Bixby Chocolate founder Kate McAleer talks about winning competitions — and customers

Bixby Chocolate founder Kate McAleer talks about winning competitions — and customers

By Catie Joyce-Bulay for Maine Biz


In 2011, Kate McAleer had a great idea: break into the organic foods market with a good-for-you candy bar, a sector of the exploding industry that hadn’t yet been tapped.

Not all great ideas for startups succeed, but hers did.

Within her first year of business, she had a contract with Whole Foods. A decade later Bixby’s artisanal chocolate products are now in Hannaford, Walmart, TJ Maxx and L.L.Bean.

McAleer plans to open a café in the planned Paul J. Schupf Art Center, slated to open by year’s end in downtown Waterville.

What may have set McAleer apart from the startup crowd was how she leveraged any support she could find, ranging from city economic development directors to small business networking groups to fellowships with major foundations.

McAleer says these competitions and fellowships helped shape her into the entrepreneur she is today.

“I know how to pitch my story effectively and I keep these networking communities close to me as we can all relate and enjoy seeing each other’s successes,” she says.

McAleer was the 2014 winner of the Gorham Savings Bank Launchpad competition, landing a $30,000 grant. She used the funds to invest in equipment to help prepare for a national launch. She went through the Maine Center for Entrepreneurs’ Top Gun program from 2015 to 2016. Also in 2016, she won a fellowship at the New York-based Tory Burch Foundation, then won the foundation’s $100,000 pitch competition. And she was last year’s $25,000 Greenlight Maine Grand Prize winner.

She recently sat down with Mainebiz to share what she’s learned from these competitions and tips on how to succeed in them.

Bixby Chocolate products are sold in a range of retail destinations, including the company’s Rockland headquarters.

Use all available resources

Bixby Chocolate, named after McAleer’s great-great-grandparents, started in upstate New York, but, since her parents wanted to retire to Maine, she joined them and took the company with her after a year and a half in business. Before making the move, McAleer researched Maine’s economic development climate and said she was impressed by the state’s startup community. She sat down with the economic development coordinator of Rockland, where her chocolate factory is now based, and learned about some of the programs the state has to offer, and has since met with others throughout the state, like the director of the Central Maine Growth Council, which helped connect her to the Waterville community, where Bixby’s new café will be based.

“It’s amazing to see the support Maine has given to small businesses and the economic development directors were certainly a big part of building mine,” says McAleer.

Along with a lot of late-night online research, McAleer says that networking and navigating through the ecosystem, constantly jumping off one suggestion to the next, is how she discovered opportunities for startup supports like the Maine Technology Institute and Coastal Enterprises Inc’s women’s business coach, SCORE business mentors, and the Maine Manufacturing Extension Partnership, who helped scale Bixby’s manufacturing processes.

“I really thought to myself, if there are all these programs, I want to utilize them,” she says. “Because there are a lot of unknowns you want to try to get the known to.”

Be curious

McAleer knew from the start she would need these resources to make her business work and she credits this to her relentless need to get answers. She advises startup leaders to be curious.

She says trying to get all her questions answered helped mitigate the risks involved in starting a business.

Not only is she always on the lookout for new opportunities, signing up for listservs and keeping her ears open, asking mentors and networking, McAleer always passes along information about opportunities to others she thinks might benefit from them.

“These resources are pretty amazing,” says McAleer. “And I’m astonished how many people don’t know about them.”

Know your ‘Why’

McAleer has had the opportunity to pitch her business to a variety of different venues and funders and she says nailing down her “why” very clearly and distinctly from the start was critical.

“Why does your product or service matter?” she says. “I think a lot of people have a hard time articulating succinctly what exactly it is they do. In essence that’s the whole concept of a pitch program — explaining why it matters, why they should give you the money.”

Having a clear reason for a startup is key to differentiating your business and establishing connection to the brand, and allows potential funders to see the potential for growth and opportunity that your business can ultimately create.

Be persistent, positive and polite

“I think a lot of people think I’ve gotten everything I’ve applied for. That is not the case,” she says with a chuckle. And while she likes to focus on the “yes” over the “no” she says it is also important to learn from mistakes and see how you can do better next time.

If you don’t get in somewhere on the first try, reapply, she says. Being politely persistent is an important skillset for an entrepreneur.

“Since you are asking people for things, politeness goes a long way,” she says.

“I thought LaunchPad back in the day was an extreme longshot and I was really nervous and really conscientious,” she says, adding she did a lot of prep with her CEI women’s business coach to get more comfortable. “I think that’s another thing when you’re pitching, to just try and really get your comfort zone more in check.”

You do have time

McAleer admits that researching, applying to and preparing for competitions takes a lot of time, but if you put in the hours, it will be time well spent.

Her best advice is to try all the programs and see what fits.

“I think you have to use all those tools and resources and put the time in,” she says. “Everyone complains about not having time, but think of all the time you’re going to save by using those resources.”