Everything You Want to Know About Tech in Vermont
BURLINGTON, Vt. – Before Vermont native Marguerite Dibble graduated from Champlain College here in 2012, she vowed to test her gaming skills in this postage stamp-sized state rather than one of the nation’s major tech hubs.
She may have dreamed about leaving for the big city while in high school, but Dibble -- like an increasing number of her millennial peers – decided to stay in the Green Mountain state, where she established a company (Game Theory) and a personal life.
“I think Vermont is just a beautiful place to live,” says Dibble, 27, who is married. “I love my family here and I think the lifestyle and connectedness to nature and the seasons is reward in a way that is more important to me personally than professional ambition.”
Such as the new career paths of the young and talented crop of younger people who are choosing life balance over the hustle-and-bustle pressure cooker of life in Silicon Valley, New York, Boston and Seattle.
“We fantasized about moving here,” says Ben Throop, a Generation-Xer, CEO of games developer Frame Interactive. He and his wife moved from Portland, Ore., to Burlington in June 2016. They have two children, 8 and 3. The ability to walk to work, or anywhere for that matter, had enduring appeal. “It’s that crazy dream of riding your bike. The sense of engagement. Knowing your neighbors.”
Vermont is synonymous with maple syrup, skiing, cows, craft beers and 19th Century covered wooden bridges. Amid its rustic, bucolic charms, something distinctly 21st Century is happening here.
A collection of start-ups are setting roots here to establish tech as a growing economic engine while other industries – textile manufacturing, lumber and book publishing – fade away. What has emerged is a younger workforce with higher-paying jobs without compromising the state’s grounded, scrappy mien.
“We don’t want to be Silicon Valley,” says Cairn Cross, co-founder and managing director of freshTracks Capital, a venture-capital firm in Shelburne, Vt. “We can’t out-Silicon Valley Silicon Valley.”
For a brief time, Cross says, the region flirted with the idea of coming up with a catchy name that mirrored that of the tech mecca in the San Francisco Bay Area before deciding not to. “To quote a friend, ‘Vermont is anti-business the way Apple is anti-technology’” in sensibilities, he says.
If anything, the state has shown a knack for re-imaging well-worn businesses such as coffee (Keurig Green Mountain), ice cream (Ben & Jerry’s), snowboards (Burton Snowboards) and laundry detergent (Seventh Generation). It’s essentially the same approach that worked for Uber (cabs), Airbnb (hotels) and Apple (phones).
Tech, in fact, complements Burlington’s artistic bent, says Paul Paget, CEO at cybersecurity firm Pwnie Express. “It’s part of the (town’s) creativity,” he says, pointing to the success of Dealer.com, a digital marketing service for car dealerships that was acquired by Dealertrack Technologies for about $1 billion in 2014. Most of its employees occupy an amenity-filled building in this town’s artistic district. There’s an indoor tennis court, with exercise machines; a conference hall that doubles as a movie theater; and a rooftop setting with mini-putting greens.
Or look no further than the corporate headquarters of Burton. The snowboard-making pioneer, which just developed a revolutionary new step-in binding for snowboarders, operates out of a ski lodge-like setting with as many dogs as humans. From its R&D labs, it came up with the design after nearly five years – and hundreds of prototypes – from 3-D printing and sophisticated 3-D modeling software.
It’s all happening within a small city of about 45,000 during Tech Week in a state where unemployment is low (roughly 3%) but incomes are low, too.
“Entrepreneurship is the revenue model” if Vermont hopes to create more high-paying jobs, says David Bradbury, president of Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies, a nonprofit that has worked with more than 1,700 start-ups and entrepreneurs, oversees an expert mentor network and makes direct investments from a $5 million revolving seed capital fund.
In the tightly knit Burlington community, Artur Adib is a connector. The Silicon Valley veteran (Mozilla, Twitter, Magic Leap) and Vermont tech entrepreneur created a news site, AllYouCanTech.com, that covers “the pulse of tech in Vermont.”
The elements are all here for a successful tech start-up: Three local colleges (Champlain, University of Vermont and Saint Michael’s College); close proximity to major cities (Montreal, Boston and New York); talent and resources at affordable prices; and a small state where everyone is accessible, Adib says.
The secret sauce, however, is the cultural benefit of living in a setting free of congestion, exorbitant housing costs and cutthroat competition. “There is a balance of work and life here,” says Lisa Groeneveld, co-founder of Logic Supply, a maker of heavy-duty PCs with more than $30 million in revenue last year.
Such is the mantra of natives such as Groeneveld and transplants like Kansan Trevor Crist, who attended nearby Middlebury College. As CEO of Inntopia, he has never considered uprooting the online travel site he started more than a decade ago. “It always comes down to lifestyle,” says Crist, who noted his company often recruits spouses of tech workers who have migrated to Vermont.
“People are moving from cities to gain some sort of balance,” he says. “We don’t want people working 60 to 70 hours a week. They can go skiing or hiking during the day and come back and do their work. It’s just outside our office doors (in Stowe, Vt.).”
Most local college graduates want to go to the city and enjoy that lifestyle for a few years, gaming developer Throop says. “Let them,” he says, smiling. “Get that experience and come back (to Burlington to settled down and work). It’s a positive feedback loop.”
Would he think of ever uprooting his family and leaving Burlington? “No,” Throop says, emphatically.
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