Startup Vermont Partnership Conference A Success

By Cairn Cross and Joe Miller, @StartupVermont

Earlier this month, we held our first annual Startup Vermont Partnership Conference, and by all accounts it was a great success. More than 120 entrepreneurs, startups, mentors, advisors and leading large businesses came together at IBM’s complex in Essex Junction for a single day event.

In due course, through a series of industry-specific panels and half a dozen afternoon breakout sessions on mission-critical business issues, we laid a foundation for cooperation between our state’s most successful larger businesses and our youngest, most promising ones. By fostering connections between established businesses and start-ups, our intent is to accelerate economic growth throughout Vermont.

We really didn’t know what to expect back in January, when a small handful of local VCs, angel investors, entrepreneurs and business advisors came together to create Startup Vermont and officially joined the Startup America movement. Vermont is a fertile state for entrepreneurial activity, but we’re not particularly known for having a close-knit entrepreneurial and VC community, a la Silicon Valley or Silicon Alley. Folks here are independent with a capital “I.” Furthermore, our little guys – the startups – have always maintained a healthy skepticism toward big business, and big money.

By March though, we had a team of about 18 business people, cobbled together through business relationships and LinkedIn connections – and IBM! Big Blue is an important economic engine in Vermont, and expressed interest in nurturing young Vermont businesses. IBM, having recently launched its Global Entrepreneur and SmartCamp programs world-wide offered its exceptional Essex facilities to host our kick-off Partnership Conference. Having IBM as the host gave our Startup Vermont coalition further credibility and was extremely helpful in recruiting participants.

Our group of 18 met once a week on a conference call, roles and responsibilities were accepted and fulfilled with little to no friction, and we quickly agreed on a tagline for the Partnership Conference: “Connecting Business, Sharing Experience, Growing Vermont’s Economy.”

By late April we had secured founders and executives from homegrown Vermont business success stories such as Biotek, Allscripts and Burton for the industry panels; a Vermont “gazelle”, My Web Grocer, leant several employees to the cause; and the entrepreneurial contingent became excited about the opportunity to potentially work together, in a meaningful way, with some of the state’s most successful businesses.

We used some basic marketing tools like press releases and a conference registration website to spread the word, and supercharged the effort through a constant stream of postings and reminders on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

We decided to split the day, creating a morning focus on three key startup industry sectors here in Vermont – Technology, Consumer Products and Food Systems. In the afternoon we fielded six separate breakout sessions on business issues critical to startups, which we determined through a simple SurveyMonkey emailing to the business community. These issues included business development, managing intellectual property (IP), sourcing talent, raising capital, recruiting a fiduciary/advisory board and strategic use of social media platforms.

The day was full and our 120-plus attendees were active participants from beginning to end, in both the industry and business issue sessions. And they provided a lot of great ideas to include in future events. In fact, our team of 18 is already gathering to begin planning a series of meetings, seminars and similar gatherings throughout the year – with the annual conference as our signature event – that will keep Startup Vermont percolating, and continue to bring the Green Mountain State’s business community closer together.

We like to think one or two business deals were brokered. We know, from speaking with folks at the day-end cocktail mixer, that much was learned from both sides of the table. We believe that the spirit of cooperation that pervaded the first annual Startup Vermont Partnership Conference will carry forth and accelerate the state’s economic growth in the coming months and years.