to continue to work for us? 

Bradshaw: Sure. A successful employee is going to have values that fit into the culture of the company. You know, I work as a business advisor and it’s a very good fit for who I am as an individual. And my training and background and the structure, the nature of the work that the mission of my company, it’s a good, a very good fit. 

So first of all an employer needs to understand what they’re all about and how they want to run the business. And that inquiry is important because if there’s not a good fit, values and work/life fit for employees, it becomes hard to retain them. This has been true forever, people want to know what they’re supposed to be doing. They want to have the resources and time to get it done, and they want to be appreciated for having done it the right way. And if they’re not doing it the right way, they don’t want to be chastised. They want to be trained and taught the right way to do it. Because at the end of the day, we all want to feel like we’re a part of something meaningful in our lives. And work is such a big time suck for all of us, that if it’s not meaningful, if it sustains us, make us feel like we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves, it’s very hard to feel good about going in day in and day out.  

So leadership is about making sure the right people are doing the right work, the right way, getting the right appreciation and reward growth opportunities. Compensation is a satisfier. You’re either satisfied or you’re not. You get a dollar more an hour. And in three weeks, another dollar more an hour. So motivation is what people really need at work. And that comes from an inner drive to be better than you were yesterday to do the right thing. And that comes from being told and appreciated that you’re doing a great job. Let’s try this. Here’s where we’re going. I’d like you to take the lead on that.  

There’s a lot of trust required in retaining the workforce and it it’s trust that people understand what’s required, and they are being appreciated when they get it done. 

Rich: We talked a lot about internal forces within your company. At the same time, I’ve had conversations in-person and I’ve been in online groups like the Maine Business on Facebook, and there’s  always a contingent of people that are complaining or blaming the current situation on Maine’s government, regardless of who’s in power. Is this a legitimate concern, or do you find that Maine is more anti or more pro-business than other states in the union?  

Bradshaw: Well, you know, I have to say that when somebody is that unhappy about a situation that they look to blame the government, it makes me pause. There’s more to that complaint than meets the ear. I think. Is Maine pro-business or not? I think we recognize that Maine is a state that is getting older, and is going to require more and more of a workforce in order to provide the services and products that we need. And so it’s incumbent upon the government to incentivize businesses to be here. It’s incumbent upon the government to moderate regulations that have become barriers to entry or sustainability. Those are high-level policy type of decisions that seem like they affect the work a day man or woman, and in fact can, because they affect the companies for which they’re working. I’d have to know what their complaint was to give you a better answer.  

But in general, I think Maine recognizes, and government in Maine recognizes, its responsibility at the end of the day. We hope for the best and we have an ability to impact it if we’re not satisfied. You know, that’s one of the nice things about a democracy is if you’re willing to do something other than grouse, you can get out there and affect some change. And you know, see what it is that’s going to benefit you and others. That’s kind of how I look at it. I’m not much of a politician. 

Rich: Sounds fair, Bradshaw. Sometimes being an owner or a business leader can feel very isolating and that you’re all alone. When people, when leaders need help, what are some of the services that are out there for Maine businesses? Where can they turn?  

Bradshaw: Well, this is a great question. And I will answer it first by saying it’s one of the things that we hear quite often when we start working with a new client, is it’s just really nice to have somebody they can trust who has an expertise and is there to support them. 

Yeah, it is a lonely job. Can you talk with your spouse or your partner? Can you talk with your employees? How often can you talk with your vendors and suppliers? At some point you need to work some stuff out. And that’s part of what the Maine Small Business Development Center does is we listen, we get down to some pretty fundamental issues about changing behavior and changing results.  

There’s the Women’s Business Center, which is housed at CEI. It’s a statewide program. There’s SCORE, which is a volunteer organization of retired… it used to be the Service Corps of Retired Executives. They just changed the moniker to SCORE now. But they also provide a free, confidential service. The difference is they’re volunteers. WBC and the Maine SBDC, we’re full-time certified business advisors.  

There is a lot of state and local programming geared to support small business growth and development. But nothing really replaces somebody who you can trust to talk to, to work out what you’re having a hard time working out and feel like the ideas really support you and that they’re manageable and you can be successful. So we do a lot of that. That’s really the core of our work.  

Rich: As you look back on your 30 years, if there’s one lesson, or one mistake, or one thing that you like can summarize as the most important thing that a business owner in Maine should be focused on, what would that one nugget of wisdom be?  

Bradshaw: Yeah. Know where you’re going, be able to measure that, and say when you want to get there. It’s so fundamentally essential to success to have a goal, and then put together a plan to reach that goal. If the goal looks feasible and viable, the capital’s near the time, is there the resources there, the marketplace is there, go for it. You have to test yourself at that point. This is the go or no-go decision point. And I see that with a lot of clients because we really drill them on what it’s going to be like to manage, not just write a plan, but manage that plan. So know where you go. Know what you expect when you get there and put together a solid plan with some support to make it happen.  

Planning does not cost anything. It takes time. Ours is a no cost to the client confidential service to support small business development and growth. And if people will work with us their results that they can achieve because of the experts that we hire, are markedly different than somebody who goes and tries to wing it. 

Rich: So it sounds like we’re captaining a boat heading for a destination, not just laying on a raft and enjoying the sunshine.  

Bradshaw: Yeah. The raft will take you someplace. You just may not be happy with the way you end up. You know, also fundamental to business, and this is obvious, but oftentimes not included. You need to have the capital to get there. You need to have the cash. Small business is a cashflow business. And until you have an asset base that you can borrow against it’s really revenues. You can borrow to get started. But after that, you know, you’ve got to bring enough in the door to pay all your vendors and suppliers, your employees, cover your overhead, and make a living. We stress cashflow all the time. That’s probably beyond the plan. Cashflow is the fundamental reality of small business.  

Rich: All right. We love to ask this question of all the experts we bring on the podcast. What one thing would you change, if you could, to improve the business ecosystem here in Maine?  

Bradshaw: To improve the business ecosystem? You know, I think there is a movement towards sustainable business practice, and I want to see that continue. Better understanding of the environment as it relates to sound sustainable business practices. We’re on our way as a state there, I think there are a lot of good things to be said. But we have small businesses about scarce resources and renewable resources. So I think my hope is that we will continue to look at those realities in the 21st century as both an opportunity that has to be seized, or otherwise it becomes a threat that can bring even large economies down. 

Rich: All right. Bradshaw, this has been great. If people want to connect with you online, where could we send them. 

Bradshaw: Well, you know, I’m retiring on the 30th of this month, right? 

Rich: I was going to let you announce that, but ok. 

Bradshaw: The Maine Small Business Development Center website covers the entire state. We have a headquarters down at the University of Southern Maine, and we have organizations which support the Maine Small Business Development Center service delivery around the state. 

So I would start with And you can find any of our business advisers on the ‘about’ menu, and then scroll down and you can see who is in your area. Personally it’s Bradshaw.Swanson@CEIMaine for at least another 10 days.  

Rich: That’s good. All right, Bradshaw, thank you so much for swinging by today. 

Bradshaw: I enjoyed it, Rich. Thank you for the time. Thank you for the interest. And you know, thank you for all the small businesses out there making it work for everybody.