What Does It Take To Start And Run A Successful Small Business In Vermont?

Dec 7, 2018

What do you do when you want to start something new, but you don’t know exactly how?

That’s what Luke McGowan was wondering.

Editor's note: This show is made for the ear. As always, we recommend listening! 

“I’d gotten to Vermont, and had a little trouble finding a full-time job, so I’d been looking around, and nothing had felt quite right,” Luke says. “And that’s when I decided, ‘Well, maybe I should cut out on my own and try and do this.’"

Luke, who had moved to the Upper Valley from Boston, decided to take the plunge and start a business: McGowan Consulting. But he wasn’t sure if he was going about it in the best way.

“I had to go register with the [Vermont Secretary of State] and get my business license," Luke says, "and I was kind of curious, ‘Am I doing everything that I’m supposed to be doing? Is there more that I should be doing?’ And kind of that question of, did I file the right paperwork? Am I doing my taxes the right way?”

What should you do for health care? How do you save for retirement? Luke had all these questions swirling in his head, so he came to Brave Little State, VPR’s people-powered journalism project. Every month our show takes on a question about Vermont, our region or its people that’s been submitted and voted on by you, our audience.

"What does a Vermonter have to do to successfully start and run their own small business?" — Luke McGowan, Upper Valley

Luke shared this question in August of last year. (That might seem like a long time ago, but remember, people, we’re a monthly podcast.) We really love this question, because it’s super meta. Luke asked about small businesses, just as he was starting a small business — to help other small businesses.

“From when I first asked this question, to today, I was able to set up a business, and I’ve been helping kind of other small businesses and nonprofits figure out how to grow and hire folks and find customers for themselves,” Luke says.

Our brave question-asker this month is Luke McGowan of the Upper Valley, pictured here with his son Augie.
Credit Luke McGowan

But he is still curious: What wisdom can his fellow business owners share?

“I feel like the people who are gonna know best or at least have the most relevant information for people who are like, ‘Gosh, should I start a small business, what should I do?’ are the people who have actually done it themselves,” Luke told us. “So I’d love to hear from people who have kind of already walked this path and figured out, 'Here’s how you do these things.'”

To answer Luke’s question, we talk to small-business owners from all over the state.

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Abracadabra Coffee Co.

To kick things off, we asked Luke if there were any business owners he thought we should hear from in this episode. He suggested Abracadabra Coffee Co., in Woodstock.

Abracadabra roasts single-origin coffee in a space above the Ottauquechee River. On weekends they open up as a café. That’s when Luke likes to come by.

“This was was my stop as I was on my way to the dump — or actually often after dropping the trash off at the dump,” he says. “What got me out of bed in the morning was the coffee here at Abracadabra.”

If you don’t live in town, you can order beans online or buy cans of Abracadabra cold brew in stores. Abracadabra partner Sarah Yetter lines up some of the company’s cold brew varieties on a table in the café.

“This is a cold brew; it’s a natural process Ethiopian coffee, super fruity,” she says. “And this is our nitro cold brew, so nitrogen infused, cascading, creamy mouth-feel.”

Luke joined Brave Little State for a conversation with Sarah and Abracadabra co-founders Antoinette and Clint Hunt, a wife and husband. The Hunts started Abracadabra slowly, and cautiously. They began testing their product at farmers markets about five years ago.

“It was, like, just to see.” Clint says. “And it was obviously a need. ... People were really into it. And then yeah, we just could slowly start taking time away from our other jobs to go into what we really wanted to do.”

Abracadabra Coffee Co. co-founders Antoinette and Clint Hunt, left and center, and partner Sarah Yetter in a field of hemp at Luce Farm in Stockbridge. The coffee company partners with the farm for a CBD-infused cold brew.
Credit Ansel Dickey / Courtesy Abracadabra Coffee Co.

They started out roasting in a shed in their backyard. Then Sarah came on board, then they moved to this space — and recently they bought a larger roaster, which was a big step. Luke asked them about it:

“I’m kind of curious. I remember when you were talking about that sweet new roaster that you got, and I just remember thinking that must be a big kind of moment in the life of the business, when you’re like, 'Alright, we’re gonna put down' — that was a lot of money that you put down for that, right?”

The roaster and some other upgrades totaled $50,000. Abracadabra figures they’ll pay that off in two years. This is one of those pivotal moments for a small business, when you invest in your next chapter. So what made the company go for it?

“It was mostly the struggle and the pain of roasting all day, every day, and feeling like I was losing my mind slightly,” says Clint, who is also Abracadabra’s head roaster. “That was it, when you realize that there isn’t any more time to do other aspects of the business. And it kind of just freed up all of us, really, to do other things. To engage more on social media, or to take more photos, or anything — educate, do more demos.”

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Talking to this team, it’s clear that they’re thoughtful about every step they take. When we ask them to share some of their tips and tricks, they echo a lot of what we’ll hear from other business owners in this episode — about collaboration, and figuring things out on the fly. But they also share something we won’t hear from anyone else.

“I would definitely say never compromise your beliefs or your product for what you believe in it and how you want to present it, because there will be a lot of people out there who will ask you to change maybe your vision, or how you present something,” says Antoinette. “And we found that we stuck to our guns, and we’re really glad we did, even though it was hard a lot of times.”

When Lukes asks for an example, Clint weighs in:

“The best example is that when we first started, we went to a Vermont small-business adviser who ultimately didn’t understand what we were doing, and didn’t understand our product and didn’t understand what we wanted to do, and suggested that we should change our name, change our product, change every single thing that we wanted to do with our business,” Clint says. “And we came away feeling like, well that’s interesting. But ultimately we had a long kind of meditation on that and realized that, no, we’re gonna do what we want to do. If it doesn’t work, then we don’t want to do it.”

“Yeah, not taking that, like, shiny easy road,” Sarah adds. “And you know ... it pays off in the end.”

Being in charge of these big decisions is the beauty of owning your own business. But it can also be a burden. So as the episode continues, we collect more wisdom from people who had a vision and are working hard to see it through.

Bato Auto

Reported by Amy Noyes

Bato Musaefendic owns and runs Bato Auto in Williston. He works on all kinds of vehicles, and even sells some used cars on the side.

“I always wanted to work for myself. I always wanted to be, you know, a mechanic,” Bato says. “I was always saying, ‘One day I want to have my own shop.’ You know, ‘one day, one day, one day, one day.’ I mean, this was my dream.”

That one day came a few years ago, when he opened Bato Auto. But it was a long road getting to this place. Bato came to Vermont over two decades ago, as a refugee from the war in Bosnia.

Bato Musaefendic started building his tool inventory while he was working for other shops. As the owner of Bato Auto in Williston, he prioritizes customer service, so his business grows by word of mouth.
Credit Amy Noyes / VPR

“I went to high school over there until the war,” he says. “I was in the war a little bit, then I flee the war, I guess. I went to Hungary, then Germany.”

Bato met his wife in Germany. She was also there to escape the war in Bosnia. But their visas ran out and they couldn’t stay. After returning to Bosnia and having a son, they moved to the United States in 1997.

Bato had the skills to be a mechanic here, but not the language. He had to learn the English names for every tool and part. He did that while working a graveyard shift at a factory.

And then, one day, someone took a chance on him.

“I actually went with my brother, he was buying a car. ... I came, you know, to kind of to help him check the car. And then I got a job offer from Fred in Countryside Motors in Colchester,” Bato recalls. “And yeah, I took the job and stayed there for five years.”

From there, Bato worked as a mechanic in a handful of shops around Chittenden County. He even did a short stint as a long-haul trucker — “it wasn’t for me,” he explains. He opened Bato Auto in 2014.

Bato’s first piece of advice is to plan ahead. He knew opening his own shop would require all kinds of expensive equipment. So he started building his tool inventory while he was working for other shops.

“I was buying AC machine and transmission flush machine and stuff like that, that’s expensive, when I was working for somebody else,” he says. “And I had a plan: ‘I’m gonna buy it, we can use it, but it’s going to be mine one day when I get my own shop.’ And that’s what happened.”

Bato relies on testimonials from long-time customers to keep new customers coming in the door.
Credit Amy Noyes / VPR

In addition to tools, Bato also made sure he had the customers he needed to be successful in his own shop. His advice to other would-be business owners is this: “They need to be sure that they’re going to have enough work, enough clientele.”

Of course advertising is one way to attract clients. But Bato’s business philosophy centers on quality work and customer service.

“That’s my advertisement, actually. You have to do a good job," Bato says. "If you do a good job, you know, word is going to spread. I always go by that. If you’re happy with me as a customer, you’re going to tell somebody else.”

“Bato, he always does a good job,” says customer Mario Maric. "It’s always fast and he knows what he’s doing.”

Mario is getting an oil change and snow tires put on his dad’s car. Like about a third of Bato’s customers, Mario and his family were using Bato as a mechanic long before Bato Auto opened.

“I’ve been coming to Bato probably since I started driving, like 14, 15 years ago,” Mario says.

And Bato relies on testimonials from long-time customers like Mario to keep new customers coming in the door.

“You have to have money to start, you have to have knowledge in whatever you’re doing. [And] you have to build clientele — that’s the hardest part,” Bato says. “You have to have trust from the people. And I’m still here.”

And, even though he feels he has to take on every job that comes his way to stay afloat, Bato says he’s happy living his dream.

“I am happy. Very happy,” he says. “I like this job. … Sometimes it’s really hard. But, I don’t know. I like to work on cars.”

Fat Sheep Farm & Cabins

Reported by Angela Evancie

If you take Brownsville Road out of Hartland, and then turn up Best Road, eventually you’ll come to a working farm. Park by the barns and look north, and you’ll see five small cabins squared up to a long-range view.

It’s one of the first snowy days of the season, and Todd Heyman and Suzy Kaplan give Brave Little State a tour, with their daughter Autumn in tow.

Five small cabins square up to a long-range view at Fat Sheep Farm & Cabins in Hartland. Guests are welcome to participate in chores during their stay on the working farm.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

“All the cabins have a great porch with Adirondack chairs, and they can just soak in the Vermont landscape,” Todd says. “The design was done by Black River Design in Montpelier.”

The cabins are bright and airy.

“We were kind of going for a modern farmhouse feel for each of the cabins,” Suzy says, “and we wanted them to be very minimal, simple.”

There are high ceilings and some of the cabins have spiral staircases leading up to sleeping lofts. Power comes from a solar installation on the nearby barn. Nightly rentals start at $120.

Suzy says the cabins are all a little different, “to kind of encourage people to maybe want to come back and stay in a different cabin.”

The cabins are light and airy, and power comes from a solar installation on the nearby sheep barn.
Credit Fat Sheep Farm and Cabins, courtesy

These structures weren’t here when Todd and Suzy bought this land in 2016. They had them built, as part of a plan for a new business: Fat Sheep Farm & Cabins.

“We wanted to have a farm and grow most of our own food,” Todd says. “And then Suzy also wanted to do a bed-and-breakfast, and I had thought about a retreat center. And this seemed like a nice compromise between the two, where we would be able to make a living, we hope, and still grow our own food and raise our daughter on the farm.”

And, so far, things are going pretty well. There are sheep in the barn (though they don’t seem particularly fat) and a bunch of veggies put up for winter off Todd and Suzy’s house.

Todd says they’ve hired a full-time housekeeper, and they were almost fully booked through the late summer and early fall. They even got written up in the Boston Globe travel section.

“And given this is our first full calendar year, we were pretty happy with it,” Todd says.

Fat Sheep owners Todd Heyman and Suzy Kaplan with their daughter Autumn. While Vermont land-use regulations presented some early challenges, Todd says the first calendar year of business was a success.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

But it wasn’t easy to get to this point. To hear Todd tell it, developing this land for farm-stays was like moving through a corn maze of regulation.

“It’s one of those things that you discover early on, and then it just keeps getting worse,” Todd says. “Because once you get into that world, you trigger a whole bunch of Vermont laws and regulations.

“You have Act 250 permits that you’re supposed to get. You have a public building permit you’re supposed to get, and the code there is extremely complicated. If you’re doing any kind of septic system for your building, you’re going to have to get a permit for that. It will have an effect on your property taxes, which means your town is going come and assess the value of your business, which is not necessarily a straightforward process. And if you’re working on a big enough piece of land, some of it might be enrolled in the state’s current use program, [so] whatever you’re doing is likely to affect that as well.

"And those are all sort of big-ticket items in terms of both the amount of time you’re going to spend sorting through it all, and the amount of money you’re going to spend on people to help you with it. And it’s definitely a time and expense that we didn’t accurately forecast when we were starting our business.”

It’s worth mentioning that Todd used to work as an attorney, in litigation. But even he found it difficult to navigate Vermont law.

“I can take a look at it a lot more seriously than somebody who has no experience in law, but I’m definitely not, like, a land-use expert,” he says. “Although I’m rapidly becoming one!”

So, Todd’s first tip for anyone considering a business involving development? Get ye to a permit specialist.

“The state does employ people who, you tell them what you want to do, and they tell you what permits you’ll need,” Todd says. “And so, basically I would say you want to start there … ideally [before] you make any investment at all in any real estate. And then you would see how that’s going to affect — you know, is it even viable that you can do what you want to do?”

Todd says that while the regulatory stuff was a headache, he was pleasantly surprised by how helpful the state was when it came to his Act 250 permit. Current use, not so much — but overall, he says Vermont is creating opportunities for small businesses, so take advantage of them.

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“Just to be aware of, that the state is there, and can help. It’s not just an impediment,” Todd says. “So, for example, we’re applying for a Working Lands grant; we’ve gotten some help from the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund.”

Todd also says it’s super helpful to be in one of the industries that Vermont is targeting in its 2020 development strategy:

“You know, we’re sort of a crossover between agriculture, a food business and tourism, hospitality, all of which are at the centerpiece of a lot of Vermont Strong development plans," he explains. "And it’s because Vermont has natural assets that make it really desirable to start a business of that type here. And it’s kind of like a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Vermont’s strong brand also lifts all boats — so Todd’s last piece of advice is to collaborate.

“We work very closely with a phenomenal restaurant in Woodstock, where we sell them produce: Mangalitsa, and they’re new. They just started last year and we met them at the farmers market. And we encourage our guests to eat our food at Mangalitsa," Todd says. "And those kind of networks in the small communities are really easy to develop, and there’s already so many great people doing stuff here with food, restaurants, tourism. So if that’s where you’re going, you know, you should take advantage of what Vermont has to offer.”

Collaboration is a big part of the business we head to next.

Elmore Mountain Therapeutics

Reported by Amy Noyes

When Ashley Reynolds returned to her job as a dental hygienist after the birth of her second child, she found herself suffering from postpartum anxiety. She noticed on one of her patient’s health history chart that he also struggled with anxiety, but wasn’t treating the condition with any pharmaceuticals.

“So I said, ‘Hey, you know, what do you do to combat your anxiety?’” Ashley recalls. “And he was the one who said, ‘I take CBD.’ And, you know, two years ago I had no idea what that was, like a lot of people.”

CBD is short for cannabidiol. It’s a compound extracted from the cannabis plant, but it doesn’t get you high. People use it to treat an array of ailments, from chronic pain to anxiety. The science isn’t really in yet to support or dispel many CBD claims — but Ashley decided to give it a try.

“And after a few days of taking CBD, it gave me my life back,” she says. “And I felt so inspired to help other mothers and other folks who were struggling with the same issues and finding relief with the use of CBD as well. So began the journey of Elmore Mountain Therapeutics.”

Ashley and her husband, Colin, started Elmore Mountain Therapeutics in May 2017. At the time, in addition to raising two young children, they were both working full-time jobs. Neither of them had experience running a business. A year and a half later, they have both quit their day jobs and are hiring employees.

Ashley Reynolds and her husband Colin started Elmore Mountain Therapeutics in May 2017. Neither of them had experience running a business, but a year and a half later they've both quit their day jobs, and are hiring employees.
Credit Amy Noyes / VPR

Their business has two products on retail shelves: a tincture of CBD extract and a topical balm.

Ashley’s first piece of advice for Vermonters considering starting a business is: "Don’t wait."

“Now’s the time, especially for you women out there,” Ashley says, adding that there’s a lot of support for Vermont entrepreneurs, and especially female-run start-up businesses.

“I just won a pretty incredible cash award from VCET, Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies,” she says. “They do the Female Founders series, which is a story-sharing series for women entrepreneurs. And you really get to hear the honest journey from successful business owners.”

This fall Ashley was awarded $20,000 from VCET’s first Female Founders StartHere Challenge for woman-run start-up businesses.

“The awarded amount of money, I mean, it’s been a game changer for our company,” she says. “So, I’m forever grateful.”

There are other statewide business organizations, like Vermont Womenpreneurs, where start-ups can rub elbows with more experienced business people. Which leads us to Ashley’s next piece of advice: “You can’t get the answer to the questions you don’t ask.”

Elmore Mountain Therapeutics also recently joined Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility – or VBSR. (A quick note that VBSR has been a Brave Little State sponsor in the past.)

“They encourage new members to link up with seasoned members,” Ashley says, “and that’s exactly what we’re doing, is just working that network, learning about human resources, learning about accounting, getting ready to do our taxes at the end of the year.”

And, hand-in-hand with asking the right questions is really listening to the answers. Or, as Ashley puts it:

“Listen, listen, listen. Learn, learn, learn," she says. "I think that, in the beginning, I thought that I knew everything because I got a little bit of success right from the get-go, and now I do a lot more listening and I take a lot more notes.”

And Ashley says her biggest piece of advice is something we also heard from Todd Heyman at Fat Sheep Farm: collaborate.

“That’s the secret sauce of Elmore Mountain Therapeutics,” she says.

In addition to Elmore Mountain Therapeutics’ retail products, the company also sells its CBD extract wholesale, to be used as an ingredient in an array of other products.

“For my infusion edible partners and café partners, it’s a low-cost entry for the consumer. My company gets an incredible amount of outlet for, you know, advertising and brand recognition. And then their company gets a great return on their investments. So it’s really, it’s a triple-win,” Ashley says.

You can get CBD chocolates from Nutty Steph’s, in Middlesex, or Laughing Moon Chocolates, in Stowe. You can sip a CBD margarita at El Toro in Morrisville, or a CBD coffee drink at Cosmic Grind in Burlington. Massage oils, skin care products, dog treats — the list goes on.

“You dream it, we’re doin’ it!” Ashley says, laughing.

And within those collaborations lie valuable business relationships. Ashley says she gleans all sorts of wisdom from her collaborators’ experience.

“Just their management skills, how they grow, how they overcome challenges as a seasoned business – especially adding CBD to their products and some of the obstacles that they’ve had,” Ashley says. “They tell me those things candidly, and it’s safe. And it feels like … when one person does well, we all do well.”

Those same collaborations also open doors when it comes to getting products on retailers’ shelves. For example, if a co-op is already carrying a CBD-enhanced product, then it might make room on the store’s shelf for bottles of the extract as well. And it goes both ways.

“And now it’s [come] to the point where, [for example], we just got a new account in Manhattan and they reached out to me," Ashley says. "And rather than just sending samples of my product, I sent samples of my collaboration partners — and now all three of us are on the shelf. Boom, boom, boom. And that feels really, really good.”

Laura Zindel Design

Reported by Angela Evancie  

So, what about Vermont’s creative economy? To close out this episode, we ask how you can make a living as an artist.

"The first thing people said was, ‘Well, you don’t think you’re gonna just come here and get a job, right? You have to, like, bring your job with you.’ So that’s what we were doing — and I think you have to be ready to make it up as you go along,” says Laura Zindel.

She and her husband, Thorsten Lauterbach, moved to Brattleboro in 2004 with a ceramics company that Laura had started in San Francisco: Laura Zindel Design.

“It started out in my house — we have an old farmhouse. My husband renovated the haybarn, and that’s where we used to work out of,” Laura says.

Fast forward to today, when the company operates out of a 9,000-square-foot factory in a Brattleboro business park.

Laura gives Brave Little State an after-hours tour of the space where she and her husband now employ seven people full time, fabricating the plates and platters and other housewares that are printed with Laura’s distinctive drawings.

Laura Zindel Design makes ceramics printed with Laura's distinctive drawings of animals and plants. The company's 9,000-square-foot Brattleboro factory contains this showroom.
Credit Laura Zindel Design, courtesy

It’s a complicated process, with different spaces devoted to fabrication, firing, hand-glazing and staging of the many pieces waiting to be decorated with silk-screen enamel transfers of Laura’s drawings.

“We make everything to order,” Laura says. “So when somebody orders a piece, that’s when we decorate it."

Laura started out with detailed drawings of bugs, but now her portfolio includes all manner of creatures and plants. A work bench with printed mugs shows quails, sheep, owls, fox and penguins.

These hip designs seem destined for Instagram, which Laura loves — but she got her biggest breaks before social media even existed. Early on her work got picked up by stores in New York City — Barneys and ABC Carpet & Home. Her wholesale accounts have grown from 50 stores to 350 stores. Then there’s retail online and in the showroom.

“And we have a lot of local people who support us,” she says. “But our wholesale is really the biggest component of our business.”

Laura has a master’s degree in ceramics, not an MBA. So when it comes to a lot of the business administration, she outsources.

“I don’t know a lot of artists who love to do math — that was definitely me. So instead of just sort of sitting with a box of receipts and crying over them, I decided it’s really worth the money to hire somebody to do the things that took me double-time to do,” she says. “For instance, getting an accountant and a bookkeeper. I have a business adviser, who I think is almost more my therapist.”

So this is Laura's tip number one: “I would definitely advise people to not try to do the things that they’re not good at. Save their energy for the things that they are good at.”

As an artist-turned-business-owner, Laura Zindel hands off her accounting and bookkeeping. Save your energy for things you're good at, Laura advises.
Credit A detail of Laura Zindel working on a drawing of a squirrel. / Laura Zindel Design, courtesy

Tip number two: Take advantage of local resources. Like Todd Heyman at Fat Sheep Farm, Laura says she didn’t know there was so much help out there.

“What I would tell people is to find out immediately what your resources are around you,” she says. “I mean, I didn’t know about the Brattleboro Development Corporation.”

The Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation is what helped Laura get into this factory space. A friend of hers was on the board and told her to call them up.

“I got on the phone the next day,” she remembers. “It’s a free service, so they had an architect work with me, they had a business adviser work with me, somebody who helped me make my first business plan — even though we’d been in business for many years — and then developed this whole idea of what this space would look like, and then through loans from the state they built it out, and we signed the lease. So here we are today."

And tip number three is a winner: Be a good boss.

“I think the culture where you work is really important. And so I like to remind myself that I’m the leader and not the boss. And that helps me sort of process how I approach having employees,” Laura says. “A lot of the people who work for me, this is their first sort of 40-hour-a-week job that they’ve had, and we have to teach each other how that works."

Laura may be well-established, but she's still learning things, too, and finding support in a group of other Brattleboro business-owners.
Credit Laura Zindel Design, courtesy

Laura may be well-established at this point, but she’s still learning things, too. Lately she’s been thinking a lot about work-life balance.

“People are like, ‘Oh, it must be so fun and creative,’ and all I do is create all day, but the reality is that my drawings are often done at the kitchen table really late at night when everyone’s gone to bed,” she confesses.

She’s got to carve out time for the art that defines her company. And she’s also trying to work a little less.

“I actually belong to this business group of small-business owners in Brattleboro, and I find that every time I go there I feel better, even though we all have problems that we want to talk about," Laura says. "And one of the biggest ones lately has been, how do you take a vacation? How do you leave your business, and be able to really leave it for a good amount of time?”

Of course too much work is a good problem to have when you’re a small business — but burnout is real. And finding support in the community is something that our question-asker Luke has learned about, too.

“One thing that’s become really clear is that what kind of initially might strike people as a challenge, you know — we’re in a small state, there’s only so many customers for your business ... But it has actually turned out to be an advantage, because people are so supportive," Luke says.

Luke says this isn’t something he experienced when he worked in other states.

“And so, not being afraid, I think, to lean on the community, because I think by and large, Vermonters hang together, and really want to see everyone around them succeed," he says. "And so they’re willing to pitch in, and help, or point people in the right direction. But you just have to ask.”

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Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from the VPR Innovation Fund, and from VPR members. If you like this show, consider becoming one.

Special thanks this month to Amila Merdzanovic and Lesli Blount. Our editor is Lynne McCrea and our theme music is by Ty Gibbons. Other music in this episode by Blue Dot Sessions, and used under a Creative Commons license: