The Brattleboro Cotton Mill Innovation
Storytime Studios and Shapeshifters
On a cold December evening, the Cotton Mill’s parking area is overflowing with cars and people walking into the brightly lit hallways. It’s one of Brattleboro’s biggest annual events – The Cotton Mill Open Studio and Holiday Sale, a three-day cultural festival of art, business, talent and creativity. Thousands of visitors come during the event to see studios and performances, talk to the owners, taste, touch and buy unique hand-crafted products.

The imposing and dreary exterior of the historic Cotton Mill, near vibrant downtown Brattleboro, belies the creativity that goes on all year long within its brick walls. The huge renovated century-old building is full of life, and the diversity of studios and businesses on its three floors is remarkable: jewelry, toys and food, pet accessories and publishing, cosmetics and circus arts, and a mind-boggling variety of arts to name a few.

There are about 80 units in the Mill and over 200 people are employed in the various businesses. Owned and managed by the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (BDCC), a powerhouse non-profit organization for business development in Southeastern Vermont, the mill is a business incubator, offering commercial rental space.

The BDCC is a certified Regional Development Corporation (RDC), supporting businesses and workforce development programs throughout the county via state and regional agencies with financing and incentives, manufacturing assistance, and entrepreneurial support like classes in QuickBooks, bookkeeping and marketing. BDCC works with start-ups on a business incubation rental system; supply a business summary of 3-to-5 years, work on job creation and capital investment, and the BDCC will stagger the rent.

The Cotton Mill offers its small business owners more than just a commercial space with low overhead. It offers a community of like-minded entrepreneurs who can interact and network in the hallways, and exchange ideas, products or tools with others who understand what having a business is all about. For business owners Brian Mooney and Vaune Trachtman of Storymatic and Eli and Krista Coughlin-Galbraith of Shapeshifters, the Cotton Mill and all it offered was essential in moving their businesses toward success.

Storymatic – A Place of “Yes!”
An educational tool or a drinking game? A pastime for children or adults? A learning aid? Well, it’s all of that and it’s fun, it’s imaginative and it’s innovative.  Draw three cards from the small colorful box and let your imagination fly. Storymatic is the invention of Brian Mooney, now in his third space at the Cotton Mill, a large production room that looks too neat to be the world epicenter of a successful company. Brian, a writer and teacher, started the company when a year of contract work evaporated after the 2008 crash. At that low point it was “either doing landscaping or selling something” to make a living.

Euripides was onto something when he said, “Nothing has more strength than dire necessity.” How many people grit their teeth and push through on an idea due to some adversity, and that small need to eat and pay bills? Brian’s something was already at hand. He had used a prototype of Storymatic in his writing classes at Marlboro College and The Putney School for many years, tweaking creative prompts to help students write stories, getting them to think in an “unexpected way that gets your brain to light up.” 

Initially the prompts were several dozen little strips of paper in lunch bags, and now, more than ten years later, the prompts are 500-plus business-size cards in a neat little box that sells worldwide. (What do some of the cards say? “Long-lost love spotted in the supermarket,” “television is broadcasting actual memories,” “family curse,” “recognized by zoo animal.”)

From paper bag to global market is a long road. When Brian first realized he had a potential creative business, he had no idea how to do it, what to do, or where to start. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith said, “One of the greatest pieces of economic wisdom is to know what you do not know.” Brian understood that, and his tool-to-market path involved months of research, looking at available resources, figuring out templates and how to make it for the public, exploring materials and production, talking with business owners and searching for business mentors and advisors. He would hear a lot of “Yes,” but the costs were astronomical – in large part because Brian wanted to have the product made in the USA.

Encouragement came various sources. It came from consistent positive feedback he’d had over the years from students and colleagues who wanted him to make storytelling prompts for them or friends. It came from a colleague at an arts residency program, Anat Rubin, who suggested the cards in the box itself were the medium that worked rather than the book form Brian proposed.

It came from his first business ally, the manager of Staples in NYC, where Brian was xeroxing cards for a prototype. “The manager was one of those people who understood and who said, ‘Yes!’,” Brian remembers, and he and his staff gave helpful recommendations about templates, about how to cut, sort, and pack the cards, and even gave a break on costs.

Brian sourced a box to hold the cards, and a local printing company to print the cards. He and his wife, Vaune Trachtman, hand-stamped about 1,000 assembled boxes on their kitchen table. He figured out how to create a website and the product sold briskly.

Brian’s first “lucky break,” which came after “an astronomical amount of work to put the product out in a number of ways,” was with Restoration Hardware. Although Restoration Hardware was a big company and Storymatic was still a tiny company, they were great to work with and treated Brian fairly. “Another place of ‘Yes,’” Brian says.

Restoration Hardware was not without its difficulties – for instance, they needed a mass-produced product, and Brian was still hand-stamping the covers. But their attitude was. “We’ll work with you.” A designer Brian knew in NYC, Sonny Mui, collaborated with the branding of the product, designing the modern-yet-vintage label on the boxes.

With the help of a print broker, Drake Williams, Brian managed to get the newly re-designed Storymatic into production at a larger printing facility and get Storymatic made on time for Restoration Hardware.

Storymatic found its way into catalogs, toy stores, museum stores, and bookstores. Although some toy fairs were daunting in terms of logistics, the Chicago fair resulted in finding his current print shop, a midwestern specialty game manufacturer. Brian says, “I’m very happy with the team in Michigan. They help me brainstorm, they find efficiencies, and they want to make the best product they can.”   

At this point, Storymatic was beginning to take over Vaune and Brian’s house. It “was a dream of ours to be in the Cotton Mill,” Brian says, and lists some of the benefits: a great team at BDCC, office space to grow, loading dock, freight elevator, and space to store pallets – that means they don’t need a fulfillment center and can do their own shipping.

As a small business owner, Brian wears many hats, knows the ins and outs of fabrication, marketing, contracts, sales. But it was his allies along the way who made the path easier. Brian encountered many people who understood the creativity of Storymatic, and who have said “Yes!” to helping get it into the world. Brian credits Debra Boudrieau, at the local SBA, as making a significant difference in his business, saying, “I’m grateful for her mentorship.”

His wife, Vaune, has been a crucial ally, and does much of the logistics of the business, which “helps me focus on the big picture and the nitty gritty.” She and Brian come to their space at the Cotton Mill every day, putting in as many as 60-70 hours during the holidays. Early on, Vaune borrowed against her retirement to help finance production, not something they would recommend doing. TD Bank has been a supportive resource, giving them a business line of credit.

Conservative steady growth and no debt have put the company in a place that Brian is satisfied with. Brian doesn’t want to pretend that it was all easy. From production problems, to good accounts that folded or went bankrupt, to people who simply can’t understand the point of a game that doesn’t have dice or a board, batteries, or a victor/loser – Brian overcame it all, surviving and growing by hard work and generating new accounts, new products, and new ideas. Storymatic now carries four unique little boxes of “Yes!,” games and more to come.

Shapeshifters – Lifting People Up
On the wall of the industrial studio in the Cotton Mill that is home to the Shapeshifters company there’s a small world map. The map is porcupined with pins showing each place, all over the world, that Shapeshifters has sold its product.
That’s quite an achievement for a company that started in a bedroom.

Shapeshifters is a company born out of necessity, a need that owner Eli Coughlin-Galbraith had to look and feel comfortable in a suit to work as Japanese translator in a law firm in NYC. That need was for more than vanity and it has broad cultural significance.

Eli describes themself as “nonbinary,” which involves gender and identity.  Nonbinary genders don’t fall into one of the two set categories, male or female. Eli uses the self-pronouns “they, them” rather than limiting “he” or “she” variations. Eli was binding their breasts to conform to the business-suit look, but it wasn’t easy. Painful, in fact.

Binding is a technique used to suppress the appearance of a person's breasts. Over the centuries, binding has made it easier for a women to wear men’s clothing comfortably – whether it was armor in the middle ages, a war uniform, or a suit. Two thousand years ago the Roman, Pliny the Younger, wrote of a sportsman who was really a woman.

Binding was common for women pass as a man, to avert men’s lusts, to conform to a fashion style, or to flatten the chest for sports or athletic movement.  Corsets, stays, sashes, bodices, bones, and bandeaux have been used by women to wrangle and shoehorn their bosoms to societal norms from pre-Elizabethan times to the present.

Men use chest binding to deal with gynoplasty, or enlarged breast tissue.
Chest binding is used for identity affirmation, mental health, and safety in transmasculine and gender-fluid individuals, and to reduce gender dysphoria. For transgender and gender non-conforming individuals, chest binding promotes masculine gender expression.

Before Shapeshifters there was only one brand of binder, which was used as medical device for gynoplasty. It came in small, medium and large gradations, which would be like bras or shoes only coming in small, medium and large – either painfully tight or useless.

Eli decided to make their own binder. Sewing was a passion and Eli had a sideline doing costumes for Comic Con. They already had a sewing machine in the bedroom and was familiar with fabric.

In NYC’s garment district they found a stretchy base material, “power net,” which they still use making the binders and a fabric they call “mer-scale” – a flashy, eye-catching fish-scale pattern in bright colors, a far cry from the black, white, beige of medical binders.

Eli made a pattern and ultimately the pattern was refined – it looks something like a classic sleeveless t-shirt, but spandex – and Eli and Krista, Eli’s spouse, eventually established an Etsy store. Eli notes that Etsy is good if you have a day job, or doing a few sales a week, saying that any profit “was pizza money.” By the end of year one, they were breaking even and Eli still had a suit-and-tie day job.

Things changed when Eli and Krista launched a Tumblr account. Shapeshifters immediately got attention and went viral. Orders shot up, and Eli started working part-time at the law firm and part-time sewing.  “It was one foot in the NYC business world, one foot at home with the sewing machine,” remembers Eli. “That year was just a grind – but a great problem to have: keeping up with the orders!”

It was a busy time; they worked, promoted their product, used social media marketing, and built up orders week by week. Krista helped develop the bigger sizes; no one was making binders in a bigger size. The product is made-to-measure, with a free re-fitting if necessary, avoiding many of the pain issues in binding.

Eli, working out of the bedroom/sewing room to fulfill orders, ran the numbers every month to figure out when they could quit the city job. By late 2015, Eli and Krista were both able to focus solely on the business. With that business independence, Eli said, “We don’t have to live in NJ with this high rent, so let’s move to where we love to be: Vermont!”

Why Vermont? Every summer Eli Coughlin-Galbraith vacationed in Townshend at their grandparents’ summer home. Their grandfather, a Harvard economics professor, would spend the summer writing books – and the proceeds would go into his grandkids’ college funds. The grandchildren all went to college, and Eli graduated Columbia University in the most dismal year to be job hunting, 2008. Coming from a family of academics, diplomats, writers and politicians, Eli is the first entrepreneur in the family. “I've been having fun forging my own path,” he says.

Eight years later Eli was living full-time in Vermont with Krista, running a business that paid the bills – but overrunning the house. Working from home is great until it is not a home any more. With industrial sewing equipment dominating their living space, Eli began to think of dedicated spacefor the business.

At their first Cotton Mill Arts Open Studio and Holiday Sale, they liked what they saw. James Walker, BDCC Real Estate Manager, gave them a tour of space and in September 2017 they finally moved in. The Cotton Mill and the allies they found there made life and business easier. The BDCC are good landlords, Eli says, and Debra at the SBD office has given them sage business advice. The space at the mill has allowed them to buy material in bulk and store it, which lowers the per yard cost. “It’s very difficult to get a truck to your house with 1000 yards of material,” says Eli.  They also found a good community at the mill – “one nice thing being the morning coffee klatch at Tavernier,” says Eli.

Eli feels that success in the business comes after three criteria are met, and moving from home to an industrial space was the first criterium. The second criterium is when they are stable enough to start a family. Eli wants to hire people to do the day-to-day running of the business so that Eli and Krista can design fulltime. Shapeshifters hired one part-time employee immediately after moving to the Cotton Mill, but they and Krista are putting in 40-hour weeks just to get out the orders, with little time to do the creative side. The law of diminishing returns kicks in when you hire someone, and you pay salary and benefits – is the business successful enough that you can then continue to pay yourself a living wage with benefits?

Healthcare is the third marker. If they get reasonably priced healthcare benefits, they can make the successful transition to design and family in 2020. “Healthcare is a major stumbling block –a major unknown,” Eli says. “How much is it going to cost? It’s very unpredictable now. Every year it changes.”

Actress Margaret Rutherford said that, “Success is having the hearts of people and lifting them up.” Eli feels that clients come to Shapeshifters “as a last resort – people trust us with their life. [We’re] both passionate about bringing everyone safe, effective, comfortable, and fashionable garments that allow everyone, no matter their needs, to express their gender in a way that brings them joy.” And in that, Shapeshifters is already a success.

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