Abe's Corner Accelerator: Financing Startups in the Digital World // Published in Thread Magazine // December 2, 2014
Sean Hurley is obsessive. He’ll admit it, and he’ll tell you it’s a good thing. Loquacious, energetic and driven, in five years Hurley has already founded one company, sold it and set his sights on company number two. It is possible that the man does not sleep. Trained in statistics, big data and consumer behavior, but balanced by an appreciation for the Vermont way of life, Hurley gets his thrills from creating and sustaining small businesses in the heart of Burlington’s Old North End.
Hurley’s latest project is Abe’s Corner Accelerator, a venture capital startup that helps other start-ups well… start up. Abe’s invests in, provides co-op location space for and supports new Vermont businesses that are rooted in the digital realm. Abe’s ultimate aim is to represent three to five companies who have teams of three to five people, moving them from “Hey this sounds like a great business idea” projects to full-fledged organizations.
Having founded his own business, hearfoward, in 2009, Hurley knows the uphill battle that startups, and particularly those in the digital industry, face in this state. The concept at hearforward was to match the value of social media promotional campaigns with internal data that companies already had. Fresh from a few years in the Boston marketing and advertising circuit, Hurley and his then-business partner, Jeff Frank (who is now press secretary to Sen. Bernie Sanders) founded hearforward in 2009. They brought on Kyle Girard, now Director of Software Engineering at Green Mountain Digital, in 2011. The trio worked for international brands like Pepsi, as well as closer-to-home organizations like Green Mountain Coffee, Seventh Generation and King Arthur Flour.
Hurley plans to do just that. Thanks again to VCET, Hurley and the rest of the Abe’s crew have their own investment money, which they plan to give right back.
“The point of capital is to deploy it, not to sit on it,” he says, throwing up his hands with a bit of frustration that comes from years bouncing around the venture scene. “So when we talk about deploying capital we mean writing checks to people who then write checks to other people to get things done.”
Hurley’s investment theory begins with research and reviews of a host of potential businesses. Then, he will take a (calculated) risk on backing a select group of businesses, both financially and personally.
“You make a very discrete decision out of seeing a lot of options and you believe it when you wrote the check, and you’re making a commitment to a crew of people that you’re going to be there, and their salary will be made,” he explains.
Hurley is passionate about helping out digital underdogs because he wants to see young talent break out of the underemployed cycle of ad-hoc work. A package of funding, space, resources and advice, he says, “gives them the ability to actually focus on something instead of having to hack it in the freelance economy.”
His first move was to assemble a team of digital analysts to do the legwork of practicing market research, setting up an open call for and also seeking out possible businesses, and ultimately reviewing the applications. Hundreds of them.
Sound ambitious? It is.
“For the rest of this year we’ll be working to review 300 to 400 business opportunities before we pull the trigger,” Hurley says. “Best estimates are between 100 to 125 that other folks in Vermont who write checks [typically] see. I think that work can be done harder and I think we can put together a crew to do it.”
Hurley’s current team consists of his sister Kate, who handles administrative duties and communications, and three digital analysts he found on a call for hire: Ariel Henley, a current student in Champlain’s MFA in Emergent Media program who is focusing on search engine optimization (SEO) for Abe’s; John Wall, who is working on a template for institutionalizing an objective exercise to understand brands, and Jake Tsacudakis, a former digital marketer intern at Bluehousegroup, a Vermont web design and development firm.
Throughout the fall, the Abe’s team is working to review business proposals for Hurley’s twin brother’s Philadelphia company, Hurley Media Group. By putting two to three people on each low-stakes client review, Hurley aims go through a brand and systematically understand it as a dry run for actual future clients.
This process was done out of Hurley’s Old North End living room until the crew officially moved in to the Abe’s corner at North Street and Elmwood Avenue. Hurley recalled the beginning fondly, if not without a little exasperation.
“There’s desks under the backyard in a tarp because we couldn’t move in yet,” he says. “There’s a garage halfway to the office filled with stuff. It couldn’t be more startup-y. But we have an office! That’s the worst part is this looks so Silicon Valley. It’s just my house.”
Sure, Abe’s current laid-back and slightly frazzled vibe might be ripe for an indie Social Network-style biopic. But what keeps it afloat is Hurley’s passion and jump-right-in attitude, something that each of his team members echo.
As she is working through her master’s degree, Henley says, “There aren’t many opportunities to find people actually willing to work with you and to teach you new things, and I really like the idea of working with a team that I could learn from and share my knowledge with.”
Wall agrees, simply stating that once he answered the open bid on Craigslist and got to know Hurley, “the level of passion that was reflected was astounding.”
If Hurley is what keeps Abe’s running, what keeps it “Vermont” is putting down roots in the Old North End, while still injecting a bit of 21st century ingenuity in order to have a hardcore hyper-local impact.
“We want the best for this neighborhood,” Hurley professes, “The truth is that Abe’s Corner is the first piece of commercial space that has been built here in fifty years.”
Hurley’s optimism about Abe’s success touches all aspects of the business: who will be working there, what companies they’ll be supporting, and how it will all come together at the physical location.
“Why I think Abe’s Corner is going to work is that we’re going to make very conscious decisions about who those people are who are in the space, we’re going to fund them so they can marshal focus for a business problem we all believe in, and we’re going to require that they be there and work together,” Hurley says.
Now that Abe’s is officially off the ground, with Hurley at the helm and a dynamic team firing on all cylinders, it looks like the road for future startup success in Vermont will lead to the corner of North Street and Elmwood Avenue. ‡