Motorcyclists have a tradition of stopping to help when they see another rider stranded by the side of the road. We’ve been there before: it’s lonely. We know what it’s like, so we stop and lend a hand.
Starting a business in rural Vermont can be lonely too, and sometimes getting the right advice can be hard to find. Your friends and neighbors mean well, but most haven’t gone through what you’re experiencing. Enter the 31 motorcyclists of the Fresh Tracks Capital Road Pitch event, here to lend a hand.
The Founding Road Pitch Riders are not a motorcycle gang. The group includes business people, consultants, educators, legislators, entrepreneurs and finance people who have experience building businesses and making them successful. The group toured the State August 4th-7th, as part of the inaugural Road Pitch – an event designed to bring knowledge and possible funding to emerging businesses.
Site of the 2014 "Barn Pitch" in Lowell, VT. The 1860's era barn is owned by Patricia Sears and Steve Mason
The format of the event is this: over four days, the Riders toured the State, stopping at eight different venues to listen to companies pitch their business. The pitch had to be 10 minutes or less and cover the company’s story, what makes their product or service compelling, and include an “ask” for help. The ask could be money, a connection, or just advice, but the more specific the ask the better.
Following the business pitch, the Riders had ten minutes to ask questions and make suggestions. It was here that the benefit of the Road Pitch showed itself. The questions often forced presenters to rethink basics, like their target market and product branding, or consider a completely new route.
Andy’s Dandys, of Richmond, is a good example. Lucie Whiteford and Lesha Rasco told the story of how Whiteford started the company with the goal of providing her son Andrew -- who has Down syndrome -- meaningful employment after high school. Using her personal resources and hard work, Whiteford and her business partner Rasco grew the company and now employ eight people, including four with disabilities.
Lucie Whiteford pitches Andy's Dandy's
Despite the company’s success, they have reached an impasse: the women want to increase the scale of their operation so they can help more people, but they have reached the limit of their resources. The woman came to the meeting looking for help getting grants to fund a training space and improve their equipment.
Through the question and answer period, the idea to pursue a private non-profit funding source arose. That idea sparked the suggestion to reorganize the company as a non-profit, enabling them to have a sustainable funding source, without the constant pursuit of grants. Being a non-profit could also reduce costs. In less than ten minutes an entirely new avenue opened for them.
“That’s where I see the value of this was in making information available to these companies,” said Alan Newman, founder of Magic Hat brewing and a Sportster rider. “They are hungry for coaching”.
“It’s hard in small town Vermont to find someone to bounce ideas off-of,” said Road Pitch Founder Cairn Cross, of Fresh Tracks Capital.
The event was Cross’s idea. He based the format on an event he runs during the winter, called Peak Pitch, where businesses pitch ideas on a chair lift ride. The novelty of a group of motorcyclists touring the state to help businesses spurred participation by both riders and pitchers and attracted news media attention.
In all, 39 companies made pitches. The companies ranged in age from a few months to over 30 years. The products and services were diverse, including food and beverage products, like Gringo Jack’s Tortilla Chips, Jehshua’s Chimichura sauce and Sumptuous Syrups of Vermont cocktail sauces; consumer products like Vew-Do Balance Boards and Cloud Farm – a system for bringing gardening to urbanites; commercial products like Ekopolimer who pitched a system for recycling LDPE – the plastic found in shopping bags -- into palettes and other products; and services, like The Click, a company that specializes in helping older entrepreneurs.
If there was a common thread to these companies, it was that they want to stay and grow in Vermont.
“I want to create jobs and grow a business,” said Barre Pinske, an artist whose company carves bears from trees. Pinske wants to purchase a milling machine to automate production and increase output. “We have a lot of opportunity here in Vermont,” he said.
At the start of the Middlebury pitch session, Jamie Gaucher, Director, Middlebury Office of Business Development & Innovation, said, “These companies all have three things in common: Each company wants to locate at least a piece of their operation in Middlebury; each has an aspect of innovation that makes them distinct; and, they have been filtered for being most likely to be successful in this setting.”
It is often said that Vermont can be over regulated and hard on business, but Caleb Rick of Ekopolimer didn’t think so. “Every regulator that we have worked with in Vermont has gone out of their way to be helpful,” he said.
Because Fresh Tracks is a venture capital firm, the possibility of funding a pitched idea is very real. But, Road Pitch is not a game show or a TV reality series, where the results are scripted to happen within the hour. It is too early to tell whether any company will receive funding as a direct result of the event.
“It’s the start of a conversation,” Cross said. Funding is a longer process, Cross explained at the event’s closing press conference.
The event was just a beginning. The conversation continues among the Founding Riders on how to make the event better for next year, follow-up with the pitching companies and – like all good motorcycle trips – foster the connections made on the road.