Innovation That Matters

Wise Words with Erik Andrus


We caught up with the Project Director of the Vermont Sail Freight Project to discover why he wants to turn the typical view of sail freight from an old-timey novelty to a valid way to help save the world.

Many of the startups that make it to the pages of Springwise are pushing the boundaries of what we can do with new technology, not reverting to methods that now seem old-fashioned and, well, more work than they need to be. However, Erik Andrus — Project Director of the Vermont Sail Freight Project — will tell you that there’s a solid philosophy behind his re-opening of a historic sail trade route, to deliver goods to the people of Vermont and New York. Non-perishable foods don’t require the speed, fuel usage and carbon emissions that come with shipping goods by truck or plane, and certainly don’t do anything to foster a sense of community and connection to the world. We caught up with Erik to discover why he wants to turn the typical view of sail freight from an old-timey novelty, to a valid way to help save the world.

Erik worked as a contractor with his own business — Erik Andrus Carpentry — for ten years before moving to Boundbrook Farm, where he ran the Good Companion Bakery and he continues to farm when he’s not working on the Vermont Sail Freight Project. The project successfully completed its maiden voyage at the end of October.

1. Where did the idea for the VSFP come from?

I guess you could say I came to this because I have a passion for farming and food systems, for woodworking, for history, and for being on the water. This is a way to tie together all of those interests.

2. Can you describe a typical working day?

The project is too young to have any typical working days just yet. But during the course of the voyage, when I was aboard, I would usually split my time between working below decks on administration in my “boat office”, and working with the captain and first mate by either sailing the ship or hand-loading/unloading cargo.

3. How do you unwind or relax when you’re not working on the VSFP?

I play music any chance I get. I like to tell bad jokes.

4. What’s the secret ingredient to success as an entrepreneur?

Don’t be afraid to fail. Without the risk of failure there is no potential to learn or grow.

5. What drove you crazy when building your business?

The project took too much time away from my family and home life and was actually so all-consuming that it took a toll on some of my farming operations too. These are both still potential problems going forward that I am looking to resolve.

6. What motivates you to keep going?

Bottom line is, there were only two things that could have killed this project in its first time out. First of all, there was the very legitimate fear that for one reason or another, we couldn’t do what we set out to do. Maybe the boat would develop problems, the cargo would get wet, maybe we couldn’t figure out how to handle and sail it within the time allotted, and so on. The second fear is that even if we can do it, the venture would still fail if nobody cared. But we can do this and people do find value in it. So this is some pretty strong positive feedback that helps a lot. We still have challenges, but in comparison to these two areas of worry we faced the first time out, they seem minor.

7. If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I don’t know. For what we were setting out to do, working largely with volunteer effort, we did a pretty good job. It would have been better if I had allowed more time at the outset for all of the major tasks our team had to confront — designing, building, testing, loading, sailing, and selling the cargo out of our sailing cargo barge all in the space of about eight months. But then again the time pressure really inspired everyone to rise to the occasion.

8. Where do you see your business in five years, and how will you get there?

The goal is to get sail-powered commerce past the point of being a novelty and to become ordinary. We want to keep the focus on food and farming and ultimately have producers become stakeholders too. We will do this by first focusing on the activities and products that were the most cost-effective for us the first time around, and by developing a program that should make Ceres (our sailing barge) a frequent visitor to river towns and cities along our route. We want to build on the splash of our first voyage to develop repeat business, both wholesale and retail.

9. If you weren’t working on the VSFP right now, what would you be doing?

Probably designing or building something else that most people would look at and shake their heads in disbelief. I still have it in mind to build a workshop that is rigged to use both a windmill and a steam engine for power.

10. Tell Springwise a secret…

The Hudson River Valley is a totally different place when seen from the water, moving slowly and with purpose, than it is as seen from your car window from the FDR. Experience the difference and you might just fall in love.

11. Any final words for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Many things are possible if you defy the magnetism of the couch. Generalists can sometimes succeed where the specialists and corporate boardrooms deem the prospects of failure too great to attempt.

I think we all have a desire to prove that together we can still accomplish great things by combining our skills and working as a true community. It seems to me that if you create a project that speaks to this need that we have at this point in our history, you can attract some really extraordinary allies to your cause.