A Year Later, 3 Small Vermont Businesses Highlight Challenges Facing Startups

Jun 29, 2016

Small business startups are seen as an important part of Vermont’s economy. But according to government statistics, one in five fails after one year, and about half of them are no longer in business after five years. 

With that in mind, we checked on three new businesses we profiled last year to see how they’re doing now.

Burlington Record Plant

One of the businesses was the Burlington Record Plant, which started pressing vinyl records last summer on Pine Street in Burlington.

The idea was to give artists a chance to tap into the renewed interest in vinyl records by offering a boutique service that specializes in small runs of up to 500 records, and customized service like multicolored vinyl. 

The company is in a small garage-like space. With the big overhead door thrown open on a hot summer day, the hum of the machines inside seems like an indication that business is good.  

“I haven’t advertised one time,” says owner Justin Crowther.

He is in constant motion as he talks, coaxing an oozing blob of vinyl from one machine and inserting it into a hulking steel press, which takes about 30 seconds to create a record.

"I've had to teach myself to be a businessman because I'm an artist. I've just been approaching it with honesty." — Justin Crowther, Burlington Record Plant

While that’s happening, he’s trimming off the excess vinyl and inspecting a newly-pressed record before sliding it into paper sleeve. And on and on it goes.

“I’d love more than anything to make the records all day because there’s some Zen to the whole situation and you get to look at every record that comes out,” says Crowther.

But there’s more to the business than running the record press. A drummer by trade (his band is the popular Burlington group Waylon Speed), Crowther got help from the Small Business Administration.  

“I’ve had to teach myself to be a businessman because I’m an artist. I’ve just been approaching it with honesty,” he says. That means being up front with customers when there are delays and other problems.

Alex Raine was recently hired by Crowther to help with the production side of Burlington Record Plant.
Credit Steve Zind / VPR

Crowther says the biggest challenge isn’t sustaining the business financially, but keeping it from physically and mentally exhausting him.

“It’s been night and day. I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking about the process and the steam pressure and the pre-form temperature,” he explains.

Four or five months ago, Crowther hired Alex Raine to help run the plant – and he’s feeling that will help sustain him and the company as it enters its second year of operation.

The fortunes of the other two start-ups we profiled are more mixed.  

Ulu Boots

One was Ulu Boots, which was more like a re-startup. Scott Hardy began making the boots in 2002. Back then the company was based in Burlington.

A few years later, he sold Ulu to a larger manufacturer, which in turn sold it to an even larger one, which then discontinued the line.  

Last year, Hardy bought the brand back and started manufacturing the boots again.

They were made in southeast Asia, but the company was based in Vergennes.

Hardy was running the business alone, but hoped to grow it enough to hire employees.  

But a mild and snowless winter and less demand for winter wear upended his plans.

"I still think of it as a success from the standpoint of revitalizing the brand. It was just in a fragile state to have such a horrible winter." — Scott Hardy, Ulu Boots

“It changed the trajectory because of the winter boot sales, stores were still full from all their other brands from the prior year,” says Hardy.

“It just meant that this year was going to be an abysmal year," Hardy said, "and really that meant you had to wait another year before sales would pick up, provided this winter is a good winter.”

Hardy found a buyer for Ulu, a mid-sized Oregon manufacturer called Chinook Trading that will keep the brand alive, although without his involvement.

“I still think of it as a success from the standpoint of revitalizing the brand. It was just in a fragile state to have such a horrible winter,” he says.

Hardy, who also has a career investing in and consulting with other startups, says he’s contemplating what to do next.  

Alpaca Guitars

The third startup was Alpaca Guitars. They were turning out rugged carbon fiber instruments from a storefront in Bethel – until one day last spring.  Jay Burstein was the head luthier for the company. 

“I think it was a Wednesday. We worked the day. At the end of the day, we were informed that was it. Just ‘boom,’” says Burstein.

According to the company’s Facebook page, Alpaca Guitars has moved to Oregon. But there’s been nothing new posted on the page or the company’s website since last year.

Jay Burstein is in the process of starting his own small business after his former employer, Alpaca Guitars, abruptly left the state.
Credit Steve Zind / VPR

After several inquiries, founder Chris Duncan sent a message confirming the company had moved.

“We had a very hard time of it in Bethel,” Duncan said, adding, “We are currently setting up our production facilities here.” 

He said the company hopes to be producing guitars again later this year.

Duncan didn’t respond to follow up questions about why the company left Vermont.

There may be a silver lining to the Alpaca Guitars story. Luthier Jay Burstein, who is from Vermont, is making prototypes of his own travel guitar – a more conventional looking instrument than the Alpaca, and made of hemp instead of carbon fiber.

Burnstein hopes to create his own Vermont startup called BugOut Guitars sometime in the coming months.