University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

BFFs in business

aul Maravetz and Josh Reid in their Rome Snowboard plant

By Thomas Weaver
Photograph by Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist ’09

ROME SNOWBOARD DESIGN SYNDICATE

Looking back, Paul Maravetz ’89 and Josh Reid ’89 find early evidence in trips to Tuckerman’s Ravine that their college friendship was up to the rigors of a business partnership. Many ski or snowboard this fabled face of Mt. Washington in spring. But in the early nineties the UVM alumni pair raised the risk factor by riding Tuckerman’s in winter. 

Two guys in tough conditions, reliant on one another to save the day if something went wrong, those outings were a sign that they had the nerve—and trust in one another—to leave behind solid jobs and start their own company.  

Founded in 2001, Rome Snowboard Design Syndicate has the hallmarks of a classic, twenty-first-century-style Vermont business. Their product meshes with the history and landscape of the state; headquarters are in a well-worn, rambling building by the railroad tracks in Waterbury—casual, big-dog-friendly, and just up the road from an epic network of mountain bike trails. You can almost miss Rome’s rusted metal sign by the door, but it belies an operation with sixteen employees in Vermont, several more at their European office in Munich, Germany, and manufacturing in Quebec and Asia.  

In 1985, when one snowboarder spotted another it was buds-at-first-sight. Maravetz laughs, suggests his recollection might be slightly fictionalized, but recalls looking out his residence hall window freshman year, seeing Reid and a mutual friend loading up the car for a trip to the mountain. “Holy shit, they’ve got snowboards!” They later met through friends, shared apartments on Mansfield Avenue, and rode when they could at the areas where they could. 

Post-graduation, engineering major Maravetz and philosophy/political science double major Reid took different directions. Maravetz returned to his home state of New Jersey and worked as an engineer. Reid embarked on what he describes as a “more vagabondish” path—snowboard bumming out west, teaching in Japan, and the Peace Corps in Sri Lanka. 

The two friends stayed in touch, joining up most years for an annual snowboard trip. Maravetz had moved back up to Vermont and into an engineering design role at Burton a couple of years past graduation. When Reid was deciding what was next, Maravetz suggested he apply for a job heading up Chill, a Burton program introducing low-income kids to snowboarding. That job soon led to product testing, copywriting, and marketing roles. 

By 2001, Reid and Maravetz had a deep and broad combination of skill and experience. Motivation to go out on their own came, in part, from the influx of European ski companies into snowboarding, seizing on a growing market without knowledge of the sport or even with an edge of contempt for it. 

“We thought that we can create a company that aligns to what we care about, pushes product design and pushes the community of snowboarding to engage in ways we think is valuable. We wanted to bring the non-Burton share of the market into the roots of snowboarding,” Reid says. They bought a pair of Compaq computers and launched Rome. Mission in a nutshell: by snowboarders for snowboarders. 

Rome quickly found their niche as the market grew rapidly in the early years. But the founders are frank about the bumps and challenges along the way—hit of the 2008 recession, online revolution in retail, inevitable crises that arise in factory production. “We’ve muscled through,” Maravetz says. 

They acknowledge that leading a business can be tough on a friendship. For the first ten years of Rome those stresses were all the tougher because their work came to define their relationship. “We’ve done a whole lot better job of that the last five or six years,” Reid says. The solution, much like Rome SDS, meant returning to their roots, making the time outside of work to ride together.  

Tessa and Torrey Valyou in their silkscreen studio. 

Studio art grads Tessa Auwater Valyou and Torrey Valyou have built New Duds, their commercial screen-printing and apparel business, from roots in Torrey’s original illustration and Tessa’s hand-sewn products. Photograph by Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist ’09.

NEW DUDS 

For a young married couple, just a few years past graduation with their degrees in studio art, launching a business together in the depth of a recession must have been, uh, terrifying. 

“Our families were a little concerned for us,” Tessa (Auwater) Valyou ’05 acknowledges. Torrey Valyou ’07 interjects they weren’t the only ones—“we definitely had some nervousness of our own.” 

But ten years later their vision for New Duds, a commercial screen-printing  and apparel business with its roots in Torrey’s original illustrations and Tessa’s hand-sewn products, supports them, their two kids, five full-time employees, and 5,500 square feet of production/retail space in Winooski. 

The couple’s and New Duds’ origin story traces to UVM cross-country team gatherings. Tessa was a varsity distance runner; Torrey tagged along with friends on the team from his hometown of Milton, Vermont. Thinking back, they joke about the “wild” parties. “Popcorn and juice boxes!” Torrey says with a wide smile. 

Torrey found his affinity for screen-printing in classes with professor/printmaker Jane Kent. A couple of post-UVM jobs with local screen-printers helped him hone his craft and learn about the equipment required to start a business, while Tessa coached cross-country at Burlington High School and worked retail. 

In 2008, an accountant friend advised them that a recession wasn’t such a bad time to start a business. “Everything is on the cheap and it can only go up from here.”  

As New Duds has evolved, the commercial printing aspect of the business has grown into their primary revenue source. But their own designs abide with the seventies-retro-look Burlington shirt, Camel’s Hump in silhouette, a perennial bestseller. New Duds is a fixture at the Burlington Farmers’ Market, which they say has cross benefits as advertising, business network, and product feedback loop. 

Looking back, the Valyous seriously doubt they could have successfully launched New Duds had they waited. The financial and time responsibilities of having a family and a house would have been too much. They were better off going all in during those simpler, very low overhead, times. 

Anyone who runs their own business and/or has two preschoolers can relate, work and life are a serious juggling act. But both Tessa and Torrey say days that require them to fill a variety of roles is a central appeal of what they’re doing, grounded in the creativity at the core of the enterprise.  “I need that,” Tessa says. “My hands need to be doing something.” 

Jeff Rosenblum and Jordan Berg in the Questus officew

Jeff Rosenblum, left, lives and works in New York City and business partner Jordan Berg, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Frequent communication keeps their bi-coastal marketing firm humming and friendship strong. Photograph by Morgan Edwards.

QUESTUS 

Jeff Rosenblum ’93 and Jordan Berg ’93 have built a bi-coastal, forty-some employee marketing firm with offices in San Francisco, Manhattan, and Orange County, California. They have a documentary film, The Naked Brand, a book, Friction, and a TedX talk that share the business philosophy they’ve evolved in a communications world advancing at a blinding pace. 

But on a campus visit a couple of years back, as Rosenblum told of his life and career stories—rapid-fire, candid, liberally punctuated with “dude”—it was anchored in lessons learned as a student entrepreneur in Burlington, Vermont. One a success, designing and selling t-shirts to fellow students. One a failure, establishing a satellite food cart for the Kountry Kart Deli. The lesson in both, hard work and hustling works; the other option, not so much. 

Also key to Rosenblum’s UVM years, the long friendship with Jordan Berg that would become a business partnership. It began when he knocked on Berg’s door in Simpson Hall during their first semester. The music was blasting, but Rosenblum wasn’t there to complain. He wanted in. 

They both remember the song in the dorm, The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” it was about all Berg listened to that year. Rosenblum even remembers what Berg was wearing—“that Greg Brady shirt, blue turtleneck with a red stripe.” The friends joke that they would kill it on “The Newlywed Game.” (Actually, the UVM connection continues with their spouses, Christine (Irwin) Berg ’94 and Jena Marchione ’93.)  

A few years past college, Berg, who studied studio art and history, was finding traction as a painter, selling to the likes of actor Johnny Depp. But he felt a pull elsewhere. “Ultimately my love is in mass media communications,” Berg says. He was particularly intrigued by brand messaging. “I realized pretty quickly that I wanted to be building those brands, helping craft those stories, so made the switch over to advertising, graphic design, and never looked back.”

Meanwhile, Rosenblum, a business grad, was finding his path in market research as this thing called the Internet took hold. Early on, he saw the opportunity to leverage it as a market research tool. “Next thing I knew, I went from entry-level guy to pioneering internet research with clients including Microsoft, Netscape, Sun MicroSystems, Walt Disney, Levi Strauss, all as my clients,” Rosenblum says. 

Knowing he was on the cusp of something big, Rosenblum went on a soul-searching hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, returning resolved to call up his friend Jordan Berg and propose they make a bold leap with their own advertising/marketing agency. 

As Questus has grown from two friends with two desks and one chair in Berg’s living room, it has thriven due to a yin-yang friendship kept healthy through frequent communication. The firm’s focus today is on helping brands tell their story with authenticity and connected storytelling. “It’s about empowering the audience, delivering it through social media, immersive experiences, web sites, and paid media. For us, it’s mostly about creating great content,” Rosenblum says. 

Telling Questus’s own story, he is typically up front: “My recollection is that we went from drinking a beer and daydreaming to pulling the trigger on this thing in a handful of weeks and now it is nineteen years later and it’s like, ‘I don’t remember that being a protracted discussion, do you?’ I don’t know how the hell we would have pulled this off over that many years if we weren’t best friends.” 

Stephen  DePasquale and Mike Laramee on the front porch of Mike's Burlington south end home

Dinner time! Stephen DePasquale, left, and Mike Laramee’s MealTrain.com has become part of the cultural fabric, synonymous with friends helping friends. Photograph by Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist ’09.

MEAL TRAIN 

Even if you aren’t familiar with MealTrain.com, you know the life-situation the website simplifies. A neighbor has a new baby or a friend is undergoing chemo or a colleague broke her jaw in a bike accident; their network of friends organizes dinner drop-offs. More than a meal, it’s an emotional show of support. 

In 2009, Mike ’98 and Kathleen White Laramee ’00 had two young kids with many neighbors in Burlington’s South End also starting families. Within a neighborhood playgroup, Kathleen had taken on the job of organizing the effort, she called it a “meal train,” to make dinners for families with newborns. Many participants, many meals, picky eaters, dietary restrictions, and so on. It was complicated 

For Mike Laramee, it was a lightbulb moment. Surely, his wife wasn’t alone in organizing something like this, and, just as surely, there must be a tech solution to smooth the process. 

Mike worked as a physical therapist at the time, but had been talking with Stephen DePasquale ’98, friends since they met in Harris Hall during their first semesters at UVM, about launching a business together. Mike had added a UVM MBA to his undergrad degree; Steve was a software engineer who studied management information systems in UVM’s business school. Like Mike and Kathleen, Steve and his wife, Kathryn Pelletier DePasquale’03, are also a UVM couple. 

The evening after Mike Laramee’s first thought that this could be something, they met for pizza and talk. Where better than Mr. Mike’s, corner of Main and Winooski, for two UVM college buddies to begin sketching a business model on a napkin?

Within four months, the Meal Train website was live. Nearly a decade later, Laramee and DePasquale are both full-time on Meal Train with a success story simply told by the numbers—used in forty countries, 9,000 meals delivered each day, more than eight million total meals organized. NBC Nightly News featured the business and Meal Train references pop up here and there on television sit-coms. 

The site has become part of the culture. That was the idea from the outset, says DePasquale, to make the name Meal Train and their site part of the fabric of organizing dinners. They’ve built their income with a diversified revenue stream. Meal Train is free to use, but multiple revenue streams include the paid Meal Train Plus, advertising, and links to partners. 

They attribute their success to a mutual commitment to slow and careful growth. The steady business plan is a match for their even-keel personalities. It’s not hard to see why they became friends and have found it easy to remain friends while building a business together. Equal partners, DePasquale is focused on product development and Laramee on product design. They communicate daily, but weekly discussions over lunch at New World Tortilla are key.  

More than the efficiency of their website, the business partners take pride and satisfaction in its social impact, the real world action it facilitates. DePasquale says, “Millions of people thought about their friend, went out and bought ingredients, cooked a meal, took it over to that person’s house, had an interaction. When we think about those people mobilized and doing something as a result of this, that’s exciting.”

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