Jon Tota / Syntax + Motion
Start Here Podcast | EPISODE #64 | 02/01/22
Today is a special day. We get to put serial entrepreneur and fellow podcaster Jon Tota in the hot seat to talk eLearning, SaaS, and so much more.
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#StartHere PODCAST: Episode 64 with Jon Tota of Syntax + Motion.
Jon Tota (00:00):
The business community here is really so welcoming and coming out of New York City where it was so competitive. You were competing. Even when I was in a group like Entrepreneurs Organization, you were competing with all the other members. No one was really helping each other out. And the community’s been great. It’s probably the biggest surprise, because I thought that was gonna be something that was a real challenge for me – is that there wasn’t gonna be a business community and a network. And while there’s not like an EO chapter here, you almost don’t need it.
From Vermont center for emerging technologies. Its Start Here, a podcast sharing the stories of active, aspiring, and accidental entrepreneurs. Today is a special day. We get to put serial entrepreneur and fellow podcaster, John Tota in the hot seat to talk e-learning SAS and so much more welcome. This is Sam Roach-Gerber.
And Dave Bradbury.
Recording from the Consolidated Communications technology hub in downtown Burlington, Vermont. Hi John.
Jon Tota (01:03):
Hello Sam. Hey Dave.
Hey welcome John. Good to have you here.
Jon Tota (01:06):
Great to be here. I love the space. First time I got to see it. So this was a really good experience today.
I know I realized I had only seen you in 2D, so I’m really thrilled to meet you in person.
It’s more pleasant this way. I don’t think we need the metaverse or whatever that thing is we’re gonna jump into.
Jon Tota (01:21):
I know, I know. Let’s talk about it.
Let’s keep an analog. Let’s keep an analog.
I love it. Alright John let’s – we got a lot to cover here. You got a lot going on, but let’s start with what is Syntax + Motion?
Jon Tota (01:33):
Yeah, so essentially Syntax + Motion is a synthetic media studio. So by that we basically work with our clients to help make digital avatars of themselves to be used in video communications, online learning, or like you said, Dave the metaverse at some point. And so that’s really what we’re focused on. Now we do a lot of different things with virtual reality, augmented reality, but everything really in the space of learning and development, corporate communications primarily.
And so did it start out that way or did you sort of narrow down focus or sort of, did it get broader after you started?
Jon Tota (02:11):
Yeah, so it’s interesting because I had really started focusing on this business just right around the start of the pandemic. I’d started it about I guess it’s around five years ago now or a little over, but during the pandemic we’d always really been traditional production. So we were bringing people into our studio here to shoot videos, create online learning and things of that nature. And then with the pandemic, we kind of realized that we couldn’t get people to come here. And we started playing around with audio in different ways that we could create more content for people that was cost effective, but also all we needed was audio so they didn’t have to come into a studio. And that kind of led us to synthetic media, which I think now is just essentially the highest level of that. Where we can create a, essentially a video copy of someone so that they can type in scripts. Like they’re typing an email and create videos on the fly within minutes.
So who would be like a customer for that? Are these brands or is it the car dealer who doesn’t want to do 40 different versions a month or..?
Jon Tota (03:15):
Yeah, so it’s interesting. I think there are some players that really looking at at this more at the large corporate level. Corporate L and D, because it’s a very easy way to create multi-language versions of content as you can do, you know, as many languages as you want with an avatar. Our space specifically are thought leaders, professional speakers, authors, people who really sell their knowledge and expertise and they’ve relied on content marketing creating a regular stream of, of knowledge and content. And for them that’s hard because they’re traveling all the time, they’re speaking in person. And so to have this asset that they can now put content out all the time without them having to be in the studio is really what we gear it towards.
Do you think this inflection in the business would have occurred if COVID, wasn’t shutting us down for 22 months?
Jon Tota (04:05):
It’s funny. I think it was coming, but I think it came much more quickly because of it. And you’ll see all of these companies like ours involved in synthetic media really sprout it up as of 2020. So I think they got a lot more attention because of this reason that people just couldn’t be together and we needed better ways to communicate and train people virtually.
And how, I mean, that’s amazing that you’re that nimble, right. To be able to kind of shift focus a little bit and kind of pay attention to what was happening around you. Is that kind of always how you operate sort of like staying flexible and paying attention to trends?
Jon Tota (04:45):
Yeah, I guess. I kind of always operate with that startup mentality. My first company was pretty lean for a long time and it allowed us to pivot when we needed to. We built a video training platform back in 2004. So like back then nobody really thought of doing an online video for anything let alone corporate.
They were still black and white, right? Yeah.
Jon Tota (05:09):
[Inadudible] round training, you know? And so I think I learned then that because we always were nimble and we were able to pivot easily. We were able to be at that kind of leading edge of streaming video at that time. And we kind of followed that same corporate philosophy now where I look at Syntax + Motion, at least in the early days as an innovation lab, we were kind of playing around and trying to see what’s stuck and what would people actually pay for? This kind of just came to us and I would say in the last six months since we’ve been creating custom avatars for people – six to nine months, it’s really blown up because now people can see it. Before it was just stock avatars so people would look at it and they’d go, oh, but I don’t really want someone else delivering my words, but now that someone can come into a studio and in an hour or two have a digital avatar and never need to come back in.
Pretty awesome. I mean, you headed toward like the deep fake video element. I mean I know it gets kind of creepy when an avatar you know is an avatar, versus this is your digital twin, right? That it may be difficult to tell.
Jon Tota (06:18):
Yeah a hundred percent. Yeah, it is. And I think people get it when they are delivered their own avatar because it seems odd when you see someone else’s, but when you see yourself and it’s delivering words that you never said and it looks almost exactly like you, a little less emotion than you in person, it’s creepy. It is deep fake. I mean, that’s what everybody – kind of the first thing they associate it with. But the difference with that is that deep fakes you never get the actual talent; the celebrity in the studio. So these are people creating their own. But the first reaction is always, wow, it’s kind of creepy seeing myself, but it’s not actually me doing it.
I would love it. Cuz I still see myself with brown hair and a red beard.
Jon Tota (07:03):
We can do that.
There you go.
Whatever it takes to get me outta bed in the morning.
I know what I’m getting Dave for Christmas now.
Club for men. Right?
So John your company’s based in Burlington, you’re here, you’re a Vermont. Tell us about your life before Vermont.
Jon Tota (07:23):
I moved here full time with my family in 2016. So just over five years now. But I’m originally from New York. I grew up on long island. My wife is from North Dakota and we lived in New York city for just over 20 years. But for 10 of those years, the last 10, we had a place in Southern Vermont in Wilmington and like a lot of new Yorkers and folks in Boston, you try to get out of the city as quickly as you can, as soon as the weekends. And it was great. We spent more time in Vermont a lot of weeks than we did in the city before the kids got little bit older then you realize, oh wait, this model doesn’t work. Because we have a school schedule.
Competing for sport time and –
Jon Tota (08:06):
Sports. Right. And so then the novelty of driving four hours up to Vermont on the weekends wear out a little bit. And we had a bit of that life change in 2016 where I was running a software company in the city and you could do that remotely now. And so we moved up here full time and in the beginning I was going back and forth. I would do a week here in Burlington, we had a small office over at Karma and then I would fly back and forth. And one of the reasons Burlington was ideal for us was because the airport. I could get back to JFK in 45 minutes. And in the beginning I was doing it every other week, going back and forth, which is…
10:40 PM, Jet Blue on Fri- Thursday nights or whatever it was.
Jon Tota (08:51):
Yeah it was at 5:30 on Tuesday mornings. I liked it. It worked at the time and then right around the pandemic right as it started, I sold the software company in the city. It was acquired in April of 2020. So really kind of ended my time in New York almost overnight. Which was good timing with the pandemic and everything as well. But now I’ve been totally here all the time and it’s been great cuz as soon as I sold the software company and anybody who runs two businesses at once, realizes you kind of have to love one or the other a little bit more. So yeah. And so that’s why we’re here. We sold the place down in Southern Vermont and bought a place up here in Shelburn and we’ve been here ever since now.
You look pretty happy.
Jon Tota (09:38):
Yeah. I mean-
He’s only got one business now. That’s why.
Jon Tota (09:41):
It’s a nice life change coming. It’s a grind in New York city and any major city, right. It’s like, you’re there for the commute and you get here and you go, I’ve never seen so many people riding bikes in the middle of the day. I’m like, this is great. Yeah. It’s nice.
So was that Knowledge Link? The company? I know it had shifted a couple.
Jon Tota (10:00):
Yeah. So the company was Edulance and we were joking about this earlier, excellence through education. That’s where the name came from. And I said, I’ve been fired from all naming of products and companies. But Edulance and then the product was Knowledge Link and what we sold to a larger e-learning company was the Knowledge Link product. That’s what they wanted as kind of like the platform for their business.
And tell us about Knowledge Link.
Jon Tota (10:24):
So Knowledge Link, that was the product we built the very first version back in 2004. Our niche was always video. I started as a screenwriter so I think I was a frustrated writer who wanted to see my stuff in film and online video is kind of like the hack version of that. So we started originally just producing our own content. We were training consultants. So we started producing our own content to go on CD ROMs or DVDs at the time. And then kind of stumbled into online video because it was just a cheaper way to do it. And yeah we couldn’t afford to print up CD ROS and ship ’em. We got one national contract and we couldn’t afford to do it.
That’s so crazy.
Jon Tota (11:06):
I know. And so I said, Well hey I found this way that we could put these videos online. But I mean, if you’ve ever tried to do it back then and tried to demo that at a large company, the buffering and rebuffing, and you’re just sweating through that presentation.
Oh my God.
Jon Tota (11:20):
So that was the early version of Knowledge Link, but we rebuilt it over the years I ran. And then we rebranded as Knowledge Link. So I ran that. It was about 17 years before we were acquired and we pivoted and evolved the platform a few times during that. It was great. Really, our market was financial services. So we ran large online universities for insurance companies, banks, investment firms. And then in that work we slowly really became a subscription model and you just had a lot of monthly subscribers paying through their companies paying monthly fees for the platform. And then as a side business or just under the same umbrella and as a necessary evil, we always started producing the content for our clients because they have a platform, they’ve got 10,000 employees to train, but they don’t have any content. And so that kind of became Syntax + Motion inside of Edulance. And then I spun that business off five years ago.
You just framed the Netflix story.
Jon Tota (12:23):
Yeah. Right, exactly. Right.
Yeah. That would’ve been a name to come up with Netflix.
Jon Tota (12:26):
Yeah. That would’ve really worked.
I’m sure at that point too, you had been seeing all this content, so you’re like, I know what to produce here. Right? Because when you go from their material to yours in house it couldn’t have been that much of a leap. Right?
Jon Tota (12:44):
Yeah and I think what we saw too, is that the authoring of content. And when I got into this everything was built custom. Like when they built slideshow training, interactive training, it was done by an interactive developer. The barrier of entry was really high. And what really changed was that there was this introduction of all these authoring tools that allowed anybody to create an interactive presentation, drop a video file in the middle of it. And it could report to a platform like ours so you could actually give out credit to people because those early days and Knowledge Link was officially a learning management system. And while we did a lot of cool things with video on the front end, at the end of the day compliance departments and training departments just really wanted to see a report card and know that people are actually doing the training when they were not in a classroom. And now they’re depending on online platforms. That became a lot of what our business was. And then we learned a lot about how to create better training, more interactive training that would drive up adoption, cuz that was always the challenge.
LMS companies have been just fascinating through the years. We’ve had a number of them in our portfolio. We’ve obviously worked with a couple hundred folks a year that turn out to always be an education or online learning online videos and content was always so expensive to produce, keep it fresh, current, replicate. So those authoring tools, like you mentioned, really changed the game. And then now I see where the synthetic element, the avatars come in, right? To very quickly freshen update, bring in maybe new compliance, regs or whatever it might be for the sector. So that’s really, really nifty. The term synthetic it’s in synthetic bio, right? We’ve got synthetic in this context too. Synthetic foods, like what’s wrong with the real world? Am I missing something here? Help explain it.
Jon Tota (14:47):
I think the word synthetic kind of has a negative connotation. Right? Like people think about and they say…immediately you think of it being not real or less personalized because it’s synthetic. And one of the things for us we feel like we’re kind of thought leaders in this space now. And so you’re trying to educate people on the right way to use it. And I do say that this is a way for you to actually be more personalized in your communications because you can have a video message that’s personalized for hundreds or thousands of people or groups of people in your organization in a way that would’ve never been cost effective to do before, if you had to record multiple different versions. And like you said, for compliance, you can update a video easily by just changing the script and then republishing it. So I do think that there’s a negative expectation around synthetic, but in the proper use case it does allow you to be more personalized, more unique for the learners. But it’s really just a term that people are using now so that you don’t to deep fakes.
Yeah. Right. That’s sort of the other example I have – crypto and coins, it’s really synthetic finance. Right.
Jon Tota (15:59):
And now they’re calling it Web 3.00. This massive rebranding to make it friendly and accessible. So it’s a challenge, I think. And also the first experience that people have with it. We’re not in a big corporate environment. Right? So we wouldn’t be served likely a compliance avatar program. Are there any outside of the corporate learning and development? Are you, are you seeing customer use cases for people like us that are in small organizations?
Jon Tota (16:32):
Yeah. So we think where this gets really interesting is because the market of thought leaders, speakers, authors, the type of people we work with is pretty narrow. But then you start looking at sales and you think, okay any sales people who really sell on their personal brand, like insurance agents, and that’s how we built up our first business. It was with insurance and agencies. They sell on their face and their personality. So is a realtor or a car dealer. So I look at those cases where you would never do a follow up video to someone to say, Hey it was great having lunch today and thanks. Just to stay top of mind because either it’s not gonna be polished enough or you don’t have time to do it.
Jon Tota (17:14):
But if you could get in your car, open up an app and type a 20 second script and then have a video delivered back to you that you could share within hours – that’s cool. And the key with all of this is it has to be cheap. Because videos like that, and in our model you basically pay per minute, right? So a video like that would cost you 10 or 15 bucks. And when you’re at that price point now you look at a salesperson and say, okay this is a really cool way, a novel way for an insurance agent or any type of salesperson to really stay top of mind to touch people, to put content out there in a polished way, better than you just hopping on your zoom camera and doing it at a relatively low cost point.
Right. That’s really interesting. You’re exactly right, beause I would’ve immediately thought from business model wise, you gotta charge a lot here, right? Like this is something that’s so new and you’re the first, some of the first ones doing it, but you’re right. If you want people to really adapt it, it has to be affordable.
Jon Tota (18:16):
Yeah. It’s one of the challenges with this form of media because what you’re competing against is not really other people who offer this service, because there’s not very many who do. I’m competing with someone who says, well I could just jump in front of my zoom camera and do that video for free. And so it’s a lot of the used cases. Well it’s really nice not to have to get on camera, to just type something and send it.
Totally. A crappy video is probably not worth sending. We do that all the time.
I mean Dave and I do hair and makeup for our audio podcast.
There’s a reason we’ve only done one video cast. Yeah. It just wasn’t working for us.
Jon Tota (18:55):
I know. And it’s funny because the first…we opened our studio here on pine street in the end of September. And so we just kind of had our first round of people and we outfitted the studio with really high resolution cameras to produce this kind of content. So we needed special equipment in there, got it all set up, started shooting our first custom avatars in there. Late September in October and every one of the first people we shot were women. Professional speakers. And we interviewed them afterwards to see why they wanted to do it so badly. And they said, because this is a real pain. We had hair and makeup there, we got everything perfect, they looked great, they had the right outfits and everything. And they said, we’re fine doing this right now, but I don’t wanna have to do this every time I want to do a video and put it out on social media or for content marketing. So that opportunity to say that for a man or a woman, anybody who cares about how they look on camera, that you only have to do it once and then your avatar’s always gonna look perfect.
So now I have to know. How is this hour spent? Without giving away any secret sauce. Of course.
Jon Tota (20:07):
It’s kind of fascinating how it works. We use the software product that does the face recognition and basically runs AI algorithms to train the avatar to look and do your facial expressions. And then we use another product that does a voice synthesis and almost a perfect replica of your voice so that then at that point forward any-
So you’ve got the library effectively to make my lips say what I want to say the next time. And that’s cool.
Jon Tota (20:38):
And that was the key. Early on you had the video side but not the audio side. So it was some stock voice on your avatar and it just didn’t feel right. And then if you uploaded your actual recording of you as an MP3 you have too much emotion in your voice. When you run it through the synthesis it digitizes it and it matches a little more closely. We do in the studio one hour on camera, one hour on audio. They read very specific scripts that are designed for you, for your face, to make the motions in your mouth, to make the motions that need to be made. And it’s literally like maybe a five minute read on teleprompter and we just do it about five or 10 times, different styles to get different looks and then 45 minutes to an hour on audio. And that’s it. It’s done.
That is so f-ingup cool. I’m like, woah.
When you were out maternity leave I could have had you here the whole time.
Yeah are you kidding me…damn it.
That was tough being without Sam.
That’s really cool.
Jon Tota (21:46):
Just could’ve just made videos of Sam and have her around.
Dave’s like never mind. Terrible idea.
Jon, I gotta ask just how has – I mean, this is pretty high tech stuff you’re doing. How has hiring been for you here in Vermont?
Jon Tota (22:03):
It’s interesting because we’ve done pretty well. It, we’re still small. We’ve only got five employees now. But everyone’s come as graduates out of UVM. We’ve done well getting some smart, great, really committed kids that just graduated right out of school. And we have leveraged interns from Champlain College quite a bit when we need to staff up for projects. And I gotta say, I know a lot of people have problems finding the right talent here. For us it’s been kind of a dream with Champlin College because we work with Kylie King and I will tell her the type of people that we’re looking for or the career department. And you get 20 resumes from these kids who all have screenplays that they’ve already written and super talented. Either they’re interested in the entrepreneurial side or they’re interested in digital medium one form or another. But I think the talent pool has been great here. I think I’m having a harder time filling business development roles but the creative roles haven’t been as much a struggle. But now we’re starting to scale into that sales marketing side. That might be a little bit more of a challenge, I guess.
That’s good to know. We love Kylie.
Was just gonna say that we should get an avatar Kylie. Oh my gosh. Do we have to tell her?
Yeah, I think that’s part of the deal.
We don’t wanna be the creepy place.
Jon Tota (23:24):
You don’t wanna be the deep fakes.
So can you tell us about the Learning Life Podcast? Please. And how did it start and evolved? It’s really exciting.
Jon Tota (23:33):
It’s been like a whole other side of what we do. I started the show and you were both on it with me which was great early on in our Vermont series. I started the show back in 2017. I’ve been involved with Entrepreneurs Organization for a long time and I was the learning chair for the EO chapter in New York city. And so just as part of doing that I figured I’m paying these experts to come in and speak to the group why not just interview them on audio and capture it and see what I could do with it. So I started interviewing the experts and I started interviewing entrepreneurs who are EO members and my listener base grew particularly because it was part of that EO network, so you got a lot of business owners from around the country around the world listening and it started just going from there. And in 2018 I hired one of our first employees outta UVM. She became the producer of that show and really had the idea of like, why don’t we make it a weekly show, really do it consistently. And we just kept interviewing or I hosted. So I’ve been interviewing experts and thought leaders, entrepreneurs, interesting people from anywhere. Earlier this year I think back in April we – and might have been, I guess, part of the way everyone feels with COVID and everything – we’ve been so much more locally focused. We often themed our seasons and we said, well let’s do a Vermont season and just start interviewing, reaching out, interviewing interesting entrepreneurs here.
Jon Tota (25:08):
I thought we’d get 12 or 15 good episodes and then I’d go back to Learning Life, normal interviews. And I totally was surprised. I wasn’t expecting it. No shortage of super interesting people to interview as you both know, because you’ve been doing it for a long time as well. For me, I’m so much more connected to the stories because they’re brands you see every day. It’s people you know that were all kind of dealing with the same challenges of building businesses in a smaller city and finding talent and raising capital and all that. I love it. We actually just made the decision now to keep Learning Life local and just stay interviewing Vermont entrepreneurs.
That’s great. Congrats.
Jon Tota (25:54):
Which is awesome. I love it. I said to my team, we just keep finding interesting people to talk to and student entrepreneurs from the schools and it’s so much more gratifying than anything we’ve done. And the audience has really grown. It’s it’s doubled in size and all the growth has come in Vermont.
That’s what I was gonna ask. Are your sort of listeners from before your Vermont season still listening?
New Speaker (26:18):
It’s funny. It’s a controversial topic in the Learning Life world. We lost some of our listeners because they realized we weren’t seemingly ever are coming back from Vermont. And they’re like, oh. So we’re never coming out of Vermont. I think we’ve seen some of that. Our numbers have grown overall, but you see it when you look at your map and you’re losing the international listening, we’re losing listening from around the country, but it’s growing so much faster here in Vermont that it’s replaced it. I don’t know I often feel that the right fit for podcast show, this media type, is local. It feels is more local. You feel more connected to your listener base than you do on YouTube or TikTok or Instagram. I love it as a local medium and we might have lost some but I – the funny thing is I get texts and emails from listeners and friends from around the country and they go, man I’m still listening because Vermont entrepreneurs are really interesting I just never thought there were those kind of businesses there. And that’s the best thing.
Who knew it’s so cool. You’re absolutely right about that. It’s really been unbelievable to have a student that maybe goes to Australia for the first couple years or her career, but wants to know what’s going on in Vermont for when they come back. This is one of the ways, they come to your podcast and our Start Here one and just learn. We’ve always felt that it was a chance to educate engage and then maybe activate either an entrepreneur or someone that wanted to go work for that sort of company. That I think is really nifty. So many cool stories out there. And I’v loved listening to you check in with Cyrus, right? At renowned skis. Because we’d know Cyrus back in the early day and I get to check up on him that way, Sam. It’s like, oh wow! He’s legit now. All right. He’s like a real business and great skis and product and he worked it.
Jon Tota (28:21):
That’s a cool aspect of podcast listening. Everyone always says, I think people think of it as a competitive medium, but Start Here and Learning Life are really a perfect example that it’s nice to have the same guest on different shows. If I’m interested in Cyrus and what he’s doing, you wanna listen to all those interviews. If you hit different topics that I hit and if I’m a podcast listener who likes entrepreneur interviews, I want to consume as many of those as I can.
Well let’s be honest, Sam. He’s better at it than we are.
It’s fine. We’re happy to be fast followers. Folks that enjoy your podcast, they search the name of your guests, then they find ours then hell yeah. Right?
Jon Tota (29:09):
Yeah. And likewise, I think, if you’re into this style of show. Honestly it’s great because I think the best thing to find off of a podcast show is another podcast show.
I remember when Dave and I started this in 2016, we were like there’s not that many podcasts in Vermont and now it’s like growing exponentially. There’s so many more. I know it’s one of my favorite ways to digest content, especially because I have a commute. I can’t even imagine not listening to a podcast every day now. And I think that trend will only continue.
Jon Tota (29:47):
I love the medium. I think for me, from the beginning I did online interviews because I was interviewing people from all over and I wasn’t gonna ask them to come here. What I love about the opportunity with the local show is that we can have someone come in and we can sit in a studio like this in person. And that’s a whole different experience for the interviewer too.
Some folks they’re be very hesitant. They wouldn’t come in if we were on video, for example. We’ve had that said. And for others it just takes a bit to warm up and it’s a little bit tough to warm up and maybe earn some trust early on with a new guest or someone you haven’t met to share their story because they are personal. Hear all these origin stories that, oh, I got divorced or I got the [inaudible] or I was crying on the sidewalk, but I pulled myself up and we went forward and that’s pretty inspiring. Fun tales to tell. And I often joke with folks, Vermont’s still 2/3rds dirt roads. Right? There’s one of three things up a dirt road: big mean dog, dead end stonewall, or an entrepreneur. And you gotta find out what she’s doing. She might be a farmer, a biologist or software hacker. And I think that’s what’s kind of fun with what our job here is at VCET. It’s to be curious and to just go discover or have of our networks,[inaudible] up. Because we can get them into the support systems or some of the advising around their business growth. So that’s cool. It’s kind of fun to see what’s out there.
Jon Tota (31:12):
It’s fun. And I think the stories are really inspiring. I think when you get younger listeners who are student entrepreneurs – like when I graduated college becoming an entrepreneur was not a career path. It wasn’t even an option. Now you see kids who already have business plans while they’re like a sophomore in college. I think it’s cool for them to be able to listen to shows like yours and mine. Cyrus is a perfect example. That story. What he overcame and how he financed his business with window washing. And you’re like, if you can’t complain about anything as a student entrepreneur that you can’t get it going, when you listen to interviews like that, it’s willpower, you just do it.
I have to ask, not just in the recent Vermont podcasts, but your whole career: do you have a favorite interview that you’ve done?
Jon Tota (32:07):
Oh yeah, I’ve got some favorites recently from the Vermont interviews that I think really stand out to me. One of the really fun ones that I had, a guy James Lawrence he’s the iron cowboy. So he came on. I met him through EO and he came on. This was probably a couple years ago. He ran 50 Ironman triathlons in 50 consecutive days in 50 different states. It’s such a fascinating story. Just what he had to overcome, because it’s almost logistically impossible. And that story, it’s a great interview because he talks about that. And then he came back on and announced his new one that he just finished this past year, which was 100 iron man distance triathlons in 100 consecutive days. But this time he did it at home in his neighborhood.
Jon Tota (33:01):
So it was more of a mental challenge rather than a logistical one. When you talk to someone like that and just the inspiration that no one would ever think that they could push themselves to that limit. He was a really inspiring interview. I had Cal Fussman on who’s this great, legendary interviewer for Esquire magazine. The stories he tells, so good. I think you guys probably know this too, the biggest name guests you get don’t tend to be your best interviews because you’re a little star struck sometimes with those ones and you’re striving so hard to get-
Jon Tota (33:38):
Just recently we released Jay Lebenthal’s episode about Jay skis and line skis and he’s so good. He’s just such a good storyteller. I’ve learned something from all of these interviews and I think the Vermont ones are not that different than any of the others. It’s funny when you start doing it and you’re like, okay they’re not dealing with different challenges than the rest of the country. We all have the same challenges with scaling a business and finding talent. I think they’re all fun though.
What’s your favorite, Sam? Do you have one?
Oh, I don’t know if I have a favorite. I have my sort of bias answers of friends that we’ve interviewed of course.
It’s tough to choose, right?
Right. It’s tough because sometimes like the more you know about them the easier the interview is, but some of the one that I don’t know anything about their business end up being just amazing. Like Paul Rolson, I didn’t know Paul at all. And then Dave’s like, he’s awesome we have to interview him. I think I had the “oh my God” look on my face the entire time. Everything he was saying was just so funny and interest and different. He blew my mind. So he might be my most recent favorite.
Well he was my favorite entrepreneur for selling organic kindling in a box outside of whole foods. It was like a $60 box of kindling.
It was like a $58 margin.
[Inaudible] Like I had 800% markup, it was the best business ever, people were giving me the supply for free. Really, really nifty. As a real active participant and observer of Vermont what’s surprised you the most and what’s maybe disappointed you the most?
Jon Tota (35:36):
That’s a good question because I am relatively new and particularly new to the business scene here and because I’m just kind of fresh to this now. It’s come up on so many of my interviews and I know on some of yours too, that I’ve hear, and I’ve seen it firsthand. The business community here is really so welcoming and coming out of New York City where it was so competitive and you were competing, even when I was in a group like Entrepreneurs Organization, you were competing with all the other members, no one was really helping each other out. And I think I saw it firsthand when we launched this show and started reaching out to people who didn’t know anything about us or what Learning Life was. And everyone agreed to come on and then make connections and refer other people to us. So I think the community’s been great. It’s probably the biggest surprise beause I thought that was gonna be – coming out of New York – I thought that was gonna be something that was a real challenge for me: is that there isn’t gonna be a business community and a network. And while there’s not like an EO chapter here, you almost don’t need it with what you are doing and with the whole community and how everyone’s so closely networked. So that I think’s been the real positive. Probably one of the challenges for me is I moved here for the international airport and it could use some more direct flights.
It hasn’t been international. Actually, they’re seasonal now, right? To Toronto during winter time.
Jon Tota (37:05):
I end up having to travel a lot for business and then we have to bring people here to Burlington to come to the studio. So easier flights in and out of Burlington would make a lot of our business easy. That’s a little selfish, but that’s probably the only thing is travel in and out is challenging or longer. But I mean the experience, quality of life, and just business building. I think I’ve enjoyed it this time around so much more in Burlington.
You totally stole my question but are you gonna stick? We don’t ask that one anymore. Right?
I was thinking that was kind of the magic wand question without asking the magic wand question.
We’re at that point too Sam. We’re at that point. Do you wanna ask that?
This way you can give like another answer, right? So our magic wand question: if you could change one thing in Vermont today, what would you change? And it can be more flights and then airport, but if you wanna give another answer as well…
Jon Tota (38:02):
That would seem a little shallow, more direct flights and more snow days. Yeah. I love this question because I’ve listened to many of your episodes till the end. And so I hear the answers to this and it’s a great way to test if your guests actually listen all the way through to your episodes. Because if you are flubbing this one you haven’t listened well enough.
Haven’t done your homework.
Jon Tota (38:23):
I did think about this and I have numerous, less important answers to it, but I think one of the things I’ve noticed as I’m trying to scale my team and I’m bringing in employees right out of school who are not making a whole lot of money yet. And part of the value of building your business in a smaller city like this is that I can do it a little bit more lean at lower payrolls, but there’s kind of a disconnect with the availability of affordable housing. And I know that’s a big issue at low income, but even like moderate income – I think I just read something that you need to make a $50,000 salary to afford just a basic two bedroom apartment around here. And I look at that and I think that’s something that a lot of smarter people than me have probably been working on for a long time, but it’s something I can kind of sense directly through my employees; that they just can’t find a good lifestyle. They know the quality of life is here, but they can’t necessarily afford or even find an available place.
And there might be other folks working on it but I think as a business owner, you voicing that as super important because we need to hear it from everyone. Right? We need to be all hands on deck to solve that problem because it’s true. I talk about it all the time. When I was in my mid to late twenties all of my friends moved away because they couldn’t afford housing and they were making a decent salary, you would think, but there’s still living with four other people and they’re almost 30 and they’re like, I don’t wanna do this. This is not worth it to me. And so I think that is a major burden for folks and something we need to solve for sure.
Jon Tota (40:08):
Yeah. I feel the same thing; I see my younger employees that I feel like they’re still living the way they did in college and their wishing they could kind of get a normal apartment of their own. That’s probably not the most important issue. I think when you think of businesses trying to attract talent and scale their business, it’s one of those things that you may just not even be able to get someone to come here because of that.
Oh, it’s the number one barrier. The housing stock at different levels and then childcare. Being able to find one of those limited slots, time and time again, we have plenty of really well paying jobs. These are north of $80,000 but it’s tough to tell everyone and say, I gotta commute an hour and a half or find the place that you want with a little backyard perhaps or different sort of environment. But our biggest challenge is population and we need a few more people here every year. And with that comes road, housing, schools, supports, childcare. I’m glad I’m not in charge of figuring it out. We’ll do our part agitating and maybe bubbling it up in our conversations.
Jon, thank you. This is time to wrap it up, but thank you so much for spending time with us and showing us what a real interviewer’s like.
Yeah, for real. I’m taking notes over here.
God, why did we do this at the beginning of this season? I’m gonna be like just imposter syndrome the rest of the season.
Jon Tota (41:41):
You guys are making it hard for me to go back to my next interview.
Good! Well, we’ll keep doing this. We’ll check in in a few more years. See what you’ve learned. This has been Start Here podcast sharing the storys of active, aspiring, and accidental entrepreneurs. The series is supported by the Vermont Technology Council and Consolidated Communications. Let’s get back to our Learning Life in Vermont. Thank you again.
Jon Tota (42:05):
Thank you. It’s great to be here.