"It takes a strong stomach to run a business." I remember a lawyer dropping that line when Pamela Polston and I were taking the first steps to start this newspaper in July 1995, a quarter century ago.
At the time, he was advising us on how to respond to a cease-and-desist letter from our former employer. The complaint was that the proposed name of our publication-to-be — Vermont Voice — was too similar to Vox, the name we had given an arts paper the two of us had created for that employer's company. Because vox is Latin for "voice," their lawyers argued, readers would confuse the two competing products. If we didn't change the name, they'd sue.
The setback was crushing; we had already designed a logo and printed up some preliminary ad sales materials. And we almost took the bait. A legal fight would have quickly exhausted our limited resources.
Instead, we started over: Our corporate name, Da Capo, is Italian for "from the top." We rechristened our weekly Seven Days.
We also shared the threatening letter with Burlington Free Press reporter Sam Hemingway. He devoted his next column to the David-and-Goliath story of our entrepreneurial adventure — two arts writers determined to put out the kind of smart, edgy, well-written weekly newspaper that Burlington and Vermont deserved.
We couldn't have asked for better publicity.
Suddenly, it seemed like everyone in town was giving us thumbs-up, from bank tellers and parking garage attendants to restaurateurs and retailers.
Potential advertisers took us more seriously, too.
From the darkness came the light.
A lot of Vermont businesses could use a lucky break like that right now.
This week's cover story looks at a variety of local enterprises and how they're coping four months into this crazy pandemic. Some are going gangbusters: Small Boat Exchange can't sell enough kayaks; a company called Reconciled, which provides online bookkeeping, was working remotely before most of us had to figure out how to do it.
But other businesses are really struggling. The Red Onion Café on Church Street "won't be here this winter," according to the owner. Randolph's Rain or Shine Tent and Events didn't lose a single wedding customer — they all rescheduled for next year — but the company likely won't survive without debt relief. The Valley News is getting love — and checks — from its readers, but the advertisers that fund its news reporting are broke.
Melissa Pasanen's story of Runamok Maple perfectly illustrates the roller-coaster ride. The company had been doubling its annual revenue for three years straight, and was about to raise capital, before its restaurant sales flatlined. Determined to retain its workers, the partners got a Paycheck Protection Program loan, pivoted to filling online orders and made hand sanitizer to keep the doors open.
The stomach-churning thrill is gone for Runamok's Eric Sorkin. "I don't think I've ever less wanted to be a business owner," he said.
Like so many of us, he's just trying to hold on.