Woodstock competition offers $30,000 prize for best business idea

Cliff Johnson, left, and Larry Niles, two Woodstock startup organizers, hope to spark new business. Photo by Ethan Weinstein/VTDigger

Woodstock – Let the best business win.

With $30,000 in seed funding, three Woodstock business leaders have helped create Startup Woodstock, a competition that helps launch a new business.

“The idea is that the closer the company is to solving some critical need in society, that’s a big advantage,” said Cliff Johnson, one of the organizers and judges of Startup Woodstock.

Johnson moved with his family from Atlanta to Woodstock during the pandemic. More than a decade ago, while working in Portland, Oregon, he founded Vacasa, an international vacation rental management company, which he left in 2018.

Johnson is co-organizing the Woodstock race with John Spector and Larry Niles, both members of the city’s Economic Development Commission, which focuses on issues such as housing, child care and downtown revitalization. The commission provided $10,000 for the race, with an additional $20,000 coming from private donors.

“We really want people to come here,” Niles said. “We will do everything we can to solve some of these very obvious problems or barriers to opening a business.”

High rents downtown contribute to barriers, Niles said, along with the perception that Woodstock has a difficult bureaucracy for prospective business owners. While the former may be true, he dismissed the latter, saying that nearly all business owners surveyed by the commission reported positive experiences with local government.

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Niles also rejects the idea that Woodstock only caters to certain customers.

“I always think we’re just a rich city because we’re made up of a lot of business people and a lot of people who have lived here their whole lives,” he said.

With that in mind, Niles and Johnson said the Woodstock startup hopes to cast a wide net in attracting potential applicants for the prize. Individuals whose ideas may be in the early stages are invited to apply. So are service-based businesses such as utilities, landscaping, and child care.

“A $30,000 grant can help someone easily start a new child care business,” Johnson said.

The competition criteria require businesses to fill an unmet gap in society and hopefully create living wage jobs or sustainable owner-managed businesses.

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If successful, Johnson said he hopes the competition will “create a culture of entrepreneurship and empower people to create their own destiny.”

Johnson imagines that this kind of culture could thrive at Woodstock. He moved to Vermont to raise his family and enjoyed the Woodstock school system, tight-knit community and access to the outdoors. He works remotely, and sees Windsor County as a vacation destination for more remote workers like him.

For a town of only about 3,000 people, Woodstock devotes considerable resources to economic development. Since 2016, the city’s Economic Development Commission has awarded more than $1 million in grants to support events, physical infrastructure, marketing and other initiatives.

This year, the city government created a program that pays landlords to convert short-term rentals to long-term rentals. The aim of this program is to reduce the shortage of housing in the city, which has become more acute due to the attractiveness of the village for tourists. Property owners received $3,000 for a one-year lease and $7,000 for a two-year lease.

Johnson acknowledged “concerns that arise when a community receives more vacation rentals,” including through Vacasa, adding that short-term rentals may be “a small contributor to housing affordability.”

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However, he believes that vacation rentals can be “a positive part of most communities” when they are licensed, taxed and comply with local regulations.

According to the organizers, although this is a new idea, if the Woodstock startup succeeds, it can grow. Applicants can apply until Dec. 1, at which point a to-be-announced panel of judges will narrow the field to a group of finalists by Dec. 15. Those finalists will present their ideas in February and a winner will be chosen soon. after that.

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