Brattleboro looks to ‘instigate’ small business

Startup lab helps entrepreneurs focus and connect

BRATTLEBORO — A few months ago, Chelsea Nunez quit her job and dove “headfirst” into the hard-knocks world of startup entrepreneurship.

But she's had some assistance in getting her Brattleboro event-planning company - playfully called Nacho Average Events - off the ground.

Nunez was one of several entrepreneurs graduating from a new “Startup Lab” in Brattleboro. It's part of a larger effort, called INSTIG8, aimed at encouraging and nurturing small businesses as the region attempts to recover from the loss of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.

“This allowed me to realize that it's great to have big ideas, but you can't have big ideas that go in a thousand directions,” Nunez said of the lab's seven-week curriculum. “You have to focus on the things that are really important.”

INSTIG8, which has been around for about a year, is the brainchild of Brattleboro Development Credit Corp.

The nonprofit owns the Exit One Industrial Park and has played a role in large economic projects like the recent $17 million expansion of G.S. Precision. But the credit corporation also maintains two large incubator spaces, the Book Press and the Cotton Mill, that host a variety of small businesses.

In a related vein, new programs under the INSTIG8 label are meant to bolster the region's support network for entrepreneurs. There are educational workshops as well as “idea jams” designed to stimulate conversations and connections among small business owners.

Demonstrated need

R.T. Brown, a Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. staffer who only half-jokingly bills himself as the initiative's “head instigator,” said a study finished last year found that the region was lacking in such programs.

“For Southern Vermont and a lot of rural regions ... there's not enough activity to really get the sparks going for people to engage with ideas that might lead to a new business,” Brown said.

Brattleboro's new startup lab is the latest attempt to rectify that. It's a partnership with the Keene, N.H.-based Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship, and it is structured as an intensive, seven-week effort to help business owners shape and sharpen their plans.

“It takes courage to do this,” said Mary Ann Kristiansen, the Hannah Grimes Center's executive director. “It takes strength. It takes motivation. It takes partners that are supporting you.”

Some of the lab's participants are brand-new businesses, Brown said, while “some are existing businesses that are in transition, trying to think about how to do things a bit differently.”

At a gathering held Oct. 19 at the Cotton Mill, the lab's first class had a chance to tell their stories and show what they've learned.

Nunez also showed off her skills, since she had set up the event space beforehand. Her new company - named after her dog, Nacho - reflects her enthusiasm for “nonprofit fund-raising and event solutions.”

“I really felt like, maybe this is my calling,” Nunez said. “Maybe this is where I needed to be.”

She led off a diverse lineup of entrepreneurs. Matt Hoffman, for example, walked to the podium dressed in martial arts garb and brandishing a light saber.

There was a reason for both aspects of his presentation: Hoffman runs Sangha Martial Arts in the Cotton Mill, and he wants to branch out by making Brattleboro a training and manufacturing center for LudoSport - a combat sport that employs light sabers.

“I high-five my 5-year-old self pretty much every morning when I get up,” Hoffman said of his career path.

Pressure test

On a more serious note, Hoffman said the Startup Lab helped him realize that he wanted to focus on LudoSport. The lab “kind of pressure-tests you to a certain extent,” he said. “It forces you to say, 'OK, what are the numbers, what's the idea, what's the concept, does it make sense?'”

Other presenters included SoulSing, a Brattleboro company marketing “personalized care packages to busy women”; MAxT Makerspace, a Peterborough, N.H., nonprofit eyeing new services for entrepreneurs; and Goodman Cabinetmakers, a well-established, Cotton Mill-based business that may establish a gallery and school in downtown Brattleboro.

Kevin Gannon Parada's Vernon-based startup is called Venutopia, which he describes as an Airbnb-like service for finding unique wedding and event venues. He said the Startup Lab helped him develop a business plan and a “crystal-clear vision” for his company.

“We will launch the website by the end of the month and go full steam ahead,” Parada said.

As the Startup Lab's first graduates move forward, Brown is hoping that the lab and other INSTIG8 programs can mount a “sustained effort” to find and develop entrepreneurial talent in the Windham Region.

Significant financial support for INSTIG8 has come from the Windham County Economic Development Program, which is fueled by money from a Vermont Yankee shutdown settlement agreement.

“The challenge is to keep this going,” Brown said.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates