Hi, all! I’m Blaise, the Senior Sports Editor for The Campus. This semester, I’m starting a column on Middlebury entrepreneurs, including current students and graduates. My biweekly features will profile an entrepreneur or a team of entrepreneurs, detailing the history of their venture and explaining where they are at and where they are headed. My aim is two-fold: I want to bring greater awareness to the innovation occurring at the college while also highlighting the many resources and pathways available to aspiring Middlebury entrepreneurs.
The story of Treeline Terrains begins at the Middlebury College Snow Bowl.
Just 13 miles southeast of campus, the Bowl is a hub of student activity in the winter, welcoming skiers, snowboarders and other winter enthusiasts. But not all students can afford these expensive sports.
When Alex Gemme ’21, Jacob Freedman ’21 and Nathaniel Klein ’21 were student ski instructors at the Bowl, they witnessed this exclusivity first-hand. Many of their close friends from campus didn’t ski or snowboard, deterred by the cost. So, the three friends decided to create the Lesson Fund, designed to help Middlebury students on financial aid participate in winter sports at the Bowl.
Once the fund was established, the friends decided to give a thank-you gift to Daphne Diego, their supervisor at the Bowl, who helped them through the process.
Around that time, Gemme and Freedman had been playing around in the Makerspace in the Freeman International Center, where students can explore creative projects. Gemme enjoyed using the various machines in the space, while Freedman explored his passion for maps. Combining their interests, the duo created a 3-D wood carving of the Snow Bowl as a gift for Diego. It was a hit.
Diego loved her carving so much that she encouraged the ski instructors to consider starting a business. Gemme and Freedman didn’t share that vision, but they did add Klein to the team, a skilled woodworker. For the first few years, they continued to make Snow Bowl-centric carvings, giving them away as gifts.
But with time, Gemme, Freedman and Klein improved their skills, and a breakthrough discovery allowed them to incorporate ski and hiking trails into their carvings. Soon, they began to carve other landscapes.
Maybe Diego was onto something.
The founders received funding from the MiddChallenge and Tree House Fund grants — both offered by Middlebury’s Innovation Hub — allowing them to buy more machinery, supplies and materials. Last January, Freedman and Klein continued to pursue their idea in MiddEntreprenurs, a J-term course taught by Sam Roach-Gerber and David Bradbury of VCET. The month-long course helped the team consider their pricing and choose their motto and company name.
Progress was rapid. In the spring, the founders registered Treeline Terrains as an LLC, fitting in paperwork between homework assignments. But with graduation just a few months away, the team wondered if Treeline Terrains was something they could pursue full-time.
“We didn’t want to end up in an office and we love living near the mountains,” Gemme said. “So we thought, OK, could we make this work? It was a lot of discussion, but we decided to commit to it because it seemed like the best option.”
The company’s first move was to Groton, Mass., where Klein’s grandfather had a woodshop. The shop had all the necessary tools to make their carvings, and free rent was certainly a plus. Gemme, who was volunteering in Colorado for the summer, helped remotely.
“At this point, we had some orders, but our pricing was kind of whack,” Gemme said. “We didn’t have a centralized way of packaging things. The summer definitely had low and frustrating points, where we weren’t selling much. But when I came back from Colorado, I brought some excitement, and Jacob and Nathaniel were still willing to try it.”
Last fall, the team decided to move back to Vermont. They had a strong support network in the Green Mountain state, and they had also built up a relationship with the A. Johnson lumber yard in Bristol. They didn’t necessarily intend on finding their way back to Middlebury, but a connection through the Innovation Hub helped them find a woodshop on South Street. Middlebury felt like the right fit.
Since moving to Middlebury, the team has mastered production and are now able to carve any landscape in under two weeks. Klein specializes in woodworking, while Gemme runs technology and sales and Freedman focuses on mapmaking and project development. The team has continued to improve their website and has found their way into numerous stores, including the Snow Bowl, Ralph Myhre Pro Shop, and the campus bookstore.
Treeline Terrains sells everything from keychains to large-scale carvings of ski and hike mountains, national parks, lakes and oceans, and golf courses. Customers can find carvings of major landscapes in six states: Vermont, New Hampshire, Colorado, New York, California and Utah. To date, the team has sold almost 500 units.
The founders are also focused on social impact. Recently, Treeline Terrains has partnered with Vermont Adaptive to carve a ski map of Sugarbush Resort’s Mount Ellen for visually impaired skiers and has worked with the Middlebury Area Land Trust to create a model of the Trail Around Middlebury (“TAM”). “The most exciting projects are big carvings for community partners,” Gemme said.
As Treeline Terrains continues to grow, Gemme notes that their continued success will hinge on marketing and advertising. To help with these efforts, the team is in the process of hiring a Middlebury student intern to run their social media.
“When people see [our product], they usually want to know more or buy it,” Gemme said. “For us, it’s a question of how we can show this to more people.”
“We have this whole ‘Made in Vermont’ vibe that we try to sell with our products,” Gemme added. “It’s a supportive community. People want us to succeed, even if they don’t want to buy something from us.”
If you are interested in learning more about Treeline Terrains, check out their website and follow the company on social media. And, if you know of any nonprofits or organizations that might enjoy a custom wood carving, reach out to Jacob Freedman at Jacob@TreelineTerrains.com.
If you are a student entrepreneur looking to connect with other makers at Middlebury, stop by the Innovation Hub for advising, information on entrepreneur-focused classes, or opportunities for workspaces on campus. The Hub offers many resources to students, including mentorship and funding.
If you or someone you know would like to be featured in this column, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Blaise Siefer ‘23 is the Senior Sports Editor.
Siefer is majoring in Sociology and plans to minor in Spanish.
Now in his third year writing for The Campus, Siefer has covered several varsity teams and has written numerous feature stories for the sports section. Last year, he began to host and produce a sports podcast, Siefer's Scoop, which he will continue to run throughout the '21-22 academic year. The podcast tells the stories of Middlebury's varsity athletes, both past and present.
Siefer is also the co-president of Middlebury Club Soccer.