Vermont Businesses Stick Together
Marrying mobility and flexibility with fitness and fun is at the heart of what Rollin Rachele and his team at Clustas are doing today. A Vermont start-up, Clustas makes innovative, magnetic weights that have awesome potential both for fitness enthusiasts and for individuals dealing with physical challenges. A totally portable weight-training system, the core component of Clustas is a series of weighted magnetic balls that stick together. Users can add or subtract as much weight as they want, which makes for a customizable workout with no fuss and no waiting in line at the gym.
“Ultimately I wanted something simple, and this is the simplest that I could come up with,” says Rollin. It’s a business idea that many in the local area have gotten behind, and not just because they see the monetary potential.
They also see the human potential of Rollin’s products. Clustas is a multipurpose weight meant for a variety of people. Simple though they may be, they feature ingenious design that makes them appealing to fitness fanatics, individuals going through physical rehab and those who struggle with physical limitations alike. Whether they want to tone their arms or are looking for weights that they can grip despite the challenges of diseases such as Parkinson’s, Rachele and crew have the solution. They understand the potential for their product to help others too.
That’s largely because the idea for Clustas was first born more than a decade ago when Rollin’s mother was in a serious vehicle accident. As he watched his mother in the hospital, he realized that he wanted to help her through the rehabilitation process. At the time, Rollin wasn’t sure how to do that. He knew that specialty workout products might help, but he didn’t have any idea what those might look like. Several years later, while working out in the gym, the inspiration for Clustas struck. Rollin shares that he was waiting for a particular dumbbell and reflecting on how silly it was to wait around for a weight. Rollin says he found himself wondering, “what about just having a single weight size that you could put together in order to add or subtract weight to?”
They were just there to help, and I think that’s their basic premise is to help businesses get off the ground so that it stimulates the local economy.
It was that one brief experience at the gym that got Rollin thinking seriously about Clustas. As he envisioned the type of product he wanted to make, it all came back to his mom and her rehab process. He was looking for a product that could be used both by fitness enthusiasts and by individuals overcoming physical challenges. That meant he needed something that could provide a great workout but would also be easy enough for an individual in physiotherapy or rehab to handle. That meant that the weights needed to be adjustable and needed to have the potential to be used in different ways too.
Explaining the product development process for Clustas, Rollin says, “I went through a lot of different permutations, like a dumbbell that you could stick the balls into the ends, you know, but that – ultimately I wanted something simple, and this is the simplest that I could come up with.” Clustas are currently available through a Kickstarter campaign, which is slated to end on October 24. The money Rollin has raised through Kickstarter will be used to produce an initial run of Clustas products, which will be delivered to supporters in early 2017. The range of available products includes individual ClustasBalls, ClustaBells that carry multiple balls, ClustaBelts and ClustasHandStraps that can be used for a variety of mobility activities, and a ClustasRuck that can be used for rucking.
As part of the ongoing product development process, Rollin is making exercise videos for the Clustas website too. He says that the first of these videos is aimed at helping kids with special needs learn how to use his flexible weight system. For Rollin, though, his product is about more than just exercise. He says that “it’s also about community within the school that the kids in the normal sports programs are helping the special needs kids get exercise by engaging.” ClustaBalls provide the perfect opportunity for this interaction because they’re not just a weighted workout ball. They’re fun to use too.
Of course, the road to a flourishing business establishment requires more than just a great idea. That’s why Rollin worked to hone his product pitch. In August 2016, Rollin won a Road Pitch competition hosted by the Rutland Economic Development Council (REDC). His participation in the pitch competition led to a relationship with REDC chairman Lyle Jepsen, who in turn introduced Rollin to Bill Shouldice IV. Bill is the President and CEO of Vermont Teddy Bear Company, well known both locally and nationwide for its full range of Vermont-made stuffed bears and animals.
Shouldice was willing to share his expertise with Rollin, and he’s been active in helping advise the younger entrepreneur with the various aspects of the manufacturing and distribution process for his product. Shouldice says that he’s proud to give back to the local business scene. Speaking of his relationship with his mentor, Rollin says that “it’s just great to be part of a community effort to stimulate business in Vermont.”
On the process of developing a product and running a business, Rollin says, “you just have to constantly be solving problems.” From deciding where he’d source the iron and magnets for the Clustas to what materials he could use to make them waterproof, Rollin has weighed dozens of manufacturing considerations. For Rollin, Shouldice’s mentorship has been helpful for him in thinking through the challenges of bringing his product to the market from manufacturing to warehousing to fulfillment and shipping.
Of course, Rachele also knew that he needed to find financial backing for his company. When he decided to start exploring his financing opportunities, Rollin headed to Brian DeClue at the Vermont Small Business Development Center. DeClue suggested three financial institutions, and Rollin looked into financing through each of the banks. He quickly settled on Opportunities Credit Union thanks to the simplicity of their small-business financing program. Rollin remarks that “they were just there to help, and I think that’s their basic premise is to help businesses get off the ground so that it stimulates the local economy. It’s such a simple formula, yet banking these days has gotten so difficult.”
At Opportunities Credit Union, Rollin found a financial partner that understands the local business scene and is eager to support entrepreneurs who want to grow succssful enterprises while giving back to the community too. While navigating the ins and outs of the manufacturing process can be challenging, Rollin remains focused on building a local business that can give back to the local community in much the way Opportunities Credit Union does. “If I can have a product that I can make in the United States, and even better made in Vermont, you know, that’s – everyone wins. It’s keeping things local,” says Rollin.
At its core, Rollin says that the Clustas brand is all about “community and cohesion exercises, diversity exercises, as well as pure fitness.” It’s a brand mission that resonates with Opportunities, where supporting business diversity in the local economy is just as important as scrutinizing the bottom line. Where there’s a community need, the local financial institution seeks to fill out. No doubt that’s part of what made Opportunities so attractive to Rollin Rachele in the first place.
When he’s asked if he’d recommend Opportunities Credit Union to other entrepreneurs, Rollin doesn’t hesitate to say yes. He says that a big part of the reason he’d recommend Greg Huysman and his team is that they truly understand the needs of start-up businesses beyond the raw numbers. “I think they’re looking at other factors to make their judgment and not just the ability to make the numbers work. And it’s just a whole different process.” For Rollin, the Opportunities process has supported not only his business goals but also his desire to make a positive contribution to the local economy and the diverse residents of the state. It’s a mission that’s important to Rollin, and it’s evident in every aspect of the Clustas brand too.
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