They were under 30 when they started. Why young entrepreneurs see green in Vermont.
There was much ado this legislative session about Vermont's impending demographic disaster -- the convergence of aging back-to-the-landers and the out-of-state exodus of young Vermonters. Jim Douglas sounded the alarm in his January "State of the State" address: "Already, the flight of young people due to high expenses and limited opportunities has helped make Vermont the second-oldest state in the country," he warned. "In just the next decade there will be 15 percent fewer Vermonters under the age of 20 than there were just five years ago." The governor spent the next five months fighting for college scholarship money to motivate local kids to stay here for school and beyond.
But has Douglas forgotten how he got to Vermont? The native of Springfield, Massachusetts, came north to attend Middlebury College in 1972 -- and never left. By our estimation, that's exactly how many young people end up settling in the Green Mountains. They come from all over the country to attend the University of Vermont, St. Michael's or Champlain College -- and once they've seen the sun set over the Adirondacks, there's no going back.
Getting started in Vermont is not difficult. Internships turn into entry-level positions. VISTA workers come and stay, as Cathy Resmer reports this week in "Nonprofit Motive". But it gets harder before it gets easier. Housing is scarce and overpriced. Few jobs pay enough to make real estate a reality. Talented mid-career types, such as the Flynn's Aimee Petrin, leave the state for better opportunities. Ruth Horowitz covers her departure this week in "State of the Arts".
For those who stick it out, it pays to get creative. Young Vermont dairy farmers are working cooperatively, as Kevin Kelley explores in "Milk Fed" . Others develop a product: Gourmet ice cream. Custom teddy bears. Eco-friendly cleaning products. Medical billing software. There's no shortage of entrepreneurial success stories in Vermont. Is that because the Green Mountains are conducive to economic development, or because they're not -- and are subsequently crawling with frustrated twentysomethings determined to get a better view?
Only four of 14 of the creative capitalists profiled are native Vermonters, and none has reached the level of Ben & Jerry's -- yet. They're bakers and landscape designers, health-care givers and music impresarios who've found a sustainable niche in Vermont doing what they love. Randy George of Red Hen Baking Co. has no interest in expanding distribution beyond the Green Mountains. The company's website lists myriad reasons, concluding, "We encourage you to buy our breads when you're in this neck of the woods and support local bakeries in your area when you're not."
A few of these "biz kids" -- in the computer field, especially -- have tapped into lucrative markets outside the state. The sky's the limit for Ben Kaufman, a 19-year-old Champlain College student whose office has expanded to 12. Or Dave Winslow and Alex Broussard, who work for Google at EpikOne. No doubt they'd agree the global economy is great, as long as at the end of the day, they get to come home, to Vermont.
NAME: Ben Kaufman, 19
While most kids his age were sneaking into R-rated movies, 14-year-old Ben Kaufman was starting up his own video-production and web-design company. Through "family connections," as he puts it, he snagged major clients such as Maybelline and L'Oreal. By his junior year in high school, the Long Island native had already launched his second career, starting up a funky product-development company focusing on iPod accessories.
When Kaufman relocated to Burlington last fall to enroll at Champlain College, the firm was a one-man operation with a single product -- retractable lanyard earphones to use with the iPod. The Song Sling generated $75,000 in sales in its first four weeks, then went on to win "Best in Show" honors in January at the MacWorld San Francisco trade show. Mophie now employs 12 people -- four of them full-time -- and sells 72 different products.
Although its multihued line of protective cases, armbands, radio attachments and belt clips are all iPod peripherals, Kaufman doesn't want to tie Mophie down. "If we think we can do something to make things better, or if something makes sense, then we want to do it," he says.
That practical approach led him to manufacture in China; Mophie's entire line is currently produced there. But the company culture is very much young Burlington. "Everything about this town is perfect for Mophie," says Kaufman. "The vibe we're trying to build on is here."
A major part of that vibe is youth culture, and Kaufman's age makes him his own company's ideal icon. "We try to play it for all it's worth," he admits in a phone interview. "It definitely works to our advantage. I'm basically our target customer."
Like Kaufman, most Mophie consumers are still in school. But that's where the similarity ends. In a class last semester on Asian commerce, Kaufman's cellphone went off. It was a client in China. "What are you going to do?" he says. "Tell them I'll call back after my lesson on doing business with China is over? I guess I'm more of a hands-on kind of guy."
NAMES: Geoff McDonald, 24 & Christopher James, 24
COMPANY: Meathead Films
Filmmakers and winter sports enthusiasts Geoff McDonald and Christopher James definitely thrive on vertical challenges -- not just on the slopes, but also behind the camera. Last year, the 2004 University of Vermont grads incorporated Meathead Films, a Burlington-based film-production company that showcases all styles of winter downhill skiing. But unlike other ski-film producers who head high into the Rockies to shoot their extreme-powder porn, Meathead Films is the first production company devoted exclusively to East Coast skiing.
McDonald, a native of Hudson, Ohio, admits he was drawn to UVM largely for its proximity to the slopes. He got into filmmaking after buying a video camera as a freshman, and learned the tools of the trade at UVM Television. Later, he upgraded to broadcast-quality equipment and started shooting his fellow skiers and skateboarders. "It sort of grew and grew each season," McDonald says. By junior year, he was looking for distributors. "I sort of set it up in college so that by the time I graduated my senior year, I'd have a business running at a level that I could make a living off of it."
McDonald and James have since produced five movies together, including a feature-length historical-adventure documentary, Epoch, about climbing and skiing the highest peaks in five northeastern states. This year, Meathead Films has secured two U.S. film distributors and landed a corporate sponsorship deal with Eastern Mountain Sports. They've even trademarked their own line of schwag -- shirts, hats, sweatshirts -- under the logo, "Ski the East."
Naturally, skiing and shooting on the East Coast pose other challenges besides the smaller vertical drops: "The snow's only here for a certain amount of days," says McDonald. This year's film, due out in October, is entitled Snow Gods. It's about how hard it was to get the white stuff flying this winter.
NAME: Jessica Kim, 29
COMPANY: Kim's Pet Care Services
Jessica Kim started her home-based pet business from the ground up -- literally. In 2004, she launched a poop-scooping business for busy pet owners who didn't have the time or inclination to deal with their animals' messes. After a client asked Kim if she would let her dogs out and maybe toss them a treat or two, Kim identified an unoccupied business niche: home-based pet care.
Unlike boarding and kenneling services, Kim's Pet Care Services is based on the theory that when pet owners are away, their animals are happiest in familiar surroundings. For a modest fee, Kim visits her clients' homes, feeds and exercises their pets, gives them potty breaks, administers medications and cleans up the messes. Kim will even deliver food and pet supplies, and provides a "pet taxi" when animals need to visit the vet or the groomer.
"I really wanted to make a career out of something I love doing, that doesn't seem like work," says Kim, who relocated to Vermont from Dallas. "And people know this isn't a side gig for me. This is my full-time job."
Though Kim had no formal training in animal care -- she was a business major -- she's been a lifelong dog owner and says she treats animals as if they were her children. But, even knowing that thousands of other pet owners in Chittenden County feel the same way, Kim had to do plenty of research to determine whether the market would support such an enterprise.
Apparently, it does. Kim's Pet Care is now thriving and she recently hired a second assistant. But while most people might not consider an afternoon spent petting cats or playing fetch with pooches "work," Kim insists it's a serious commitment. "In the two years since I started this," she notes, "I've only had two real vacation days."
NAME: Matthew Mole, 34
COMPANY: Vermont Organic Fiber Company
Before dairy was big in the Green Mountain State, the state's biggest agricultural product was wool. But the product being pushed by Vermont Organic Fiber Company comes from elsewhere: the American West and Australia. "We're clear that it's not from Vermont," says founder Matthew Mole, speaking from his Middlebury office. That said, the company's progressive mission is right at home here: to help move environmentally-friendly wool from pasture to pullover.
When Matthew Mole started the brokerage in 2000, there wasn't much of a market for organic wool. "There was a growing market for organic cotton," explains Mole, who was 28 at the time. "But I didn't want to do what everyone else was doing."
Mole's connection with wool began when he was growing up on a farm in Pownal, Vermont. "There were sheep on the farm, so I'm familiar with them," he says. His father provided a model of entrepreneurship. In addition to farming, he dabbled in ventures ranging from real-estate development and aviation projects to woodworking and cabinetmaking. As a student at UVM in agricultural economics, Mole researched hemp, another organic fiber. By the time he graduated, he knew about wool and organic textiles, and he had self-employment in his blood. He was ready to strike out on his own.
Mole's first challenge was to locate suppliers of organically raised wool. He found them mainly in the western U.S. Third-party certifiers ensured that the sheep were eating only organic feed and were not being raised on feedlots. His first customers were primarily "organic-industry focused," he relates. The breakthrough came in 2003, when Patagonia introduced a line of organic wool sweaters using Mole's fibers. That gave the firm credibility with other mainstream companies, such as Timberland, Oregon-base Sahali and Fox River Mill Socks of Iowa.
Mole makes his home in Middlebury because it's where he wants to raise his family, but it also makes sense to base his business here. "Vermont is a leader in progressive and socially responsible business," he notes. "Companies are increasingly making claims about their social and environmental commitment. We're giving them a way to actualize those statements."
NAME: Rachel LeeCummings, 29
COMPANY: Armistead Caregiver Services
Policymakers may be troubled by the graying of Vermont's population, but it's good news for 29-year-old Rachel Lee Cummings. Her company, Armistead Caregiver Services, offers companionship, basic personal care, pet services and some housekeeping to elderly and disabled Vermonters who want to remain in their homes.
When Cummings launched Armistead, named for her maternal grandfather, as a University of Vermont undergraduate in 1999, she employed two friends. Today she boasts a staff of 53, most of whom work more than 35 hours a week. Although she won't discuss revenue figures, Cummings says she expects sales to grow by 50 percent this year. In 2004, the U.S. Small Business Association named her Vermont Young Entrepreneur of the year.
Cummings' business model is based on the age-old philosophy that seniors deserve respect. "It's really important to the fabric of our society," she says, "the way we take care of elderly people."
That's not just a marketing line. Cummings lived with her family in a village in Goa, India, until she was 9. She saw how the locals there revered their elders. She later studied sociology at UVM, with a concentration in gerontology, and paid her way through school working as a nursing-home caregiver. As graduation loomed, she wondered what to do next.
"I knew I didn't do well working for people," she remembers. "I knew I wouldn't thrive in an office environment unless it was something I created." Cummings saw a need for more in-home care in Vermont and leveraged her connections in the field to provide it.
Her lack of formal financial training didn't worry her; she grew up around entrepreneurial parents, who ran a cafe in Goa and now operate the Westford-based specialty foods company Cobbs Corner. "Business," says Cummings, "has really infused my life from the get-go."
NAME: Alex Crothers, 30
COMPANY: Higher Ground nightclub
LOCATION: South Burlington
Some people like to dip their toes before they settle on a career path. Alex Crothers did a cannonball. Suffice it to say, the splash was large. Eight years ago, Crothers became the co-owner of Vermont's premier music venue. He was 22 years old.
When Higher Ground opened its doors in 1998, area music fans rejoiced. As the club's talent buyer, Crothers was responsible for attracting top-notch acts to the Green Mountains.
Originally from Maryland, Crothers moved to Vermont to attend UVM, where he majored in environmental science. While he enjoyed his studies, other ambitions were already coming to the fore. "All through college, I was doing work in the music business," he relates. "I did one summer internship at RCA Records, and another with a band in Virginia, where I divided my time between the management office and the road. For my senior thesis, I did a resource analysis of music festivals. Then I was hired at Phish's company. A year later, we opened Higher Ground."
When the original Winooski club closed in 2004, its four owners faced a big decision. "We definitely debated it internally a lot," Crothers says. "It's a tireless job that can be thankless at times. It's a lot of long hours, and you're only as good as next week's show. But my conclusion was, 'If I'm gonna stick around this town, there's no point unless there's a live music venue. Because what would I do?'"
HG was ultimately reborn in South Burlington, bigger and better than ever. "I've definitely learned a lot since Winooski," Crothers informs. "Back then, we were pretty green. I was excited to take everything I learned in six years, my copious notebooks full of ideas, and bring it to the new venue." Two of the original owners are gone, but the vision remains the same. Says Crothers, "We wanted to fill a niche; to create a music venue with great sightlines and sound that could bring in national talent at an affordable price." Mission accomplished.
NAMES: Sarah Merritt, 28 & Emma Winthrop, 28
Looking for a retro green-and-brown halter dress or a leopard-print faux fur-covered princess phone? You'll find what you need at Damsels, the small pink boutique on Main Street in Montpelier with a disco ball in the window. The store won two Seven Daysies awards last year -- readers picked it as the best place to buy women's casual and evening wear outside of Chittenden County.
Emma Winthrop and Sarah Merritt opened the store in June 2004 to offer fashionistas like themselves another Washington County shopping option. "Our style of fashion wasn't really available in town," Winthrop explains delicately without stating the obvious: Casual Montpelier is not Milan. Today Damsels has four part-time employees.
The 28-year-old owners are both locals -- Winthrop grew up in Montpelier, Merritt in Plainfield -- though each left the state for a few years. Winthrop earned a political science degree from Evergreen College and worked as a campaign manager in Oregon. Merritt lived in Rhode Island, Seattle and Martha's Vineyard before returning to Montpelier.
In 2003, Merritt was working at Montpelier music store Buch Spieler. Winthrop was unemployed. She was looking to do something for a year before maybe going back to grad school. "I was at a crossroads," she recalls.
One day at a spa, the friends tossed around the boutique idea. Winthrop says the more they talked about it, the more she thought, "this is something that we could actually do."
The two enrolled in Burlington's Women's Small Business Project, where they crafted a business plan and discussed minute details, such as what kind of music they'd play and how they'd adjust their mannequins. After a while, says Winthrop, there was no question they'd follow through.
"If you have that spirit and that energy," she says, "it just makes sense."
NAME: Ben Falk, 28
COMPANY: Whole Systems Design
Is it possible on a 20-degree winter day to create a 75-degree microclimate outdoors? Ben Falk, founder of Whole Systems Design in Moretown, says he's found a way, using an ingenious combination of passive solar design, wind buffering, energy conservation and proper landscaping. As he puts it, "You may not need to take that Caribbean vacation after all."
Falk, 28, is a 2000 UVM grad who majored in environmental studies. He worked with Professor John Todd, who pioneered the field of ecological design and engineering. Two years later, Falk launched his own multidisciplinary design firm, which, he says, focuses on "human-scale working landscapes" in which the human environment meets the biological one.
Whole Systems Design defies easy description or categorization; its work blends principles of architecture, landscape design, farming, energy production and ecological restoration. The goal, Falk explains, is to create landscape solutions to the increasingly desperate environmental condition we humans have created for ourselves.
But Falk emphasizes that his work is about more than just land conservation and "doing less harm." Nearly all of his projects have an educational component -- he works mostly with nonprofit groups and private landowners who own summer camps, schools and farms. And they're designed to regenerate the land and make it more productive for humans and nature. For example, Whole Systems Design helped a school in New Jersey set up a food garden that provides fruits, vegetables and herbs to a dining center that caters to 1000 people.
Whole Systems Design employs between two and four people full-time, depending upon the project, with budgets ranging from $30,000 to more than $1 million. But despite the company's rapid growth, Falk intends to keep it "fast and light," so that he and his associates can give each site "its proper due." Talk about maintaining a small ecological footprint.
NAMES: Randy George, 37 & Liza Cain, 38
COMPANY: Red Hen Baking Co.
Randy George can't remember exactly how old he is. That's because the 37-year-old co-founder of Red Hen Baking Company has spent the last nine years running a booming artisan bread business that turns out baguettes -- and miches and batards and ciabatta -- 364 days a year. He concedes, "Unimportant things like age can slip by me."
Gone are the days when George rolled out the dough by hand and delivered it, too. The company's industrial mixer broke on the company's first day of operation, so George and his wife Liza Cain cranked out 250 loaves a day for two weeks -- the old-fashioned way.
Now the Red Hen staff includes nine full-time bakers, four full-time drivers and one fully functional, 320-pound mixer. The company delivers 1500 loaves between Burlington and Brattleboro every day. Its quality carbs grace the tables of such high-end eating establishments as Smokejacks, Michael's on the Hill and the Cliff House.
"I started this company because it was the only way I would be able to do what I like to do, and live where I want to live," says George. "The irony of it is that now I might get my hands on the dough for a couple of minutes a day."
George, who grew up in Maine, was 2-and-a-half when he started assisting in his mother's weekly bread-making sessions. While studying theater at Vermont's Marlboro College, a job in the kitchen met his, er, kneads. After college, he worked in bakeries around the Seattle area before landing a plum position at the Grand Central Baking Company in Portland, Oregon. Managing its new organic initiative gave him "the experience of starting something up, which was absolutely formative."
But he and Cain -- a Waitsfield native who was then living in Portland -- wanted to come back to Vermont. "I just thought naïvely that I was going to do the same sort of thing here," George observes. Equipment failure was the first challenge, but many others followed: "There was a period in the summer of 2000 when I think I worked 100 days in a row," George recalls. "I was bound and determined to do this . . . whatever it took."
It took some tweaking. The short shelf-life of fresh bread -- Red Hen comes in paper, not plastic -- and Vermont's sparse population have shaped George's business plan over time. "They want our bread in the Northeast Kingdom. But it costs too much to get it there," he observes. Despite the limited market and grueling schedule, George says he has no interest in being the next Ben Cohen or Jerry Greenfield. "I have a lot of pride in -- I know this sounds silly -- being the village baker."
NAMES: Alex Broussard, 28 & Dave Winslow, 29
LOCATION: Williston and Burlington
If you don't use computers, you might have a hard time understanding what Dave Winslow and Alex Broussard do. But one look at their client list suggests it's going well so far.
Their company, EpikOne, specializes in Google Analytics. Even tech-savvy people may not understand that Google is not just a search engine; the sprawling company also offers a variety of e-commerce products and services that businesses can purchase to improve their online operations.
But Google doesn't interface with most of these customers -- they empower and train consultants to do that for them. In North America, EpikOne is one of just a handful of these consulting firms. From their Chittenden County offices, EpikOne aids companies such as Best Buy, eBay and Wells Fargo. Brazil's largest Internet service provider is also a client.
An EpikOne case study available via Google's professional services website describes how the company used Google's tools to boost online revenue at Urban Style Direct by over 200 percent. Results like that have fueled EpikOne's growth. They now have nine full-time and three part-time employees, and plan to open a New York office within the year.
Winslow, 29, and Broussard, 28, met while working at another local marketing company -- Shark Communications -- and left to start EpikOne in August 2004. Broussard grew up in Washington, D.C., and studied economics at Colgate College before moving to Burlington. Winslow, a New Hampshire native, came here to attend Champlain College. He admits that the proximity of outdoor activities was persuasive.
Winslow earned an Associate's degree in sports management, then returned for a B.S. in business, graduating from Champlain in 2000. He's used his connections there to create an internship program that also functions as a recruitment pool for EpikOne.
"Our goal is to be able to offer high-paying Internet jobs," he says, "and still keep our Burlington roots."