Being an entrepreneur takes grit, determination, and vision, all of which Michael Zebrowski, founder of Up End This has in spades. Not only has his young business endured the challenges typical of a startup, it has also survived both the pandemic and historic flooding of 2023.
“We fought so hard in the beginning to get financing,” said Zebrowski. “We shut down three times during COVID, and then just when we finally got going–I mean, we were doing it, the business model was working–it was gone again. It was devastating.”
“His positivity and perseverance are why we’re still here,” said his partner, Ericka Weik.
The foundation of an idea.
When Michael bought his home in Morrisville, VT in 2014, the one thing it didn’t have was studio space. An artist and professor of art and design at Johnson State College, Zebrowski considered renovating a shed on the property, but ultimately decided to build something new–a small, stand-alone building where he could be creative. “That was the first iteration of my idea,” he said. “It was not about necessity.”
That all changed during a conversation with a friend. Teaching and making public art, Zebrowski relished the creative freedom but, “in terms of livelihood,” he said, “I was sinking.” He reached out to Nathan Suter, the executive director of a nonprofit arts organization in Stowe, VT. “We were talking about another person we both knew and Nathan said, ‘Michael, he makes bread. You make sailboats.’ It really hit me. Yes, art is important, but I realized I wanted to make something that was necessary; something higher up in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.”
For Zebrowski, that meant buildings. The growing tiny house movement was well underway, and Zebrowski saw an opportunity to design and build foundationless “Satellite” pods–similar to the studio space he had built for himself–that could serve as off-grid cabins, home offices, vacation getaways, or “granny pods.” In May 2018, he left his job at Johnson State College and founded Up End This.
A first sale… and a pandemic.
Zebrowski sold his first Satellite on March 10, 2020, just three days after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Vermont.
“Having a design background helped me keep perspective during the pandemic,” said Zebrowski. “If you have an idea and just stick your head in the ground and pursue it, you’re not going to get anywhere. You have to pick your head up, look around, and see where the opportunities are.”
As the number of people experiencing homelessness more than doubled during Covid-19, Zebrowski saw an opportunity for his Satellite buildings to serve both as temporary housing and, in the long-term, affordable housing units. “There was a need for shelter,” he said, “and a lot of people were thinking about how to respond. The effect, for me, was just to do it, to start reimagining how the Satellites could work for this purpose, to start making bread.”
Finding himself in the not uncommon position of an entrepreneur in need of capital, he reached out to Janice St. Onge, president of the Flexible Capital Fund (Flex Fund) in the fall of 2022.
“My books were not in great shape,” said Zebrowski, “so Janice brought in a consultant through the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund to help with my bookkeeping system.” That work with VSJF Business Coach Linda Markin, former CFO of Concept 2, was the first step toward the funding that soon followed. The Flex Fund provided Up End This with a $300,000 investment structured as a flexible revenue-based loan, and brought in Northern Community Investment Corporation in St. Johnsbury as a participant in the investment for an additional $150,000.
“Both NCIC and the Flex Fund have similar missions, but we have historically provided more traditional term debt,” said Peter Corey, president of NCIC. “Startups need time to develop their revenue stream, so a flexible, equity-like investment such as a revenue-based financing loan makes more sense. Janice and the team at the Flex Fund are well versed in this type of financing, which gave us the confidence to participate. We’re excited to support Michael and his innovative work at Up End This and look forward to seeing his company grow to the benefit of the local economy.”
At the closing, Zebrowski learned that he would be receiving additional support in the form of business coaching from the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, funded by the SBA Community Navigator Pilot Program. “First the Flex Fund provides funding to bring Linda in and sort out my books. Then Janice not only provides capital, but also invites NCIC in and sets us up with the support we need to be successful with the investment money. Talk about gratitude,” he said.
And then a flood.
By spring of 2023, Up End’s shiny new CNC router was humming away on the floor and a finished model stood outside the warehouse. “The business plan was working,” said Zebrowski, “I could see the horizon.”
The company had supplied five out of the 30 shelter pods that the City of Burlington had purchased for people experiencing homelessness in Burlington. At 64-square feet, with a bed and desk, the one-room shelters are intended to be transition space for people waiting to find permanent housing. The smaller of two units he has designed, The Orbiter, can also be used as a home office or studio space.
Back at Up End This headquarters in Johnson, Zebrowski was building a slightly larger model called The Habitation Module, which includes a full bathroom. At 240-square feet, the larger satellite can serve as an “accessory dwelling unit” or a vacation rental.
But before that unit could be finished, on July 10, 2023 heavy rain and flooding devastated much of Vermont, including the town of Johnson. At the Up End This facility, water levels reached chest height. “When we opened the computer cabinet to the CNC router, water just gushed out,” said Zebrowski. “You could literally hear the water and air fizzing out of the land. I just turned on my camera and started filming. I was literally speechless.” They were not in a designated flood plain.
But by that point, he was too invested–and too determined–to give up. Despite more than $120,000 in damages and at least a six-month set back, Up End This is getting back on track. “If anything, we doubled down on all the reasons we set out to do this,” he said. “There were so many communities impacted by the flood and everyone was asking, what are we going to do? Where will people live? I want to build these. I want people to live in them. I want to make a dent in the innovation that can make housing affordable.”
The key, says Zebrowski, is streamlining the design build process. His business model moves away from traditional construction toward a manufacturing approach that more closely resembles the auto industry. That’s the part he’s still working to restore post-flood.
Housing for the 100%.
This year, Up End This plans to make 20 units. He can see a not-too-distant future where Up End This is manufacturing 150 to 200 satellites a year.
Using sustainably harvested plywood from Garnica, locally-sourced lumber from P&R in Wolcott, VT, subflooring from Advantech in Maine, zero volatile organic compounds (VOC) paints, and sustainable flooring options, Zebrowski sees his units as “housing for the 100%. “Whether you’re a sustainability-minded family in need of a remote office or creative space or a person struggling to find housing, you’re going to reside in the same, high-quality, healthy unit,” he said.
“We’re going to make parts and assemble parts,” he said. “I am so focused on how we do this right from start to finish. It’s both scalable and sustainable. The system works, the quality is high, the turnaround is quick, and I don’t need to hire somebody with years of carpentry experience. I can create good, entry level jobs with room to advance.”
In the short-term, he has been able to salvage and renovate the units he had in progress. The Habitation module has been delivered to Uncommon Accommodations, it is both a model for Up End This and an AirBnb rental. Zebrowski has resumed building his team, even as he continues to clean out ruined materials.
“We wouldn’t be here without Janice and the others,” he said. “We just wouldn’t have survived. First, without the funding we would never have gotten to where we are. And the day after the flood, we had a ten person call with the Flex Fund, our VSJF business coaches, the Vermont Community Loan Fund. It was insane. To have that support, compassion and wisdom in the moment, you know…without that we just would not be here.”
“It’s been tough, he said, “but another day, another fight. We just keep going. I was a punk rock kid, I grew up pissed off about what I saw. There was this feeling of frustration and desire for change. I’ve always wanted to solve all the world’s problems. Now I’m focusing that all into one solution–affordable housing. That’s where we are going. I know we’re on that path.”
For more information, https://www.upendthis.com.
About the Flexible Capital Fund
The Flexible Capital Fund, L3C is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) and impact investment fund that provides flexible risk capital in the form of subordinated debt, revenue based financing (also known as royalty financing) and alternative equity structures, to growth-stage companies in Vermont and the region’s food systems, forest products, and clean technology sectors.
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