Katya d’Angelo is known around her town of Waterbury, Vermont, as the driver of an ice cream tricycle. She launched the business, called The Udder Guys, four years ago shortly after moving to town and craving a local ice cream shop the area lacked. She travels to locations around the town during warm months, scooping ice cream that she buys from Kingston, New York-based Adirondack Creamery and working weddings and other events.
Then, in the middle of the pandemic, d’Angelo took on a new role: a bookshop owner. She and her husband, Chris Triolo, were looking for a new opportunity and considering launching another business. But when an 11-year old local bookshop called Bridgeside Books went for sale, the couple jumped at the opportunity to run an already established store.
It was both scary and exciting, d’Angelo said. She quit her job at a local travel agency, which had been reducing hours as people traveled less, and she started working full time at the Bridgeside. Since then, they’ve hired two part-time employees and expect to bring in more than $250,000 in annual revenue, more than twice what the couple paid for the business. This year’s revenue mostly went to capital improvements, loan repayments, increasing inventory and employees, she said
d’Angelo has always had an entrepreneurial mindset. She ran small, unofficial businesses, such as baking cakes for friends’ weddings. But The Udder Guys was her first official go at building a business.
The risk for The Udder Guys was small, she said. Worst case, it failed, and she’d be out the price of the tricycle, she said. Plus, she looked at it as more of a side hustle.
A brick and mortar bookshop, on the other hand, has more risk attached. So she did her due diligence, making sure they could shoulder the cost before writing the check.
“We did the numbers, and we’re like, all right, if it gets to be the worst case scenario, and we buy this thing and everything just goes, kablooey, are we going to be homeless? And thankfully, the answer was no.” Triolo still works his full time job, which established a steady income for the couple.
d’Angelo also researched the success of bookshops, as the general narrative has been that they are failing. But what she found was that independent bookshops are actually doing well (with the exception of the pandemic itself, which has hurt most small businesses). There’s even been a Harvard Business School case study about the indie revival.
“Amazon really takes most of the market share from other chain bookstores and places like Walmart and Target and Best Buy or whatever,” she said. “They’re not really taking a whole lot of market share from indies, because the people that shop in indies want to shop in Indies. They make an effort to come to places like this where they can browse and discover a curated selection of books and find one that they might not otherwise have thought about.”
She took the jump, taking her expertise from building her ice-cream-shop-on-wheels with her. Technical tasks such as navigating Vermont tax and business laws came easy this time around. Others, though, were a whole other beast.
A particularly difficult new challenge she’s faced is expectation. Starting a company from scratch means customers have no comparison to how the exact business will run — especially in Waterbury, where the only ice cream shop is a Ben and Jerry’s down the road. But the Bridgeside customers had expectations of their experience — and some are very opinionated.
When d’Angelo took ownership, she expanded the scope of the shop, adding more activities to stimulate your mind — such as puzzles and strategy board games. Some customers questioned it. “Eleven years is a long time for a business,” she said. “ I changed something and people will come in and be like, oh, there used to be something else here. And I’m like, well, yeah, things change.”
Mostly, though, customers have welcomed the changes. d’Angelo installed new, brighter lighting and repainted the store. She also expanded popular sections. “Most people that walk in are really enjoying what they’re seeing and the new experience,” she said. “So that’s good.”
Nearly a year in, d’Angelo still is not making much of an income, she said, but she’s loved connecting with the Waterbury community and the Indie book community, too.
She’s noticed a resurgence of small business appreciation out of the pandemic as people have given some more love to their local spots. “I think the pandemic, if there was a silver lining, it was that people woke up to the fact that like, what if all the small businesses in their town just went away? Like what would that look like? What would that do to your community?” she said. “I am definitely seeing kind of the turning of tides.”
The pandemic has also turned people’s attention to activities like reading and puzzling. d’Angelo could barely keep puzzles in stock last year, she said. Not only has the pandemic shifted priorities for many on a better work-life balance, but so much time inside makes screens a whole lot less appealing. “There’s honestly only so much Netflix you can binge,” she said. “That really drove home, like ‘Okay, I got to do something else, let’s read, either because I love to read or I don’t usually have the time, and now I have the time.’”
Calculate Risk: d’Angelo made sure to gauge the risk before going all in. Her and her husband have no kids and no major debt, so they felt comfortable.
Recognize No Risk, No Reward: The only way to build a mighty business is to take that first step. “Especially with something that might be a little out there, or uncommon, like an ice cream tricycle, for example,” she said. “People gravitate toward new and different stuff, not the same old, same old.”
Lifelong Passion Isn’t Necessary: Do you see a gap and have an innovative solution? Go for it, d’Angelo says. “It might not be what you do for 30 years, but it could definitely be fun and interesting, and you’ll learn a lot and usually meet a lot of really cool people,” she said. “The process is awesome.”
This story and others on Times of E are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.