Student Entrepreneur Series: Treeline Terrains with Nathaniel & Jacob
Everyone knows that being a college student is a pivotal moment and a great learning experience in a young adult’s life. Besides making new friends, finding oneself, and discovering what career path to take, there are those who take it upon themselves to become self-starters. Here at VCET, we want to highlight the achievements of those who have been able to juggle school, work, and starting a new business, through a series of student entrepreneurs. This week we had the privilege of sitting down with Nathaniel and Jacob, of Treeline Terrains who are recent graduates of Middlebury College and who we initially met through the Middlebury Entrepreneurs class taught by VCET. We got to chit-chat about all their exhilarating obstacles and adventures!
Tell us a bit about yourself and where you are now!
Nathaniel: My name’s Nathaniel, I’m from Newton, Massachusetts, and I just graduated from Middlebury this spring! I am a co-founder of Treeline Terrains and I’ve been working on our business full-time this summer and it’s been fun living in Groton, Massachusetts with my grandparents. I focus on carpentry and woodwork preparing the models for cutting, machinery, and post-production. I’m also the marketing head, run our social media, and I source all the wood!
Jacob: My name is Jacob Freedman, and I am one of the co-founders of Treeline Terrains. I am in charge of our mapmaking and project development with customers, organizations, and a wide variety of communities. I design custom 3D models that show trails, roads, buildings, water bodies, and more, helping our customers connect with places in a whole new way. I studied Environmental Studies and Geography at Middlebury College, helping me develop the tools that we use for our mapmaking today. I am passionate about inclusive map design (broadening the stories that are told about a given place, through mapmaking) and am really excited for our models to help all people connect to the places they love, no matter their background nor ability.
“A huge part of our goals is working with nonprofits to use our models as storytelling devices and forms of learning. We’ve been working with Vermont Ski Adaptive on a big model of Mount Ellen at Sugarbush to help visually impaired skiers understand the mountain and the trails. We’ve also been able to work with the Middlebury Area Land Trust and made a model of the town with the TAM (Trail Around Middlebury) and they’ve been able to use it at events with kids so they can feel the landscape and help understand where they are.” – Jacob Freedman
Tell me about your business!
Nathaniel: Here at Treeline Terrains, we make 3D wood-carved models of mountains, lakes, and landscapes! We use GIS (geographic information system) to prepare the data we want. Whatever region we think people might like, whether it’s a Vermont ski area, or a New Hampshire lake, or a western mountain range, we pull it from the US GIS database. Jacob then works on it and adjusts it to the right size, adds certain features like rivers and trails that someone might want, and we top it off by using a program called MeshCAM to create the g-code that runs our computer-controlled router, which is a fast-spinning drill bit that goes back and forth on the wood! Other than that it’s a lot of content creation. A huge part of our goals is working with nonprofits to use our models as storytelling devices and forms of learning. We’ve been working with Vermont Ski Adaptive on a big model of Mount Ellen at Sugarbush to help visually impaired skiers understand the mountain and the trails. We’ve also been able to work with the Middlebury Area Land Trust and made a model of the town with the TAM (Trail Around Middlebury) and they’ve been able to use it at events with kids so they can feel the landscape and help understand where they are.
“…it wasn’t until last winter and the pandemic that we got the opportunity to dive in and really get it going.” – Nathaniel Klein
What was it like being a student entrepreneur? Was it something you definitely saw yourself doing during your time as a student – or was it something you suddenly found yourself immersed in?
Jacob: To me it felt like something we suddenly found ourselves immersed in. The idea to create the 3D models happened around our sophomore year in the spring/winter of 2019. We then presented them in an art show with Alex, who’s our third co-founder. We were living together that summer and I was reading through my journal and we thought we were going to crush it! We were thinking of all these ski areas we could email to collaborate with and sell our models through, we thought it was going to be so easy! Obviously, it took another two years and a pandemic to really put our heads into trying to make this a reality. We had no understanding that we were going to be entrepreneurs when we started out at Middlebury. Up until last winter, we didn’t know we were going to try and start this business!
Nathaniel: I agree with Jacob, we really just found ourselves immersed in it! Going off the timeline, we were all really busy in college. We did way too much, and as a result, this kept getting pushed to the sidelines. We were always kind of working on it but we never dedicated the time it deserved. As Jacob said, we thought it was going to be a piece of cake, and people were going to love it instantly. But with every business and every idea, it takes a lot of work! I was very involved in sports, Jacob was busy with youth mentoring and other organizations on campus, and Alex was working with the outdoor club and admissions so it wasn’t until last winter and the pandemic that we got the opportunity to dive in and really get it going.
“We had so many things going on all throughout school but having a month of class where you’re constantly getting feedback, support, time, space, and credit to work on your project was huge!” – Jacob Freedman
Where did the idea for your project come from?
Jacob: We initially started this business as a gift for our bosses! We all used to be ski and snowboard instructors at the Middlebury College Snow Bowl and one year we wanted to give them a gift. We had a great relationship with the staff and the older instructors and after a great season, we started to put our heads together to try and create a mini model of the college ski area. Then everyone started telling us we needed to start selling the models and that they’re really cool. At first, we said no but then it just spiraled into us starting a business. We didn’t really know what we were doing or what we were getting ourselves into. A lot of what we do is troubleshooting, figuring out what’s going wrong with our machine, or how to increase sales, but every day is a new and fun adventure!
Nathaniel: I joined the team a bit later! Jacob and Alex really took the reins on creating the gift for our boss. In the maker space at our school, there was a CNC mill and Alex took it upon himself to figure out how to make it work.
Jacob: During our winter term, we worked on it every day. By the end of the month we finally figured it out but it took a lot of trial and error and troubleshooting. Some of our earlier models look so funny, they look like pyramids! The machine would constantly break on us because we had absolutely no idea what we were doing. The real backstory is that we were all really involved in helping people connect with skiing at Middlebury College so we put together this lesson fund scholarship that now exists in perpetuity and any student can get ski lessons, regardless of financial status. That was really the reason we really wanted to make this gift for our boss – because she gave us a blank check of support as a response to creating the program and giving us the backing to make it happen! The piece really came out of showing our appreciation for the Snow Bowl community.
Speaking of creating any geographical landscape, would you guys consider creating models around the world?
Nathaniel: We can do models of any landscape in the world, including the moon and mars!
Jacob: There’s only a handful of people making these 3D wood models, and one of the things that set us aside from other businesses is that we also use layered woods to create a color gradient to emulate a hypsometric tint, much like a real topographic map would have. Secondly, we can include trails in the models, which no one else is doing. We’ve been able to develop tools and GIS to help us make that possible, and that is applicable to any part of the world. Lastly, the data we use is of the highest resolution possible. Many people use whichever standard data they can find but we up our data in order to create very accurate landscapes and trails.
Was it just you three jumpstarting your project or did you have a team of other student entrepreneurs helping you out?
Nathaniel: It was just us! We had a lot of mentors along the way, within the college and outside. Many gave us generous amounts of advice and space, but for the most part, we were the three main people jumpstarting the business.
What were the resources offered to you by Middlebury College, if any?
Nathaniel: The first thing I can think of is the CNC mill in the maker space. We used that a lot during our sophomore year to create the first model. The idea would’ve never started without that because none of us knew what a CNC mill was. Having that resource available was very helpful. The Middlebury Entrepreneurs class with Dave and Sam also made such a difference! Without them, we would’ve gotten nowhere. We thought we knew what we were doing, and granted we know a lot more now, but that course really pushed us to think about our business in a sustainable way.
Jacob: Although we had great resources at school and mentors, every time we thought we had it figured out, there seemed to be another roadblock – there was always another challenge! However, Middlebury was able to give us funding, time, and space! We had applied to a couple of grants through the innovation hub and were able to secure those. The CNC mill was too much money for all of us to go in on together and without that initial funding, we wouldn’t have been able to purchase our own machine, which would then mean we wouldn’t have been able to do the business. The Middlebury Entrepreneurs class through VCET also gave Nathaniel and me the time to focus on making the business happen. We had so many things going on all throughout school but having a month of class where you’re constantly getting feedback, support, time, space, and credit to work on your project was huge! Without all those pieces, none of this would have been possible.
What was the most exciting part about being a student entrepreneur?
Nathaniel: Alex and I used to live together and it was so cool and fun to be able to walk outside our house and be sanding or branding our project! People would come around and ask us what we were doing and I would get to say “this is our business, check us out!”. People loved it and it was just a very cool thing to talk about! It was so exciting because you’re doing something different, it wasn’t a student club or sport, it was completely new and unheard of. We all liked and cared about Treeline Terrains – it was awesome to be a part of a passion project.
Jacob: One of the first things that come to mind is the nighttime Middlebury art show called Nocturne. The entire campus gets lit up with student art projects for the entire evening and it’s one of the coolest things to be a part of. We were able to present some of our models at the show in 2019 when we first started out and did it again this year. We went all out and made so many new pieces and someone came up to us and said: “you guys have really stepped up your game since the last time we saw your work, this is really cool!”. Seeing a bunch of students come over, some I recognized from classes, some from around campus, and look at the models we made and tell us stories about a time they walked on the TAM or went skiing on the Snow Bowl was a really humbling experience.
Do you think it was easier to get your project off the ground because you were surrounded by a good student support system and mentors readily available on campus?
Nathaniel: Having mentors was a huge factor. Middlebury had a lot of good resources and a lot of good people in good positions that wanted to help. The person I think of is Ayman, who is the machinist in the science building, He helps professors work on prototypes for different data collections. It wasn’t his job to help us because he was super busy, but he was always there to lend a hand, talk through his ideas, donate his time, and provide us with the right tools. He had so much experience and he was willing to share that with us! So many people wanted to help because they wanted to see us succeed.
Jacob: Being at a small liberal arts college, we found ourselves surrounded by a lot of passionate and interesting people and that helped me believe that we could do this! Why not try? It’s not just about focusing on your academics and going to parties and hanging out, you’re in this awesome space with people from all around the world! Take advantage of everyone trying to brainstorm together and create something exciting! Having the Middlebury community motivated me to try and make Treeline Terrains work.
How do you think we can help you now? Do you have an ask for our community here at VCET?
Nathaniel: The big thing right now is getting the word out, getting our product out there in people’s homes! We want them to be able to share these great memories and stories with their loved ones, so check us out on social media and our website. Think about who might thoroughly appreciate our work – they make great gifts!
Jacob: Check out our store and don’t hesitate to reach out if you’re interested in a custom landscape. As for organizations, non-profits, educational groups, tribal groups, anyone that’s doing place-based programming, we would love to work and collaborate with you! We’re working with two museums right now and have a couple of other non-profits partnerships going on. We really want our models to be a tool to help everyone connect with places!
Published and edited by VCET Marketing Associate, Nicole Mattos-Parodi.