copyright the Chronicle August 13, 2014
by Bethany M. Dunbar
LOWELL — What do a doggie treat maker, someone who wants to make an alcoholic tea, and an online marketing consultant have in common? They were all gathered in a barn in Lowell last week to make business pitches to a group of people who have the wisdom and financial resources to help them make their small businesses grow into big ones.
It was the first annual Barn Pitch, held Thursday, August 7.
Trish Sears and Steve Mason of Northeast Kingdom Tamarack Inc (NEKTI) hosted the event, which was part of a larger tour around the state. Investors and business advisors rode motorcycles from one venue to the other. The idea was to get out to all corners of the state and find the entrepreneurs where they live.
Entrepreneurs presented their business pitches in 14 minutes apiece and were then peppered with advice and questions from the investors. After the formal presentations, there was time for more private discussions, which could lead to investments.
The investors pulled no punches when it came time for questions and comments.
Among their advice: Change your company name. Drop the restaurant attached to the doughnut business. And, “How much of the company are you willing to give away?” to an entrepreneur who is considering offering partial ownership to investors.
“Oh. My time is up,” was the answer to that last question, drawing laughter from the crowd.
The question was posed to the first entrepreneur up, Sarah Spencer of The Click. The Click helps entrepreneurs age 50 and older make some sense of online marketing and social media. The Click offers a written guide, called “Got Clients?” It hosts a two-day retreat about how to get clients and keep them.
“We do the hand-holding after,” Ms. Spencer said. She said so often people go to a seminar and then just need a little help afterward. A lot of seminars are not designed to accomplish that.
Ms. Spencer said her business idea comes from advice she has had about starting a business. Find the pain, then find the solution. She has seen many clients age 50 and older who are not ready for a rocking chair. They might have a lot of business sense but are not savvy to social media. Some have been downsized and need to start a company because they are having a hard time finding a job. Others are bored with their jobs, or just want to create their own business.
There are 138,000 people in Vermont age 50 and older.
“Why do you care where they live?” one of the investors asked? She said she doesn’t. The Click could function anywhere.
Cairn Cross of FreshTracks Capital asked what you do when potential clients say they want to take a workshop but, “I don’t have any money to do that.”
Ms. Spencer said she is considering the idea of offering consulting in trade for a piece of a promising new company, a joint venture. But that is just an idea at this point and she’s not sure about it.
Linda Fox of East Hardwick made a pitch for her organic cocktail syrup, Sumptuous Syrups of Vermont. It is concentrated and made of local ingredients.
“We are the only farm-to-bar cocktail syrup,” she said. “We’re seeking mentoring and money.”
She said once people try it, they realize how much better the quality is than run-of-the-mill cocktail syrups. The trouble is getting people to try it and know about it. She said she and her business partner, Don Horrigan, know they need to develop a sales staff.
The company started when Mr. Horrigan, who is a bartender, ran out of ingredients and needed cocktail syrup. Ms. Fox cooked up a batch in her kitchen, and it was a hit.
“We knew we were on to something when the beer and wine crowd at the bar each had a cocktail in front of them,” she said.
Three or four of the investors told her to change the name of the company to Farm to Bar. Ms. Fox said she has already secured that domain name along with others she’s been thinking about.
Ms. Spencer of The Click suggested a You Tube video of people trying her product.
Jason Neimark presented an idea for making an alcoholic kombucha, which is fermented tea known for its health properties. He is working with Andreas Hadik, the founder of KIS Kombucha. KIS is for Keep It Simple. The company is based in Morrisville.
“We want to be in the bar space,” Mr. Neimark said. “It’s an adult version of Red Bull.” Kombucha is naturally a tiny bit alcoholic, but Mr. Neimark wants to step that up.
Lucie Whiteford and Lesha Rasco presented their company, Andy’s Dandys, which is based in Richmond. They talked about a spin off company or mission they want to achieve.
Ms. Whiteford started Andy’s Dandys as a business that her son Andy could own and run someday himself. Her son is 22 years old and has Down syndrome.
“He loves exploring recipes. He loves his dog,” she said. The treats are all natural, wheat free and sugar free. The business has been booming, and it boomed even more after Ms. Whiteford left her job to devote all her time to it. The treats are in 100 retail stores in New England. Ms. Whiteford began to think the model could work for other young adults with disabilities. In fact, Andy’s Dandys helped another young woman start her own business, called Hope’s Bakery.
“My idea is that everybody’s employable and everybody can learn,” Ms. Rasco said.
Yet only 40 percent of young adults with disabilities are employed when they graduate from high school, she said, and often they are only working two to ten hours a week. The two women want Andy’s Dandys to be a specialized training program for young adults with intellectual disabilties.
“There’s a science to teaching through barriers,” Ms. Rasco said.
The two women were looking for mentorship and some investments.
“Do what you’re doing, but do it in tourist locations,” suggested Alan Newman. Mr. Newman helped found Gardener’s Supply and Seventh Generation and started Magic Hat Brewery. His current enterprise is called Alchemy and Science and is meant to help develop craft breweries.
Ms. Rasco said they have done that, and tourists have a chance to decorate their own treats. It has gone well when they did.
Bob Bloch suggested applying for grant funding from private foundations that would support their cause.
“It’s not just a charity thing. That’s very powerful,” he said.
He said, set up a nonprofit educational component to the company. Mr. Block is the director of the BYOBiz program at Champlain College.
Justin Larose presented Mary’s Donuts, a company based in Enosburg Falls that makes doughnuts the old-fashioned way. Mary’s Donuts started in 1950 in the building where the company is still based today. It closed in 2010, but Mr. Larose, a distant relative of Mary’s, is bringing it back. Mary’s home is where the doughnuts are made and also the location of a small restaurant. Mr. Larose said they are making and selling 1,500 dozens doughnuts a week by hand. They need a doughnut robot and they need to buy the building.
A chorus of investors told Mr. Larose to forget about the building and concentrate on the doughnuts. The building means nothing to anyone outside of Enosburg Falls, they suggested, and people are not likely to travel there to eat a meal.
However, Mr. Newman said, “People will travel endless distances to see things manufactured.” He suggested making that part of the plan.
The last presentation was from Kelly Devin, whose company is The Nutty Vermonter. She sells flavored almonds, cashews and pecans and picks out all the broken pieces to make into nut butters.
Her business has grown to the point where she can’t do it all herself any more. She needs investors to help with equipment in order to grow her company from a small, one-woman operation into something bigger. She said she recently asked herself: “Nationwide, worldwide, can I do this? Hell yes.”
She said it’s time for her to accept some help.
“Anybody want to come be nutty with me?”
Ms. Sears’ and Mr. Mason’s company, NEKTI, is a business consulting company designed to help small businesses scale up and navigate government issues through “strategic navigation of regulations,” according to NEKTI’s website.
contact Bethany M. Dunbar at email@example.com