Lessons in Life and Entrepreneurship from Vermont

cold enoughBeen a wicked busy and wicked cold January, so not much in the way of blogging, but now with this leap into February, I’m back at it.  It was my great grandfather Horace, who lived up the road a piece in the beautiful town of Poultney, Vermont, who talked about 8 months of snow, 2 months of mosquitoes and 2 months of “just damn poor sleddin’”.  My family has lived in this valley for just about 250 years, and what I know is that it takes real work to live here. Vermont’s beautiful on one hand, and just hardscrabble tough on the other.

I heat my house largely with wood since the alternatives are wicked expensive electricity (most expensive in the U.S. other than Hawaii) and propane…neither of which are native to Vermont.  In a normal season, I go through four to six cords, and I’m just a part timer now. For 10 years, just outside my front door, I’ve had the ugliest wood tent made from grey military grade, fiber-laced plastic erected over four giant steel posts. Really, really ugly and uglier yet since my snowblower got away from me and took a big chunk out of it last season.

Winhall General Store 2018-1Over the holidays one of the “Boys on the Bench”-now inside by the fire-down at the Winhall General Store, who had been hunting turkeys along the river near my house, commented about just how ugly the tent was.  I knew then that if a true Vermonter was calling my ugly tent ugly, it was time for a change.  A friend suggested a Jamaica Cottage wood shed, and last Friday it was delivered in all its beauty.  By the way, given the quirkiness of Vermonters plus the wicked cold for most of the year, my neighboring towns have been given names like Jamaica and Peru. 


In Massachusetts, the delivery of this 8 by 14 by 10 feet tall structure would have taken three workers, a supervisor, a building permit, a zoning board meeting followed by a two-month environmental impact study to ensure that the love lives of the red squirrel population would not be affected. 

WoodshedFor this purchase, one person, Peter from Jamaica, showed up Friday driving a semi with an automated lift which was integrated into the flatbed. He expertly delivered and positioned the 3,500-pound tiny-house-kind-of-structure perfectly into place using little more than a handheld device maneuvering both the semi and the lift in increments of inches.  Military drone operators operating Predators out of Iraq are nothing compared to Peter’s skillful expertise in maneuvering the wood shed, sliding it off the flatbed, turning it a full 90 degrees and then leveling it perfectly.

Jamaica Cottages was started by Domenic, a child of the 60’s who like many original flatlanders escaped into the Vermont hills probably to hug a few trees, to hike and ski, and then figure out how to make a couple of bucks.  A classic Vermont entrepreneur just like my Vermont father (a jazz musician), grandfather (a jewelry chain pioneer) and GGF (an explorer)  Given Domenic’s love and expertise in marketing, his engineering and design background, and what I experienced as his staff’s superb customer service, Jamaica Cottages has become a solid success, and a superb example of Vermont entrepreneurship at its best. 

Even though Vermont’s a tough place to do business, its roots of entrepreneurship are spread deep into the soil of innovation and ingenuity that are exemplified by large companies such as Ben & Jerry’s to the fact that the state is the largest producer of maple syrup.  It’s therefore not surprising to discover that the first U.S. patent was issued to a Vermonter. 

emotional-resilience-plant-lydur-flickrThe essence of entrepreneurship begins with each of us thinking, dreaming and conceptualizing “Just how could I do this differently?”  "What could i do to grow, feed, and cultivate this new idea?"

As we kick off 2019, I’m suggesting that each of us take a hard look around at ourselves and what we’re doing in our work.

Now that we’re through all of the budget approvals and sales kickoffs, I’d like you to think through a couple of simple questions.  I do this all the time, and I’ve never been disappointed even when I take sudden 90 degree turns.  Life is, or should be, about planning for change, thinking through how to do things differently, and making sure that we’re on the right road at this time in our lives.

  • Are you happy with work? If not, just change. It’s as simple as that. You don’t have to change your company or even your job, but what I do know as a corporate and as a startup guy, nothing will change by itself, and if you’re not happy now, you’ll be miserable by this time next year.
  • Lay out a simple plan…for yourself, for your work, or for your new idea. Dreaming about things will only result in dreams.  Planning through things brings activities, and activities always result in both change and growth.  You don’t have to write an elaborate business plan, but you do need to write things down.  You can get a copy of our free book, Writing the Winning Business Plan, but you can also start with something much simpler. You just need to start the process, and go through the discipline of writing it down.  Our book, btw, is used by hundreds of students at MIT now for 20 years and at Tufts.  
  • It’s February, which in Vermont means that there’s five more months of winta’. February’s a great time to take this measure of your work and what you would like to do.  Today, place a marker in your Outlook calendar on the last day of March and simply ask yourself “Have I completed my plan?”.  Maybe that’s a plan for a promotion at work, or for a new job, or for you to launch that new idea you and a couple of friends have been kicking around last year.   

2018 Founder's Workshop 101918-102018

Here at the Tufts Entrepreneurship Center, we’re hard at work with more students than ever, more events than last year and driving to the $100K New Venture Competition ranked by Forbes as one of the best in the country.  Join us at our day-long Founder’s Workshop on “Finding the Best People & Best Monday” Our superb key speakers-Dan Schorr of Vice Cream, Bob Stringer, venture capitalist and best-selling author of  Culture.com: How the Best Startups Make it Happen, and Art Papas, CEO of Bullhorn-plus six leading venture capitalists and a panel of alum entrepreneurs will answer every possible question you have about successful entrepreneurship.

Time to start the day, sell some stuff and start thinking differently!

Jack Derby

 Please stay connected!

Jack Derby, Director, TEC-Tufts Entrepreneurship Center
Cummings Family Chair Professor of Entrepreneurship
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Cell:  617-504-4222 jack.derby@tufts.edu  

Advisor, Derby Management, experts in-
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