Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Topsham. Show summaries are available at lovemaineradio.com.
Lisa Belisle: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle, and you are listening to Love Maine Radio, Show Number 313, airing for the first time on Sunday, September 17th, 2017. Today’s guests are John Hathaway, founder of Shuck’s Maine Lobster, and Fletcher Kittredge, founder of Maine-based internet service provider GWI. Thank you for joining us.
Speaker 1: Portland Art Gallery is proud to sponsor Love Maine Radio. Portland Art Gallery is the city’s largest and is located in the heart of the Old Port at 154 Middle Street. The gallery focuses on exhibiting the work of contemporary Maine artists and hosts a series of monthly solo shows in its newly-expanded space, including Ingunn Joergensen, Brenda Cirioni, Daniel Corey, Jill Hoy, and Dave Allen. For complete show details, please visit our website at artcollectormaine.com.
Lisa Belisle: John Hathaway has owned companies all over the world, including a successful real estate development firm. He returned to his home state of Maine to open his Shucks Maine Lobster, a business that supplies raw lobster meat to international and local chefs. Thanks for coming in today.
John Hathaway: Thank you, Lisa.
Lisa Belisle: Tell me about your transition from real estate to lobster. It sounds like you’ve done more than one thing in your life, so-
John Hathaway: I’ve done a lot of things in my life.
Lisa Belisle: All right.
John Hathaway: I think that’s pretty much who I am is I’m more of a dreamer than I am a good businessman, and I like to follow my dreams. I think it’s important for people to do what they love to do and find their passion. That’s what I try to teach my children. I think that’s critical to a successful life.
Lisa Belisle: You grew up in Gardiner.
John Hathaway: I grew up in Gardiner, Maine. My dad’s family has been in this country since the Mayflower. The first Hathaway came right after the Revolutionary war when he fought in the Revolutionary war and was awarded 40 acres in Buckfield, Maine. On the other end, my mother’s parents were Irish immigrants who worked in the shoe factories.
Lisa Belisle: How did they end up meeting one another?
John Hathaway: There was a shoe factory in the old days in Gardiner. My grandparents worked in that, and my dad was there and… the greatest generation. He came back from the war and met my mother and married her and had three great kids and a wonderful life in Gardiner, Maine. Wonderful parents. I think family’s just really the key to everything.
Lisa Belisle: Tell me how their influence caused you to go down this path of following dreams and feeling how important it was to follow one’s passion.
John Hathaway: That’s a good question. I think they were just loving parents. Like most kids in Maine, it’s a small town and working-class parents, and they just spent a lot of time with us and loved us and encouraged us to do things. At a young age, I was… I mean I was always in business, I guess. I was always selling Kool-Aid, or delivering newspapers, or raking blueberries, doing what Maine kids do. Then, as I got a little older, I was very fortunate to go to get a scholarship to attend Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. For a small-town kid from Maine, that was quite an eye-opening experience. I met Kennedys, and Rockefellers, and the Coors boys who owned Coors beer, and the Miller boys who owned Miller beer, and a lot of people. What it taught me, I think, was that you can compete out there, that if you do have the passion and find the passion, that you can achieve your dreams. If you can dream it, you can do it. I think we need to instill that in young people today.
Lisa Belisle: Why real estate? What was it about real estate that interested you?
John Hathaway: Well, let’s see. From there, I went to college in Boston, and I kept working as a bus boy in a restaurant. I scalped a lot of tickets, which actually paid my way through college and law school. Luckily, at that time, the Celtics and the Bruins were very successful, and I did quite well. That was a fun experience. Then when I got out of law school, there was one job that I wanted and it was actually for a guy from South Portland who was the very first sports attorney in the country. I got a job with him in the 43rd floor of the Prudential Center. On about the second day, a guy in another office came in and said, “Oh, you’re from Maine, right?” I said, “Yeah.” He goes, “You’re a friend of Randy’s.” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Just want to let you know, this isn’t really what you think it is.” He was right. After a week, I walked out the door. My mother cried, but that was okay.
I went on and married a wonderful woman who’s from Canada. We opened the first Mexican restaurant in Canada, actually, in Toronto. You asked me before about advice. You know what advice… I actually talked to a very, very successful guy who owned a chain of restaurants, and he said, “Oh, if you want to be in this for 10 years, you’ll do very well.” I decided, okay, I don’t want to be in it for 10 years, so we’re going to look for something else. A friend of mine told me about houses that were selling in Baltimore, in inner-city Baltimore, for a dollar. I said, “Okay, I think I can afford that.” We bought a house. We fixed it up. We sold it. We bought another one, sold it. Bought a few more at auction and sold those, and then kind of just followed that path and followed that dream and got into other… We went further south and got into developing national-award-winning subdivisions and some commercial real estate and really, really enjoyed it. It was great.
Lisa Belisle: When you say your mother cried because you-
John Hathaway: Yeah. Well, I had a job and-
Lisa Belisle: You had a job and-
John Hathaway: For her, it was like great, but I was like, “Mom, I …” The first thing I learned about being a lawyer was you’re solving other people’s problems. Again, I go back to trying to find out who I am, and I think I’m much better at creating my own and just doing that, and that’s… If you can find those problems and solve those problems, you can do very well, and you can help people along the way. For me, that was… It turned out to be more of my passion, which is why I got into the lobster business.
We live in Kennebunkport, and we have five children, and they all work different places in the summer. I thought, “Okay, it’d be nice if they could all work together,” so we opened a little seafood restaurant, a very small one, and all my kids worked in it. My boys were seven and nine, and they worked the fish market. My daughters cooked, and waited, and everything else. It kind of dawned on us, when the tourists would come in, that they loved being in Maine and they wanted to celebrate with Maine lobster but, really, it wasn’t the animal that they wanted. It was the food. There’s a big difference, and I think the industry still hasn’t entirely learned that. It’s developing, but I think there’s a long way yet for the industry to go.
I heard about an oyster company in New Orleans who was selling warm water gulf oysters to California, and because of the vibrio, California said, “No. We’re not gonna buy them from you anymore.” They invested in this technology that was initially developed by NASA called high-pressure processing. I went down. I brought some Maine lobsters down to see it. What it actually did for them was it actually… You put it in water and at very high pressure, and it actually shucked the oyster inside the shell. It took care of all the pathogens and the bacterias, the vibrio, whatever in there, and it just made it a totally clean product.
I went down there and brought the lobster. What amazed me was that when you take the lobster out of the machine and you open the shell, you can actually… the raw meat actually slides right out. You can’t do that with a lobster. You can cook it, but if you’re a chef, which is generally our market … If you’re a chef, then you want something that you can put your own taste to. You don’t buy a cooked steak and then recook it to sell it to you in a fancy restaurant. Again, you don’t want that live animal either. You want that wonderful Maine lobster meat in its purest form so you could add your touch to it.
Lobster is… It’s a celebration food. That’s the story of Maine. Back when we had the restaurant, we used to run the World Lobster Eating Championship. We’d have three or four thousand people come. Badlands Booker, who was one of the big eaters, he would get up there and he would lead the cheer. He’d say, “When I say Maine, you say….” And everybody would shout out, “Lobster.” That’s the story of Maine. It’s a great story because lobster is one man, one boat. They’re out there. It’s not big, giant companies going out with big boats and taking it off the bottom. It’s just a beautiful story and it’s a beautiful product. Again, it’s wild caught, and people love it and like to celebrate with it. I think that’s really what drew me to the industry but also drew me to the fact that the industry needed some innovation.
That’s why, after I left New Orleans, I came back and I bought a $2 million high-pressure machine, and didn’t know what I was doing but hired a couple great people, and we started developing products. We went to Brussels, the International Seafood Show the first year, and we won first prize for best new seafood product in the world, and we didn’t have a customer. I said, “Okay. We need customers, but at least we’re starting out on the right foot.” It’s been an adventure ever since, but it’s a lot of fun. Again, the product makes people very happy because people love to celebrate. I eat very well, so it’s fun.
Lisa Belisle: You talk about wanting to find your own problems and your own solutions to your own problems. When you’re talking about lobster, the problem was that you have to get the meat out of the actual-
John Hathaway: I think there were two things back at that time. One was, again, there’s the whole issue of people actually… What do they want? People want to see the lobster. They want to come to Maine to see the lobster, but when they’re in a restaurant or they’re at home someplace, they don’t really want to take a live animal and put it in a pot of boiling water and then have to tear it apart to get to the food. They really want food.
A couple things that, when I started out, that I was really trying to encourage people to do was the lobster roll, right? People love lobster rolls, but they don’t have to fight the animal to get it. They’re delicious. You don’t have to ship that live animal across the country to get it to someplace in California that wants to sell a lobster roll. You know, for yourself, in the last 10 years, how popular now lobster rolls are, how they’ve become. I think it was that whole innovation thing and the fact that chefs needed the best part of the lobster without… If you’re in New York City, you don’t want live animals crawling around in the back of your restaurant. You’re paying expensive help and expensive real estate. You can’t do that. Those are problems that we, I think, were trying to solve.
I think the industry has come a long way, but I think there’s a lot more innovation that needs to be done. I think that, for instance, there’s the marketing, the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative which goes out, which… I have to tell you. I totally disagree with what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to sell new-shell lobster and say that the meat is great, but they’re trying to sell it all over the country. They were in San Francisco last week. Well, that’s great, except that new-shell lobster doesn’t travel well. What do you want at the other end? Somebody gets it and a bunch of them are dead? What’s that experience? That’s not a good experience for somebody that’s paying a lot of money for live Maine lobster and wants that celebration and serve to their customers, right? The other thing is, you can see in the summertime when people are eating it, the reason it’s soft shell is because the lobster is growing into the shell, so it’s not full of meat. What’s that experience for people? They feel cheated.
Really, what I think we need to be doing is keeping that lobster in Maine and creating value with that lobster here, with the meat. There’s all kinds of products that we could develop. At the same time, we’re keeping jobs in the state of Maine that we’re not creating right now. I kind of liken it to the timber business. Okay, you cut down your natural resource. Do you ship it to China and it gets there, and you make a few pennies, and then they do something with it and ship it back? It doesn’t make sense to me. You’re much better off to make lumber, or furniture, or something right here in Maine and create something with a Maine brand and create Maine jobs. It’s the same thing when we sell Maine lobster to the processors in Canada. By federal law, they have to then put on their package that it’s a product of Canada. Okay, so they sell it back into the U.S., and everybody thinks, “Oh, this is a product of Canada.” Well, yeah, but it’s really Maine lobster.
Since I’ve been in the business the last 10 years or so, I think there are probably about four major processors that have gone out of business. There’s probably four left, and so I think something needs to happen in the industry to change that.
Lisa Belisle: You raise a good point. If people are eating Kobe beef, they’re not sending the cows over….
John Hathaway: They don’t send the cows over.
Lisa Belisle: … for us to deal with.
John Hathaway: You don’t go to Hannaford and buy a chicken, a live chicken, and say, “Okay. I’m gonna come home and turn this into chicken breasts.” It doesn’t work that way anymore.
Lisa Belisle: Why did we get to this place where we were shipping the lobsters in the shell to parts unknown?
John Hathaway: Well, I think that the real issue is why are we still promoting that, right? I mean, in the beginning, you could see it. Now we are selling a lot to China. It’s a supply-and-demand business. There’s no doubt about it. When, a few years ago, the supply was increasing, the price was lower, so you could process more stuff. Today, that’s different, and the price is going up and up. That’s why we have to be more innovative, I think, and utilize that natural resource. It’s more sustainable and economically than it is for the fisherman, and for the people who work in the industry in the processing business, and the chefs, and everybody else.
Speaking about sustainability, when I first got into it, one of the things I didn’t understand was why the industry didn’t have a certification from MSC, which is Marine Stewardship Council Sustainability, so I jumped in and started that. It took six years. When I first started out going around talking to groups, and fishermen, and stuff, people would shout me down, literally. I say, “Look, you’re already doing these things. You’re pretty heavily regulated now. You’re already doing this to make it a sustainable product. And look, the catch is going up every year, so the sustainability is good.”
What customers want to know, outside of the state of Maine, if you’re trying to get your products sold to chefs or to anybody else outside of Maine, people want to know. They want to know, number one, where’s their food come from, right? They don’t want it to be a secret. People are aware today of what food is made of, what’s in it, what are the ingredients? What is it really? Where is it coming from? They want to know that. We’ve got the greatest story in the world with Maine lobster of where it comes from. It’s a great story. It not only sells Maine lobster, but it attracts people to Maine for the tourism business, right? I mean that’s what the tourism business is based on.
We sell into retail some retail packages, and I always put my email address and my cell phone number on the back, and people think I’m crazy, but I learn a lot by doing that. People call me from all over the country, and I just answer the phone. I don’t know who it is, I just answer the phone. They think they got the wrong number because it’s not some formal person answering the phone at a company. I say, “No, just tell me.” They always tell me about their experience in Maine and, “How I came to Maine when I was a kid. Oh, I was this. I was that.” They just love Maine. They love the story of Maine. They love eating Maine lobsters because it reminds them of Maine.
We just have the greatest brand in the world, and we just need to fully utilize it, in my opinion. That’s why I didn’t understand why we didn’t have any certification for sustainability, because the other thing people want to know is when they… particularly with seafood, they want to know they’re not harming the fishery, right? You know how many fisheries that have been out there that are no longer, right? People want to know that when they’re voting with their money, and they want to know, “Ho, tell me.” Why not put that little Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on there that tells everybody in Texas, or California, or Florida, or someplace, “Oh, this is a sustainable product. These guys do it right?”
The fisherman have been doing it right, so we finally got through that process and got the certification, which I think has made a significant difference in what the people’s perception of Maine lobster is outside of the state of Maine. Those are just things that I think the industry needs to be doing to really… because the landings are not going to keep going up and up and up, and so we want to maximize the value and the economic sustainability of the fishery. I don’t think we do that by just shipping live lobster to China or wherever for pennies on the dollar, right, I mean, just for small margins.
Lisa Belisle: Are you able to-
John Hathaway: But that’s me. I’m often a lone voice.
Lisa Belisle: It seems they’ve worked out so far for you.
John Hathaway: Yeah, but for industry-wide, I would like to see us go in those directions.
Lisa Belisle: Are you able to use more of the lobster than people traditionally are able to use? I know that if you have… Most people, if you have a lobster, they throw away the little feet things, which-
John Hathaway: Yeah, the legs. Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: The legs. I’m not really-
John Hathaway: We use the legs for stuff, and we have a couple products where we use it. We also sell it to chefs, and people make value-added products with it. In my opinion, what we need to do is… It’s like the lobster roll. You take a few ounces of meat but you add mayo or butter to it or something. You’re increasing that weight. If you use it more as an ingredient, it’ll go a lot further. Lobster mac and cheese is huge now, right? If you do that, then you’re putting a small amount of Maine lobster but a lot of mac and cheese, you’re feeding a lot of people, and they feel great because they are eating Maine lobster, and it increases the value of that product. Those are good examples, I think, of where the industry should be headed. Again, we do that here in Maine, and we create more jobs here in Maine.
Lisa Belisle: You currently have 80 people working in your….
John Hathaway: Yeah. About 75 or 80 people, yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Which is a pretty good number for a small business in Maine.
John Hathaway: I think it is. We have really terrific people and they work very hard. They start at 4:00 in the morning. We used to start at 6:00, and they showed up at 5:30. We started at 5:00, and they showed up at 4:30, so we said, “Okay, 4:00. That’s it.” They work very hard and most of them have been with us for a few years now.
Lisa Belisle: What you’re telling me is something different than what I often hear, which is that smaller businesses sometimes have difficulty finding people to work for them because there seem to be a lot more jobs out there than there once were. You’re saying that you have people who want to work for you. They want to stay with you, and they want to get up at 4:00 in the morning to do it.
John Hathaway: Yeah, I think so. There’s a couple reasons for that. I’d like to think that we treat our people well and consider them to be members of the team. We can’t do it without them. There may be more jobs out there now, but I’ll tell you honestly, my experience is is that a lot of people don’t want to work. We’ve had a lot of people come into our building and they’ll last two days or they don’t really want a job. They want us to sign their paper saying they came to look for a job.
For me, I look at it in terms of opening doors for your life. Okay, do I really think I’m going to be really successful selling Kool-Aid when I’m five years old? No, but hey, I would make… I’d go out into the blueberry fields and, for a day, 6:00 in the morning, we’d come back in the afternoon, I’d make a $1.50. Okay, but it’s a job. I’m learning skills. I see other things. I meet other people. It opens another door. You don’t know what that door is at the end until… It’s like the dollar house story, okay?
It was funny because, when I was in law school, I realized that I’d go and study for exams, I’d be in the library studying, and I’d be reading these real estate books. Why? I don’t know why, but I just was fascinated by it. I didn’t do anything, but then I got to the dollar house and I said, “Oh, now it all makes sense,” right? For a dollar, I opened a door, okay? I mean it wasn’t a great thing, but it was a start. Then I saw, “Oh, here’s another door. I can do this. Oh, guess what? Somebody called me and told me about this. There’s another door I can open.” Pretty soon that’s… You got to get started. You’re on a journey. You want to be happy. You want a happy journey.
I’ve talked a lot in high schools to kids, and I tell them, “Look, take that first step. That’s the most critical step. Whatever your dream is…” I would tell my kids when they were growing up, “Look out the window in school. I want you to look out the window. I don’t care what your teacher says. You look out the window for 5 or 10 minutes every day and just dream. I don’t care what it’s about. Whatever, whatever. Whoever you are, that’s your dream. I don’t care what the teacher says. Then you have to bring that to then have the courage to take that first step to what it is. You may get knocked down, but so what?” I teach my kids it’s not about how many times you fall down. It’s about how many times you get up. That’s what it’s about. You always want to get up one more time than you fall down, and don’t ever quit.
To get back to your question about people who work for us, those are people who don’t quit. They’re trying to open doors. We have a woman who came to Portland with her family from Iraq as a refugee, and she wanted to work. She couldn’t find a job. Somebody brought her to us one day. She worked so hard. Then when the time came, and we have a supervisor, and that supervisor wasn’t working out, I made her supervisor. Everybody said, “You’re crazy. There’s no way that she can do that.” I said, “She works harder than anybody else here. Her heart and soul is in the success of this. You watch.” Today, she manages 25 people, and she does a tremendous job and just works very hard. Now she’s got her citizenship. She wants to buy a house. She’s bought her first car. She’s done things for her family. For her, the dream was, “I have to take my family to Disneyland and the Statue of Liberty.” Now she makes enough money where she can do that. Those are the people I want to surround myself with.
That’s why I try to tell people, or young people, “Take that first step. You don’t know what’s going to happen. Find that passion. Go for it. You’re not going to start at the top.”
Lisa Belisle: Well, I wish you all the best for your ongoing success, and for your kids, and for your wife. I appreciate all the work that you’ve done to bring, I guess, sustainability to the workplace and to the lobster industry here in the state of Maine.
I have been speaking with John Hathaway, who has owned companies all over the world, including a successful real estate development firm. He returned to his home state of Maine to open Shuck’s Maine Lobster, a business that supplies raw lobster meat to international and local chefs. Thank you for coming in today.
John Hathaway: Thank you, Lisa. I enjoyed it.
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Tickets for Maine Live are available now. Maine Live is a day of inspiring talks and stories of grit by the business and creative people shaping the future of our state. Join host Dr. Lisa Belisle and 14 mesmerizing speakers who will inspire conversation and connection. This fifth Maine Live is on Thursday, September 21st at USM’s Hannaford Hall. Go to maineliveevent.com for more information and to purchase your tickets.
Lisa Belisle: My next guest is Fletcher Kittredge, who is the founder and CEO of Maine-based internet service provider GWI. In the last 20 years, GWI has grown to 55 employees and $16 million in annual revenue. Thanks so much for coming in today.
Fletcher Kittredge: Well, thank you so much for having me.
Lisa Belisle: You’ve been doing some very interesting things with your educational background, which includes having a BA in English from Colby and an MS in Computer Science from Harvard. When you started this life that you’ve created, did you think that you would be going in this direction?
Fletcher Kittredge: I certainly, 30 years ago, wouldn’t have anticipated it, but it’s really served me well, and so it’s hard not to advocate for it, because if something works for you, you just assume it works for everyone else. I think I really benefited from getting a liberal arts degree as an undergraduate degree and because of the breadth. The sorts of things I’ve learned, there’s a difference between education and training. Education is teaching you underlying principles and developing skills that are fundamental and really shaping who you are. Then training is giving you specific knowledge to get a task done.
Because the world that I’ve been in is a high-tech world and the evolution and the change is just extraordinary, I’ve really benefited from having that broad liberal arts background. If I just had technical training … The math doesn’t change, and math is one of the few eternal things, but so much of the technical training changes. I know engineers that end up getting, essentially, isolated and marooned if they don’t keep up with their ongoing education, because they miss out on those things, so they either plateau in their career or that sort of stuff. It’s been a real advantage to me to have both, and I think that it’s something that people need.
The other thing that I should say about my graduate degree is it was night school. Actually, it was day school because Harvard doesn’t do night school. I got it over time, one course at a time, while I was working, so it was adult ed. I think that that’s incredibly valuable. It’s just a wonderful way to learn. If you can take something like that, an applied degree, and you’re working in the field at the same time, you get that immediate reinforcement of saying, “Oh, now I understand the principles behind that,” and it really sticks with you. The combination of a liberal arts degree and then ongoing learning, I think, is really valuable.
Lisa Belisle: You moved to Maine from Cambridge, which…
Fletcher Kittredge: Well, I moved back to Maine from Cambridge.
Lisa Belisle: Moved back to Maine. All right, well, tell me a little about your background.
Fletcher Kittredge: My family, or at least some of my ancestors, got here in the 1640s and 1650s to Maine. My family was here for a long time. My branch of the family moved to Ohio around the Civil War, but we always kept ties here, so I used to come back in the summer when I was a little, little kid. Then my father, who was a college professor, was, to some extent, part of the Back to the Land Movement. In ‘75, we moved back to Maine when I was 15, so I did high school here, went to college here, and went down to Cambridge to get a job in the computer industry because, even though I was an English major, computers were kind of getting out into society when I was in college, the first few PCs and that sort of stuff. I got really interested in them and went down to Cambridge to get a job and then to go to school. We were out of state for 11 years and were very happy, but it was just a amazing feeling to be able to move back here. That’s why I started the GWI was to have a job in Maine, and so I achieved that goal, and we’re able to give my kids the advantage of a Maine childhood, which is one of the greatest gifts you can give people.
Lisa Belisle: If your father and, presumably, your mother were behind this Back to the Land Movement, and you decided, “Oh, I’m gonna go back to the city,” how did that go over for them?
Fletcher Kittredge: When I graduated from college, there weren’t a whole lot of jobs around in Maine. There were four of us, and I was the only one who moved back to Maine. Young people leaving Maine is not a new phenomenon. There weren’t a whole lot of options, and I felt like I needed … In fact, to come back, I felt like I needed to make an option for myself, so that’s … I mean, literally, that’s why I started the company is so that I could have a job and live here and have my family here. Fortunately, I married someone whose allegiance to Maine was as strong as I was and has made it very clear she’s not moving now that she’s back here.
Lisa Belisle: This idea of being back to the land, I mean the single largest, I think, idea was that you’re self-sustaining.
Fletcher Kittredge: It is. I should say we were in that culture, but we were… My parents were not farmers. I mean, my mother wishes she was a farmer, and she has a truly extraordinary vegetable garden and orchard, but my father was in construction. He was an architect. He had been teaching architecture and then came up here to become a partner in a company. My mother was a school psychologist, so she worked in the school system. I think one of the things that attracted them to Maine is… You asked me what is my favorite place in Maine. I said, “All of it.”
One of the things that I just absolutely love about Maine, and this may be true of many places and it’s just that I know Maine well, is there’s just all these little subcultures in Maine which are culturally distinct and neat in and of themselves. There is this kind of rural same set of values around the Back to the Land, and they very much fit in that. I grew up in that, raised our kids in that. I went to an alternative school, which is, I think, for me, was the heart of that that no longer exists anymore. My kids went to the school around us, the new school in Kennebunk. I don’t know if you know those, but those sorts of places. So on the edge of that, but no, we did not live in a yurt, and we were not subsistence farmers, but the set of values about trying… Maine’s a deeply conservative state across the political spectrum, and the only difference is what you’re trying to conserve. The allegiance to the environment, and local self-reliance, and those sorts of things were, I think, important values to them.
Lisa Belisle: Well, I guess one of the things I would think about is, if you are attempting to be self-sustaining, then creating your own company to create your own job is actually that.
Fletcher Kittredge: It is. I think that Maine needs more of that. Maine, I think, in general… Those different cultures in Maine create different crosscurrents in how we think as a state. There is, I believe, still out there, some nascent Yankee ingenuity, and particularly in rural communities and fishing and farming communities, there is a sense of self-reliance.
Then there’s this other strain that I think has to do with the fact that we used to be a big manufacturing, and manufacturing got to be big companies rather than people tinkering. There’s that waiting for the big employer or waiting for the government to come in and solve the problem, and it isn’t going to happen. Maine’s problems, Maine has the capability, and it is a requirement we fix them for ourselves because we’re just not going to get the help from other people. The nice thing is, if we fix them by ourselves, if we build this sort of self-reliant economy, then it’s a much more stable environment.
You bring in a big employer, big employers come, but then big employers go. Government programs come and government programs go. If we can build in our own communities self-reliance, a broad-based economy … I think one of the great things about the economy that you see … The economic vitality in the state is, to a large extent, around the arts, and science and technology, and those sorts of things. If you had been watching and you mentioned you had a background… It is just extraordinary the way that that has changed. If you look at where the growth’s coming from, it’s much more broadly based. It’s not a big mill that can shut down, that can grow rapidly and employ thousands, but that can also turn around and lay off thousands. We have the ability to do that.
One of the things that makes me sad is that more people don’t look at starting their own business and starting their own venture, that that’s something that’s actually decaying. It’s unfortunate because one of the things that I’ve learned in the last few years is there’s this incredibly strong support network for entrepreneurship, in the greater Portland area at least, which there didn’t used to be when I started GWI 23 years ago. All these mistakes I made, which were costly and unpleasant, and now I find that there are people to turn to who are willing to help.
I’m on the board of Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, which is kind of the oldest, most senior of the entrepreneurial-type organizations, but that’s not the only one. There are dozens now. There’s Venture Hall. There’s MTI. There are University of Maine, all sorts of things going on. There’s a lot of support for people who are starting companies. It’s a really good thing to do. It’s stressful and it’s a lot of work but, boy, is it worth it. If you get the help, I think your chances of being successful go way, way, way up. That’s one of the things Maine could do. If we started a lot of companies, I think you’d find that we’d have a much better economy.
Lisa Belisle: You brought it up, so I’m going to ask. You talked about mistakes that you made, that they were very costly. Tell me about some of those.
Fletcher Kittredge: Oh, wow. Where to begin? I would say, well, one of the things that I did is I tended to be very isolated when I was starting out. I’m not an outgoing person, and left to my own devices… I mean I like to talk to people about the stuff that interests me, but left to my devices, I’d rather be at home and splitting wood or reading a book. That was not reaching out enough for help.
I also self-financed. I think the biggest part of that is, if you self-finance, that means you don’t have other people who are really interested in what you’re doing because they put money in it and they’re going to watch over your shoulder and give you advice. If I had it to do over again, I would have spent a lot more time going around, meeting people, introducing myself, telling them what I was trying to do, kind of essentially asking for help. I really, really tried to do too much myself. I really would have benefited from engaging with other people early on. That’s, I’d say, my biggest mistake, and lots and lots of little mistakes fall out of that. The other thing was not really… If you’re just one person, you just can’t get that much done. I mean there’s a real limit. If you get together a group of interested people, then it’s much easier.
Lisa Belisle: How do you think that we can get people past the point of fear and to the point of forming their own businesses? I do believe you are correct that there is this idea that we should wait for somebody who’s going to employ us because that is “stability.” Having worked in Maine myself for many years, I have seen that things change. The Navy pulled out of Brunswick, so even though I still have military patients, there’s a lot fewer of them going up there, and that was something that nobody foresaw.
Fletcher Kittredge: Well, I think it’s a really important question. Unfortunately, the natural response that comes to me is to start out telling people they should be more afraid. The world is changing. It’s going to continue to change. If anything, the rate of change is going to increase because one of the reasons is change is technology. The more and more technology we have, the more and more we can speed up the rate of change, the more that we can instantly share ideas. The more rapid things change, the more that companies can instantly bring out new products. The more technology allows new business models to come along and destroy old business models, creative destruction. Change is going to be constant. I believe the way to deal with it and happiness is to take charge of the change and not be the stick being swept down the stream, but really figure out, start thinking about the future. Start thinking about actively taking control. The future is not going to be like today. What do you want to be? Where do you want to be? Those sorts of things. Then start taking charge of yourself.
There’s no way any of us can avoid, unless we just end up in a very bad place, continually educate ourselves, because the jobs we have are going to change. As someone who’s eyeing 60 from a pretty close range and have friends that age, the last thing you want to be is reaching a point where you’re in your early 60s and the world has changed in such a way that your job isn’t needed anymore, and you’re in your early 60s trying to find something new, because I promise age discrimination is very real. I don’t know anybody who’s managed just to avoid it. You want to be in that situation, and the way to do it is keep educating yourself. You got to push yourself. It may not be what you want to do. I know that I have to push myself, “Oh, I don’t really feel like reading this. I better.” That’s a conversation I have in my head every single day.
I think the first step is to do that, and then treat yourself like you’re a celebrity and work on your brand, and that is making sure that you’re doing these things and you have a way of demonstrating to the world, through credentials or whatever, that you’re doing these things. If you’re doing that and you’re thinking about yourself that way, and you should always be thinking of yourself as a solo practitioner because you probably are, I think then it’s a step from that to saying, “Okay. I’m thinking about the future. I’m seeing these opportunities. I’m getting myself ready for the opportunities, and maybe part of that is starting a business.”
Then the other thing I’d say is, don’t make the mistake I did. Absolutely, positively reach out to other people. The idea of the heroic founder that starts a company and is the person who does it… It’s got to be a team or group of people because no person has all the… When you’re small, you need to do all these different things. You need to be your own HR. You need to be your own finance person. You need to be your own product person. You need to be your own marketer and all those things. No one can do all those things and do a good job of it, so you got to find other people and, working with them, come up with a common vision, or find someone who has the vision and you want to be on their team. The most important part of it is whether you can trust them. Find people that can trust you and you can trust.
Use the organizations. Use the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Top Gun Program or all that… There are dozens of different… Start Up and Create Week, and Venture Hall, and all sorts of things. If you want to start a business, if you reach out for it and look for it, you’re going to get a lot of help, a lot of very valuable help that you would pay large amounts of money for, and by and large, you can either get it really cheap or free because starting businesses is so important to society.
I’d say pay attention to yourself and who you are. Realize the world is changing and start to figure out how you think it’s going to change. A lot of these things, you can predict the future. Then start to look for like-minded people. Remember that, as much as you may not like it, you’re a brand, and think about your brand.
Lisa Belisle: Well, it’s interesting to hear you talk about some of these things that I ponder a lot because… Well, for example, in medicine, technology is enabling us to do really wonderful things. I mean we really have done a lot with what we have to offer our patients, and yet… I’m probably going to get myself in trouble by saying this, but I’ve been in this field a long time, so I feel like I can say this… and yet there’s enough people who are very well educated who want to know what they know, are willing to learn a little bit more about medicine, but don’t really want to do anything that’s going to move them out of their safe space. It’s hard. I think it makes it really hard because there’s so much more that could be accomplished if people were a little bit more open to thinking in a broader way.
Fletcher Kittredge: I completely agree, if I understand what you’re saying. It’s hard not to settle into a safe space. I think it’s absolutely human nature. I know that I do it, but I also know there is no safe space. The world is changing enough so that you need to push yourself. That’s true on so many different levels. I mean I think it’s true mentally and professionally in what you do with your job but also as you age. As my mother would say is… I think a lot of people say aging isn’t for sissies, and you have to become an athlete is you’re going to… and the difference of quality of life you’re going to have if you do that or if you don’t is profound. There is no safety in standing still. The safe place is an illusion, to some extent. You need to keep moving. I think that that’s certainly true. I’m not sure if that’s what you’re saying.
If you’re learning and you’re educating yourself, there’s no better way to learn, educate than educate yourself about yourself, how people think, how you think, the health aspects. I must admit, as a computer science person, I find medical science very frustrating because it’s so inexact and it seems to move in fits and starts and a lot of false starts. Keeping up on those sorts of things, I think, is important.
Lisa Belisle: I agree with you. I think it’s interesting to me… I keep using the word interesting because I don’t want to say challenging or frustrating, I guess. I want to keep this in a positive way. There’s this weird thing that I think that many people go into life with, which is that, “I’m going to get a certain amount of experience, education, I don’t know, academic degrees, whatever it is, and then I’m good. I’m good, and this is going to be all I need to be the rest of my life,” or they’re just going to burrow down and then… and that’s crazy.
Fletcher Kittredge: That might have been the world we grew up in, but it isn’t the world in which we live, and every day it’s getting more and more wrong. I think you set yourself up for profound disappointment because the rules are changing and if you play by the old set of rules, you’re going to end up really disappointed and maybe bitter because you did the things that you thought you were supposed to do and found out they didn’t result in the results. A bunch of that is stuff that we can’t change. I mean we might, through politics, try to organize society in such a way that you could hold … but since it’s being driven by technology… We can stop using the technology, but even if we, as an entire country, stopped, tried to deliberately slow down the pace of technology, if the rest of the world is doing it, it’s going to overlap onto us anyhow. I don’t see how you could stop that. If that’s happening, it’s worth paying attention to.
When I talk about thinking about how you think, one of the things is the way you think about the future. I know this is hard because it’s hard for me, and it’s something that I actually find exciting and interesting, but it’s just so hard to visualize. Our minds think that tomorrow will be like today, but it’s not going to be that way. How can we pay attention to how it might be different? I think, more than people realize, you can predict what the changes are going to be.
I’m holding up an iPhone now, which is pretty amazing. When I grew up in the woods of Arundel, Maine, to say I’d be carrying around something that holds the sum stores of human knowledge, it’s just an extraordinary amount of information. It’s not really in there, but it’s available to me through the network connection. It was ultimately predictable, particularly if you look back a few years. I mean self-driving cars. There’s going to be a lot of pain and suffering between here and there, a lot more than people realize, I think. It’s going to be a bumpy, bumpy road, to use the wrong metaphor, but it’s going to happen. How will that change things?
You can see the way the nature of jobs through automation and robots are going to change. You can see that there are certain things that probably won’t. It will become of greater value, anything that’s human, anything that’s creative, empathy, people skills. If you look at medical professions, certain things … probably, radiology doesn’t have a very good shelf life because that’s stuff that we think of as intense and needs a lot of intelligence but actually could be done by a computer ultimately.
Lisa Belisle: Well, this has been a fascinating conversation.
Fletcher Kittredge: Thank you.
Lisa Belisle: I appreciate your taking time out of your very busy schedule. I’ve been speaking with Fletcher Kittredge, who is the founder and CEO of Maine-based internet service provider GWI. Keep up the good work.
Fletcher Kittredge: Thank you.
Lisa Belisle: You have been listening to Love Maine Radio, Show Number 313. Our guests have included John Hathaway and Fletcher Kittredge. For more information on our guests and extended interviews, visit lovemaineradio.com. Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week’s show, sign up for our e-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter as doctorlisa, and see our Love Main Radio photos on Instagram. Please let us know what you think of Love Maine Radio. We welcome your suggestions for future shows. Also, let our sponsors know that you have heard about them here. We are privileged that they enable us to bring Love Maine Radio to you each week. This is Dr. Lisa Belisle. Thank you for sharing this part of your day with me. May you have a bountiful life.
Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is brought to you by Maine Magazine, Aristelle, Portland Art Gallery, and Art Collector Maine. Audio production and original music are by Spencer Albee. Our editorial producers are Paul Koenig and Brittany Cost. Our assistant producer is Shelbi Wassick. Our community development manager is Casey Lovejoy, and our executive producers are Kevin Thomas, Rebecca Falzano, and Dr. Lisa Belisle. For more information on our production team, Maine Magazine, or any of the guests featured here today, please visit us at lovemaineradio.com.