By Danny Monahan
Small Business Administration Vermont District Office public information officer
Maybe his guitar of choice is a 1965 Fender Stratocaster. Or perhaps it’s a 2013 PRS Custom 22. Whatever the preference, it can be placed into his hands without him ever having to leave the couch.
It’s not that lifelike, but it’s what the owners of Music Store Live are trying to accomplish with their online guitar store, musicstorelive.com.
“Our goal is to bring the guitar shop into your living room and come as close as we can to putting the guitar into your hands without actually doing it,” said Ben Werlin, Music Store Live co-owner.
Music Store Live highlights its new, used and vintage guitars through high resolution photos and videos.
After a little more than two years, their website has made them one of the largest Fender Guitar retailers in the northeast.
It started in the fall of 2010, when brothers Ben and Brandon Werlin were camping in Yosemite National Park talking about their jobs.
“We are sitting on a boulder under the stars having some beers,” said Ben Werlin. “Brandon has always been involved in selling things on-line and he was looking to hire an assistant. He asked me how he should go about hiring someone. I started giving him some advice when I had an epiphany. I said ‘wait a minute … we should partner up.’ We got really excited about the potential that was out there if we scaled Brandon’s model, and really innovated within it. I came back from my trip and we began making Music Store Live.”
Music Store Live attributes much of its starting success to the Vermont Small Business Development Center.
“The VtSBDC has been great,” said Werlin. “We were referred to them, and they are a totally free resource any small business owner can use. They helped us with creating a business plan and projections, so we could go to a bank prepared with exactly what the bank would want to see in order to approve a loan.”
For their first loan, they were approved for $130,000 and shortly afterwards approved for a $300,000 loan, both backed by the Small Business Administration.
“We first started in my house, but after a few months it became evident we were going to have to move when I couldn’t sit down in my living room,” said Ben Werlin. “Every couch and chair was blocked by stacks of guitar cases.”
In 2011, they moved to a small warehouse by the airport in South Burlington, Vt. As the business grew, they moved within the same building a few months later, with plans to tear down walls, so they can expand more.
Today they have more than a dozen employees.
“We are very happy about the number of local jobs we have been able to create,” said Jeff Santoro, Music Store Live co-owner. “As a whole our employees are doing something they love to do.”
Music Store Live employs two photographers, two descriptive writers, two guitar techs, two shippers, three salesmen, a videographer, an instrument buyer, an accountant, and a digital/IT manager.
“We take high res photos of each guitar from several different angles, so integrity is built into the sale immediately,” said Santoro. “This approach improves customer satisfaction because people see exactly what it is they are buying.”
The videographer spends most of his day in the warehouse’s video studio filming Bob Wagner, their in-house guitarist and descriptive writer playing countless guitars.
For their efforts of bridging the gap between the online and in-store experience, they have been recognized by the SBA as 2013 Vermont Young Entrepreneur of the Year.
The annual award is presented to business owners under 35 who have had success in sales, profits, increasing jobs, having innovative business methods and demonstrating entrepreneurial potential necessary for economic growth.
“Winning this award has made us realize what a team effort this is,” said Ben Werlin. “I’m really proud we’ve been recognized this quickly, but it couldn’t have been done without all of the talented people spending their days here, making all of the moving parts work as well as they do.”
Music Store Live says it plans to continue its mission to reinvent the way people buy musical gear, and this is just the beginning.
Andrew Boutin, general manager of Pellergy LLC founded the business in 2006 with a goal to cut home heating costs by using a locally renewable fuel. He started in his basement, moved to a two-car garage, and now works out of a 2,000 square-foot space inthe old North Barre Granite building. Andrew was new to owning a business and credits the Vermont Small Business Development Center for providing important technical assistance throughout the entire process, helping with his business plan, financial projections and business goals and objectives. Andrew also teamed up with a manufacturer in Finland and secured the exclusive rights to its fully automated burner systems - systems that Pellergy manufactures in America, mostly in Vermont. The system converts oil heating systems to wood pellets yet preserves most of the heating system components.
Years of Pellergy testing and further years of residential utilization in Northern Europe have established the reliability of the systems. Andrew redesigned the European system to standard U.S. dimensions, tolerances, materials and components. Then he found local fabrication shops to produce the parts and set up a local assembly operation. Rather than create his own sales and service staff, Andrew trains fully certified local home-heating companies' technicians to install and service wood pellet central heating systems and supports them with, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, live person technical support. He felt this was a better way to support existing businesses. Pellergy assists with the initial setup of the system, troubleshooting and routine maintenance whenever questions may arise. Because there is very little standardization in today's wood pellet home-heating world, installers are trained to meet customers' frequent need for a custom or semi-custom design.
By 2010, Andrew had created enough of a demand for his product that he was able to leave his job at General Dynamics to focus full time on Pellergy. The company also now sells fully integrated wood pellet boilers made from U.S. steel and cast iron, in three different sizes. They also offer greenhouse heaters with up to 200,000 btu output made in the States as well. Andrew has distributors in Vermont, Pennsylvania, Maine and Alaska and has trained 35 certified installers in those areas as well. In the first three years, sales have gone from nothing to over $200,000 in 2011.
The Vermont office of the Small Business Administration has given the Family-Owned Small Business Award to James and Karen Mount of Mount Family Group. Mount Family Group (MFG) was originally started in Burlington as a family-owned business in 1982 by David and Francis Mount. MFG is in the personnel placement business, specializing in temporary help. From $25,000 in sales when it began, MFG has grown to a nearly $30 million company.
In 1995, the Mounts began to look among their five children for a family member who could become involved with the company and eventually take over as manager or owner. Karen, the wife of their eldest son Stephen, joined the company in 1996 and learned every aspect of its operations. She became David Mount's main adviser in administration and marketing matters. Karen became instrumental in training employees, in helping open new offices and eventually took on the role of Director of Administration. In 1997, James Mount, the Mount's second son, joined the company and served for several years as a personnel recruiter and customer service representative. The Mounts established the company on five principals for dealing with workers and customers, the first of which they listed as 'outrageous customer service'. They also emphasized integrity, respect, fun and keeping the business family friendly.
In the fall of 2010 the transition to the second generation was completed with James Mount assuming 60 percent of the shares and Karen Mount 40 percent. James Mount says the company is looking at breaking all sales records this year. He also noted how pleased the company was to be recognized by the SBA. His father David also was pleased with the honor. 'I thought that award was fantastic,' David said. 'It validates the things we've been doing over the last 30 years. I'm very, very proud of our son James and daughter-in-law Karen. They've taken over the business and are doing a wonderful job.'