Amanda O’Brien’s biggest challenge used to be convincing people that good wine can spring from rhubarb as well as from grapes.

If people stopped by the East Bayside tasting room of Eighteen Twenty Wines to sample the offerings from O’Brien’s small winery, their taste buds did the convincing for them. Problem is, the state closed tasting rooms in late March along with dine-in restaurants and bars to help fight the spread of coronavirus.

O’Brien’s 5-year-old business is one of many in Maine whose revenues rely on close social interactions that may not be possible for weeks or months to come. Some have thrown in the towel. Others are waiting to see if they can reopen this summer with a balancing act of thorough disinfecting and social distancing.

Still more, like Eighteen Twenty Wines, have transformed operations, often with the help and guidance of a business mentor such as Sarah Guerette.

For a small business entrepreneur, having a mentor can be invaluable. That’s in normal times. When a pandemic has upended the world, a mentor can become more than a business adviser.

“She’s turned into more of a therapist,” O’Brien said.

Over the past two months, Eighteen Twenty pivoted away from the old model by enhancing its website and connecting with Mill Cove Baking and The Cheese Shop of Portland to offer paired wine, cheese and cracker combinations for curbside pickup or home delivery.

Not only did customers order the trio for themselves, but they began gifting them for birthday or anniversary celebrations. A few folks sent the goodies to several friends and set up a Zoom call so they could have a virtual tasting party.

The upshot is that O’Brien didn’t simply keep afloat, she somehow managed a 7 percent sales increase in March and April over the same stretch last year. While O’Brien was scrambling, Guerette served as both sounding board and filter for the various government bailouts and loan-adjustment possibilities that offered potential lifelines to small businesses.

Amanda O’Brien turned to a mentor, Sarah Guerrette, as she transformed the operation of her Eighteen Twenty Wines in response to the coronavirus pandemic. In March and April, O’Brien had a 7 percent sales increase over the same stretch last year. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“That alone would be a full-time job,” O’Brien said. “They have a lot of information and different resources. She also has a great, great network.”

Guerette leads the Women’s Business Center at Coastal Enterprises Inc., more commonly known as CEI and Maine’s first community development financial institution. CEI works in an advisory capacity with more than a thousand of the state’s small businesses, about 400 of which have CEI loans that range from $10,000 to more than $1 million.

In a typical year, CEI conducts about 1,100 coaching or advisory sessions with small-business owners. In the past two months alone, there have been more than 2,000 sessions.

“It’s been highly compressed and highly intensive,” said Betsy Biemann, CEI’s chief executive. “These are small business people who are under a great deal of stress. There are a lot of tears, a lot of anxiety. They might have been about to expand their business and now they’ve having to pivot and just survive.”

Guerette, who has been with CEI for six years, said the first wave of pandemic-related consultations she had with entrepreneurs focused on crisis control, on deciding whether a business could remain open or needed to shut down. The second wave delved more into changing what they sell or how they sell it.

“We have a very resilient small-business community here in Maine of folks who are leaning on each other and sharing expertise and trying to help each other figure it out,” Guerette said. “They also support each other by buying each other’s products. All that sharing of information and resources, I don’t know that that’s happening everywhere.”

Currently, small businesses in Maine have $49 million in loans with CEI, which gets some of its funding from the U.S. Treasury in order to serve low-income, rural and urban borrowers who may not qualify for traditional financing.

“Really, what we’re trying to do is make the economy work better for everyone,” Biemann said. “If you’re a first-time entrepreneur with not much credit history, you might go to a bank and get turned down. But if you came to CEI, we might be able to help you.”

RETOOLING FOR SUCCESS

Another avenue of support for entrepreneurs is SCORE (initially an acronym for the Service Corps of Retired Executives), which, like CEI, provides free and confidential business mentoring.

Nate Barr, founder of Zootility Tools in Portland, had been checking in with SCORE mentor Nancy Strojny every four to six weeks as he ran a design-driven manufacturing company that specializes in multi-tools thin enough to slip into a pocket. Then, in the middle of March, revenue dropped by 95 percent in one week.

Nate Barr of Zootility shows how the Portland manufacturing company’s new product Careful Key works on a screen Friday. Zootility is one of many Maine businesses that have changed their operations with help from mentors to remain viable. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Barr looked at what the virus had done to China and figured things wouldn’t bounce back quickly. He furloughed eight of Zootility’s 15 employees immediately, then another three. While reading an online post about personal protective equipment that could made with a 3-D printer, he got the idea for a mostly copper antimicrobial gadget that could fit on a key chain and be used in lieu of fingers or hands on high-touch surfaces such as keypads, elevator buttons and door handles.

Initially he called it a Covid Key, but the buyer for a hardware store didn’t like the name, so it became the Careful Key. As with other product launches, Barr’s team put together a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of raising $2,000 over a 10-day period starting in late April.

Nate Barr of Zootility holds two models of the Careful Key. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Instead, backers pledged more than $16,000. Barr was able to hire back six workers and last week shipped 10,000 units. With a high-tech laser cutter, Zootility can produce a Careful Key in less than 10 seconds, compared with the two-plus hours a 3-D printer would take for something similar. The company is currently cranking out 2,000 units a day.

“As of April it seemed like all the plans we had for the year were falling apart,” he said. “I kept telling people, ‘Don’t worry about the problems of a week from now or a month from now – let’s just solve the problems of today.'”

Throughout this tumultuous time, Barr and Strojny have had weekly conversations.

“It’s hard to process everything yourself,” Barr said. “She would help to sanity-check and point out resources that another group has found helpful. She’s able to be this invaluable connector between businesses.”

SCORE has seven locations in Maine and says it helped start 356 new businesses in 2019, resulting in 923 new jobs.

Both SCORE and CEI collaborate with other agencies that can provide support, either logistical or financial, to small businesses. For example, because CEI works with many small farms, it was able to secure a $100,000 grant from the Boston-based Henry P. Kendall Foundation that covers principal and interest payments for May, June and July for farms with active CEI loans.

Bumbleroot Farm of South Windham is among those operations, which are located in 11 of Maine’s 16 counties. Ben Whalen and his wife, Melissa Law, have three CEI loans: a mortgage for the property, an operating loan and another taken out in February to replace a barn roof.

“Our relationship with CEI from the beginning has always felt more like a partnership with them than a lender-lendee,” Whalen said. “When we talk with them, they really want us to succeed, and that feels really nice.”

Bumbleroot grows a variety of vegetables and flowers on 7 acres and normally earmarks a third of its produce directly to chefs and restaurants, a third to farmers markets and a third to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. This spring, given the uncertainty, Bumbleroot expanded its CSA shares from 125 to 160.

“And even with that increase,” Whalen said, “we sold out faster than we ever have before.”

Challenges still remain. It’s hard to project when restaurants will reopen and what demand will be like. Law handles all website development duties, and she had to create an online ordering service over the past few weeks that incorporates contactless pickups at the farm. Managing all the orders and emails requires labor that had not been planned.

Another new labor need is childcare. Whalen and Law have a 3-month-old baby, and business partners Jeff and Abby Fisher have a 2-year-old. When local childcare options evaporated, the parents realized they wouldn’t be able to work as many hours on the farm, so Bumbleroot hired a full-time employee earlier than originally planned and will have to do likewise with part-timers.

Whalen expressed gratitude for all the coaching and guidance from Guerette, CEI agricultural specialist Gray Harris and loan officer Mark Jennings.

“We’ve grown as business owners,” Whalen said. “Even with all the uncertainty that’s happening now, we feel like we have the tools in our tool belt to weather this as best we can.”

SOME PLAYING IT BY EAR

Not every small business owner has figured out a way to navigate through the shoals of uncertainty, and some undoubtedly will go under. Others continue to forge ahead without a clear map.

Kate Beever, who works with CEI’s Guerette, had been planning to celebrate the 10th anniversary of her Maine Music & Health business with a fundraising concert, but that’s not happening in the current environment.

A musical therapy pioneer, Beever typically works in day programs and group homes for people with disabilities, and visits hospitals and cancer centers, all of which require face-to-face contact. None of it, for heath reasons, is currently allowed.

Even putting aside the actual work, simply getting in touch with her clients has been difficult because of Beever’s status as a contract employee.

“I have tried to move some people online,” she said. “I’m doing a few sessions over Zoom, and that’s really interesting.”

Although the popular web-based service may work well for meetings, Zoom is not so great at assisting musical collaboration in an improvisational way. When Beever works with folks with disabilities and little or no musical training, she tries to follow whatever sounds they make and shape them into music.

“The problem with that,” she said, “is that it’s impossible to (create) simultaneous music-making because of the delay. I haven’t found a technological solution.”

Instead, she’s been making short videos of music therapy exercises people can do on their own for stress relief and self care. Hospital workers have found such morning musical sessions helpful, she said. She’s also begun offering to record songs with personalized lyrics for sending to loved ones.

While Beever focused on continuing her work without a revenue stream, Guerette was able to help her successfully apply for a forgivable loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program. If clients are unable to change funding models or reopen their doors, Beever is facing an ever more uncertain future.

“I’m certainly an optimist, but I’m also very realistic,” she said. “Life is going to be different from here on out. I think creative workers and people in the arts are very well-suited to adapt to this sort of thing, because we’re always working independently and figuring out how to make ends meet.”

About 70 of CEI’s roughly 400 borrowers have microloans from the U.S. Small Business Administration, which has a program that pays principal and interest for six months. Aside from the farms helped by the Kendall Foundation grant, most of the other small businesses with CEI loans have been offered five months of interest-only payments to help provide a bridge to what is hoped will be a better economic environment.

Biemann, the CEO, said her organization provides an important pillar of support for some of the state’s most vulnerable small businesses, which are often led by women or minorities.

“I think we all want to have an economy that works for everybody in Maine,” she said. “In a period of extreme stress like this, unless we have folks who are focused on working with those companies, we’ll end up with a less equitable economy a year or two from now.”

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