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Vermont Business: Entrepreneurs, Start Ups & Tech Hub on the Rise

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By Cairn G. Cross

Brad Feld, a Boulder, Colorado-based entrepreneur-turned-investor, wrote a book in 2012 titled “Startup Communities,” which dissects the entrepreneurial ecosystem that exists in Boulder and describes why Boulder has a high density of start up company activity.

In the course of my day job as the co-founder and Managing Director of FreshTracks Capital, a Vermont oriented venture capital fund, I have been deeply immersed in the entrepreneurial ecosystem of Vermont, particularly in Chittenden County.

I read Feld’s book with interest and have spent considerable time thinking about how it applies to Chittenden County. In his book Feld details “….a massive shift from the hierarchical society that has dominated the industrial era to a networked society that has been emergent throughout the information era.”

Vermont Business is Moving toward Entrepreneurship and Start Ups

During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Chittenden County workers coveted jobs at IBM, General Electric, and General Dynamics. These large hierarchical companies were the desired employers for workers with the expectation of lifetime employment and a career path.

A shift occurred in the 1980s and 1990s as the first wave of entrepreneurial companies took root. Ben and Jerry’s, Seventh Generation, IDX, and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters are examples of these types of companies that added jobs and created wealth for their founders and employees.

Toward the end of the 1990s as the information age truly took hold, a new wave of Burlington area start ups burst on the scene and grew rapidly., MyWebGrocer, and Microstrain are but three of many examples of companies founded during the past 15 years that were able to harness the decreasing costs of technology and grow rapidly, adding to the employment base of the area and becoming significant economic drivers.

This second wave of entrepreneurial activity has been aided by rapidly decreasing information storage costs, the proliferation of high-speed internet capacity, better software development tools, and capacity and the increasing availability of capital.

Why Burlington is a Hot Spot for Entrepreneurs

In Burlington, these favorable trends have lowered the cost to start a scalable company and have allowed entrepreneurs the freedom to live in the area where the lifestyle suits their interests, but allows them to stay connected with and do business in the wider world. Burlington’s lifestyle is highly attractive to younger entrepreneurs because of access to the lake in the summer, the mountains for hiking and skiing, boasts a thriving arts culture and is a mecca for local food and craft beer.

Burlington also has a strong higher education community anchored by the University of Vermont and bolstered by other smaller innovative colleges. It consistently ranks at the top of the pack as a place to raise a family.

An Up and Coming Tech Hub

Others have noticed the attributes of Burlington. Inc. Magazine called it an “underrated tech hub to watch.” The Atlantic magazine ranked Burlington as “#11 City on the Tech index.” Business Insider named Burlington one of the “15 hottest cities for the future.”

At a state level, Vermont also fares well by these entrepreneurial measures. The Kauffman Foundation ranks Vermont a “top 10 state for start ups” and the U.S. Department of Labor named it the “#1 state for green jobs.” Vermont consistently ranks in the top 15 states for access to venture capital on number of deals per capita basis.

Training the Next Generation of Entrepreneurs

This fall UVM will enroll the first class to participate in its new Sustainable Entrepreneurship MBA program (SEMBA). I see the SEMBA program as highly innovative and accretive to the entrepreneurial ecosystem of the community. This one-year long program will enroll and graduate a class on an annual basis, training the next generation of entrepreneurs while immersing them in a thriving start up business culture. I am excited to watch the outcome of the program and its impact on Burlington and on Vermont.

cairn-crossCairn G. Cross is the co-founder and Managing Director of FreshTracks Capital I, II and III and is a lecturer for UVM in the undergraduate and graduate business school. In 2011 the U.S. Small Business administration named Cairn its Vermont, New England and National “Financial Services Champion.”