Community Response

I’ve been thinking a lot about community these days are and what community means to different people. We all crave a sense of community through shared emotional or spiritual connections (McMillan & Chavis 1986). But community cannot be easily replicated -- there must easily be a sense of trust and belonging. I saw that last week at the Portland Trails 15x15 annual meeting, I see it daily at the dog park with the other dog owners, I feel it in my car listening to podcasts.  How do we create a sense of community that makes it easier for us to reach out to one another to let each other know that we are struggling in the most intimate parts of our lives? How do you trust those that you haven’t met? What do you do to make the claim of “I belong. I’m a member.”

For me: Sauna is my community. On late Saturday afternoons, I escape from the city and slip into a hidden sauna oasis in the backwoods near Bradbury Mountain State Park. These are people I’ve come to love and trust who support each other, regardless of age, ethos, gender, sexual orientation, or class. When I see the candle lit in the window, I feel at home.

Through the Sauna Survey, I’ve been asking some of you to describe your community. Here are a few of your responses:

  • People who want to make the world a better place

  • …growing their own personal selves while sharing and teaching their experiences and values with the rest of us.

  • I seek a kind, supportive, inspiring, and open-minded tribe to embrace as “my community.”

  • They are my community because they are positive and supportive of meaningful ways to treat people with love and respect. They inspire me to create and bring beauty to the world while at the same time sharing in the day to day struggles of humankind.

And so … the Little Red Sauna building has begun, with wupport and love to the community that is bringing it to life:  Mat O’Brien (Owner of O’Brien Wood & Iron LLC) and his team of artists are transforming Little Red from two-stall horse trailer into a sauna.  No sneak peeks just yet, but you can see the progress on our Instagram.

Survey & Customer discovery interviews

Like most entrepreneurs, I have a million ideas going around in my head every day -- ways to run the sauna for my own friends and their children, or how to throw a kick-ass party that both entrepreneurs and academics would enjoy.  In the beginning, some of these wild ideas were already established competitive products in the New England market; some of these ideas were so outlandish I couldn’t get a single person on board (like my FreeHugger App idea ... aka group hugs on demand). Last year for the mobile sauna, I did a preliminary survey for the transition from ideation to validation.

Fast forward a year as we close in on the YET TO BE ANNOUNCED startup launch day, I really needed to figure out what I’m going ask potential customers to help create "community buy-in" and the type of environment that would thrive in Maine. Even though I’m a native Mainer, performing rounds of customer discovery interviews to learn about your own community is not always easy. Tell us about the last time you went to a sauna. Tell us about your sauna experience. Tell us about your community. Why is that? Why is that? Why is that? Why is that?

I have been asking lots of awkward questions in interviewing people: talking about their emotions, digging into the “why” of Maine sauna culture, explaining to newbs what a sauna actually is in the first place, talking about nudity and cultural norms. I’ve been asking for stories and listening to the good, bad and ugly sauna experiences.  

It’s hard to do - but we’ve already got a nice community around us. A big, big thank you to Coffee By Design owner Mary Allen Lindemann for helping us conduct the interviews over the last few weeks and to Kim Koehler and Jim Britt for support and incentive advice. LRS project was lucky to be featured on facebook.

A long post to say: fill out the survey by April 30 and be entered into a chance to win a mobile sauna rental experience:

Little Red Sauna & Top Gun
Sauna trailer, as purchased in March 2018.

Sauna trailer, as purchased in March 2018.

For the last year, I‘ve been working with great mentors from Portland SCORE to get the Little Red Sauna rolling. (Super thanks for the patience of Hank McCaffrey!) As a Maine-based entrepreneur looking to grow my business, I was thrilled to jump at the chance to apply and be accepted into Top Gun Maine. (Thanks to Maddie Purcell, founder of Fyood Kitchen in Portland for encouraging me to apply.)

Top Gun, a state-wide selective business incubator run by the Maine Center for Entrepreneurs (MCE), is designed to accelerate entrepreneurial development with coaching and mentorship. Laurie Johnson, the Top Gun Program Manager, runs an organized and efficient five-month schedule. Since 2009, 83 companies have been through the program, and 90% of them are still active. This year a record 47 companies were selected. Ten of them are in the 2019 Top Gun Portland cohort.

Every week we get together for dinner. We practice our pitches, discuss strategies in marketing and fundrasing, and collaborate with other entrepreneurs. We have homework and meetings with our mentors during the week. Some of the start-ups are pre-revenue and are just getting off the ground like Little Red Sauna -- their energy and excitement are the most palatable. Other companies already have branding, loyal customers, and are looking to expand their business. The Portland group includes wonderful businesses including Tiny Homes of Maine, Bartlett Yarns, and Sticky Sweet. I love seeing many of the women-owned companies! (Shout out to Kim Koehler who has the dual role of being my business coach and working for MCE.)

By the end of the program, we will all give our pitch to an audience of business owners, investors, entrepreneurs, and the media at a regional pitch competition that will generate state semifinalists for the final MCE annual Top Gun Showcase in Portland. Both Maine Technology Institute and biotech entrepreneur David Shaw are providing a $25,000 prize. Which Top Gun finalist will win $25k in June?