Top Gun program accelerates Maine entrepreneurs

PrintBefore Chris Roberts opened the doors to his new business in downtown Bangor, The Juice Cellar, he spent months in the Top Gun program.

No, Roberts wasn’t being transported back to the ’80s box office hit. He was part of a program to accelerate and grow Maine entrepreneurial ventures through a combination of networking, mentoring and education.

When asked why he decided to participate in the program, Roberts replied, “Learning never stops and Top Gun helps you figure out if your next big idea has merit and you should run with it, or if it doesn’t and you should take a step back and re-evaluate.”

For Roberts, who already operated a Belfast location, the program helped him figure out the best way to expand his business. He entered the program with the idea that he might franchise his operation.

“Top Gun helped me come to the conclusion that franchising was not the right fit for how I wanted to see my business succeed,” Roberts said.

This led to his decision to open a second location in downtown Bangor.

A partnership among the University of Maine, Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development and Blackstone Accelerates Growth Initiative, the program began in Portland in 2009 and has graduated 60 Maine companies to date.

Top Gun Maine is being offered in Orono, Rockland and Portland. University of Maine’s Jesse Moriarity and Jennifer Hooper, who manage the Orono program, along with Dr. Jason Harkins from UMaine’s Business School encourage business owners to apply for the program if they want to grow, are coachable and are looking for help to take their business to the next level.

“Common areas of interest are learning how to better market themselves, expand distribution, add a location, raise capital, hire employees, and balance their business with their life”, says Hooper.

The program also teaches participants how to “pitch” their business.

“Pitching is a big part of Top Gun,” Moriarity stressed.

Learning how to talk about your business with confidence in front of members of the public, media and potential investors can lead to opportunities for continued exposure, mentoring relationships and investment capital.

In June, Top Gun businesses will have the opportunity to “pitch” and win $10,000.   Moriarity says that past “Top Gunners” have had success winning pitch competitions.

Jessica Jewell, who co-owns Twenty 2 Vodka, participated in the Top Gun program in 2014 and subsequently won a related pitch competition.

Describing her experience she says, “Top Gun opened the door to many speaking, publicity and networking opportunities that we wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise.”

Jessica Jewell

Jessica Jewell

In addition, Jewell found the support from everyone who was part of the program to be invaluable.

“Just knowing there is a group of people out there who genuinely want to see all of these small businesses succeed is very humbling and motivating at the same time,” Jewell said.

Mentors are integral to the Top Gun program.  Participating businesses are matched with mentors who have expertise and experience in areas that the participating businesses need.  Moriarity and Hooper work with the participating businesses to identify their particular needs and connect them to the right people to help them move their business forward.

The 2015 Top Gun Orono class recently started meeting and includes 12 businesses representing a range of sectors from high tech to specialty foods to consumer products. They will meet twice a month for the next five months.

Jewell says while it may be difficult to take time out of your business and life to go through the Top Gun program, “One of the best things you can do for your business is get away from your ‘shop’ and interact with fellow entrepreneurs. The lessons from the ‘war stories’ the group shares are incredibly valuable learning experiences. This is the kind of education you can’t find in a classroom, but is necessary to run a successful business. Top Gun is truly ‘chicken soup’ for the entrepreneur’s soul.”

To learn more about the Top Gun program and how to apply visit


Deb Neuman

About Deb Neuman

Deb thinks Maine is a great place to do business and loves telling the stories of Mainers proving that it can be done! An entrepreneur at heart, she enjoys helping others with the same drive to create and innovate!