EDA Helps Vermont Entrepreneurs Take First Steps in the Business World
Lyndonville is a rural Vermont community, once described by Boston Magazine as one of the fifteen “best small towns” in New England. It has a population of approximately 1,200 and is home to the 5th Battalion of the Vermont State Guard. For more than 100 years, Lyndonville was a factory town, providing timber throughout New England.
Evan Carlson (lower left) and the staff of Do North Coworking.
Today, the mills have all closed. The jobs that once sustained this community are no more, and Lyndonville looks to re-invent itself. Start-ups and entrepreneurs are more common than the capital needed to support them. As new businesses take shape, finding affordable office space can often be a challenge. One EDA grantee is helping to change all that.
Do North Coworking (Do North) first opened its doors in 2018. It offers professional coworking space, office equipment and broadband connectivity to local start-ups, entrepreneurs and other community organizations, helping them take their first steps in the business world. They often cater to the local forestry, recreation and healthcare industries. Many of their clients are with Northern Vermont University (NVU), through which the company has close ties.
The idea of the university playing a role in area business development began about ten years ago, when a founding team led by Ann Nygard, Director of the Center for Professional Studies at NVU, formalized a technical assistance program for area businesses. The program encouraged students to serve as consultants through the University’s Incubator Without Walls (I-WOW) program.
In 2017, NVU took part in the Vermont Council on Rural Development’s Community Visit process. During this collaboration, Nygard worked with Evan Carlson, a digital product developer. Through this collaboration, the two formalized the concept of coworking space.
“When you come to rural communities, there is great need for affordable space, connections, reliable high-speed internet service and even watercooler talk,” said Nygard. “Prior to our opening, the closest copier machine was at a Staples 40 miles away.”
Carlson, who serves as Do North’s Entrepreneur in Residence, saw the connection to NVU as a core to its success. He also favored locating their space within a local business hub, one that would provide their tenants with geographic proximity to the downtown area.
“Bringing people to the Village Center to patronize retail spaces was important to this vision,” said Carlson. “It consolidated a number of talented individuals who now network on a daily basis.”
The launch of Do North was made possible through funding provided by EDA, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-Rural Development and the Northern Border Regional Commission. EDA supported NVU’s application as it encouraged job creation through innovation, productivity and entrepreneurship. It also encouraged the empowerment of local and regional communities.
Today, Do North is home to 26 small businesses and entrepreneurs. While some have rotated in and out over the years, the company does have two anchor tenants. North View Weather provides predictive weather analyses for the local utility companies while offering expert insight into solar feasibility projects. The other anchor tenant, Whiteout Solutions, examines ecological issues, such as invasive species and fertilizer usage, then provides environmental mapping and data solutions to local businesses.
Since its creation, Do North has hosted an annual flagship event known as Entrepreneur Week, a series of events designed to inspire local start-ups. The events include panel discussions and roundtable forums. Attendees are also invited to partake in strategy sessions, offering practical, real-world solutions to problems businesses face. While this quick approach may not always solve the stated problem, it does encourage participants to be innovative. Last year’s event, dubbed “Hackathon,” was hosted for emerging software developers, and dealt with the growing threat of cybersecurity.
Do North also offers a nine-week curriculum for more traditional businesses, such as manufacturing, plumbing, and food service providers. It addresses issues such as personal capacity and financial structures, while tending to the respective business needs of each participant. It also provides them with an opportunity to network, as they are provided with a database of potential clients at the end of the course.
Like all businesses, 2020 was a challenging year for Do North, which closed for four months due to the coronavirus pandemic. Although they continued to offer their services online, one third of the membership was lost. By June of 2021, however, they had returned to pre-pandemic capacity and expanded operations to include a third floor of coworking space.
As the landscape continues to evolve, Do North will continue offering co-working space, which has allowed new entrepreneurs to interact in a natural, organic way, and identify those business practices that work best for them.
“Entrepreneurship has become much more relatable,” Nygard said. “Do North is a natural, friendly, cool place.”