Vermont is known more for syrup and ski hills than technological innovations. But recent entrepreneurial successes (Ben and Jerry, Dealer.com, anyone?), and an influx of entrepreneurs means that though the Green Mountain state is far from Silicon Valley in miles, it’s a lot closer in spirit. Money, ideas, and the desire to connect those two things has become an important and vibrant part of Vermont’s economic future. With a groundswell of financing, networking opportunities, and government and educational support, it’s a good time to be an entrepreneur in our state.
Cairn Cross is the fairy godfather of Vermont entrepreneurs; his FreshTracks Capital venture capital firm focuses almost solely on Vermont businesses, and has invested in many well-known companies including Eating Well and Vermont Teddy Bear. His annual summer Road Pitch puts investors on their motorcycles, and a winter version, Peak Pitch, brings the classic elevator pitch outside to the ski lift. Cross is also one of the founders of StartupVT, which connects entrepreneurs with local mentors, potential backers, and peers who might be able to share their own knowledge and experiences.
Cross knows his startups. “Things are different and more positive today than they have been in my whole career,” he says.
Technology enables businesses to get started without millions of dollars up front, and products and services can be tested in the market a lot easier than they used to be. “You can be a lot more capital efficient,” Cross says. “Twenty years ago, if I saw a business plan for a software startup venture, generally the company was looking for millions of dollars and would have to hire dozens of programmers and take multiple years to develop a product.”
Now the financial risk is smaller for investors, and the intense pressure isn’t on entrepreneurs to make those millions pay off, he says.
Citing Green Mountain coffee and Burton snowboards as perfect examples of recent trends in entrepreneurship and startups in Vermont, Cross explained that they didn’t improve on something that already existed, they changed the way a product or service was delivered to consumers. “I think Vermont has always been particularly good at that,” he says.
So how does a Vermonter who wants to run a startup actually start it up? Charlie Nagelschmidt, professor of Management and Entrepreneurship at Champlain College, is a member of the StartupVT advisory council. He regularly meets and advises budding businesspeople. He says that though much is made of having a “passion,” that only takes an entrepreneur so far.
“I believe that passion is better described as timing, location, persistence and focus plus that all important a little bit of luck,” he says.
He also says that focus shouldn’t lead to inflexibility. “Believe in yourself, but don’t be close-minded to feedback from customers and mentors,” he says.
Nagelschmidt also shares his expertise and advice through BYOBiz, a startup incubator that he co-founded for students at Champlain College. Vermont is unique because here, “everyone is approachable and they want startups to succeed,” he says. “People make time for each other and people seem to be very willing to help the new entrepreneur with time and advice.”
This, he says, “provides a very dedicated ecosystem for emerging businesses.”
This ecosystem is supported on a state level, too. Linda Rossi, the state director of the Vermont Small Business Development Center, is also a StartupVT advisor. Her center offers free advice and guidance to those both starting a business and those who are already up and running. “We have seen the difference between those doing it alone, or those who start and grow within the support of the ecosystem or ‘network’ of mentors, and peers,” she says.
Chris Patton is the founder and CEO of Punchpass, an online business solution that enables users – like yoga teachers, fitness studios, or doggie daycares – to manage everything from online class registration to client communication to financial reports. His business got a huge jumpstart earlier this year when he came in second place in the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce’s annual LaunchVT competition, which awarded him $15,000. The pitch competition aims to give startups in their early stages education, financial support, and exposure that they might not be able to secure on their own.
Patton says that though there can be uniquely Vermont-related challenges for a more tech-based startup, like the smaller in-state hiring pool, for instance, the benefit is that “everybody just has more of a Vermont-y attitude about everything.”
As the winner of the LaunchVT competition, he benefitted from the local support offered to entrepreneurs, and is now approaching some networking events from a different perspective. He says, “If I had to hire a developer I would prefer to hire someone local, and going to those meetings is one way to make that happen.”
Vermont may not have been the first choice for an entrepreneur or a tech startup a decade ago, but technology has brought the rest of the world closer. After success stories like Dealer.com, MyWebGrocer, and the booming craft beer industry, the state’s appeal to entrepreneurs is growing, and the support system offered with varied entrepreneur networks means that starting and growing a business here is a great option for anyone with a great idea and that “Vermont-y” attitude.
Fresh Tracks Capital Peak Pitch Vermont, founded in 2006, is a skiing, networking and pitching event organized on the slopes in March each year. Entrepreneurs seize the opportunity to deliver their “elevator pitch” to investors while riding the chairlift throughout the morning, after which everyone meets for a networking luncheon and a “pitch off” in the afternoon. There is a limit of 150 people and registration is required ahead of time.
Peak Pitch fun facts:
Each investor and advisor gets 3 million “peak pitch” dollars to invest in the pitch or pitches they like most.
The entrepreneurs bring their peak pitch dollars into the lodge and give them to the office manager who keeps a tally. The top five money winners get to pitch to the entire crowd in the lodge after lunch.
FreshTracks has invested in 7 companies that have pitched at Peak Pitch (Mamava is the latest example). Peak Pitch offers a substantial opportunity for entrepreneurs to begin to build a relationship with Fresh Tracks and other investor/advisors or to expand and deepen their existing relationships.
A few entrepreneurs have learned to ski or board specifically so they can pitch at peak pitch.
For more information about this year’s Peak Pitch visit http://www.freshtrackscap.com/event/peak-pitch/.