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The Big Dog: Don Mayer of Small Dog Electronics wags a new tail

By Shay Totten | Vermont Guardian

Photo by Jessica K. Kell

Posted December 1, 2006

When Don Mayer came to Vermont in the 1960s, it wasn’t to start the nation’s third largest Apple reseller, known to Mac users far and wide as Small Dog Electronics.

In fact, personal computers weren’t even invented when he set foot on a small commune in North Wolcott.

Mayer and his family came to Vermont when the entire country was focused largely, like today, on one thing — war in a foreign country.

Mayer, who has helped found several Vermont companies from his own garage, was actively working against the draft during the Vietnam War. He dropped out of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and then later moved near Berkeley, CA. But, when clashes intensified between antiwar protesters and the government in the late 60s, he knew it was time to move his family to safety.

“When they started shooting at us, I thought it was time to find someplace safer and we moved across the country to Vermont,” said Mayer, who was a draft resister himself and had his own draft records covered in blood by Rev. Daniel Berrigan.

He had applied to Goddard College in Plainfield while in high school, but opted to stay in his home state of Illinois, and his hometown of Chicago.

So, when he did come here, he headed for Goddard, moving first onto a commune in North Wolcott run by “the dreamers.”

“It was very hard,” Mayer recalls. “We had a big garden, and we grew all of our own food. But, by spring we were eating a lot of dried corn and beans.”

Most of the folks on the commune moved to West Virginia, and Mayer and his family stayed on at the farm.

As he enrolled in classes, he first thought he wanted to be a teacher. After spending some time at a local school, however, he realized that wasn’t what he wanted to do. However, he did start becoming interested in renewable energy.

An early student in the study of social ecology at Goddard College, Mayer and others became intensely interested in redeveloping old wind turbines. Specifically, they began to collect and refurbish abandoned wind turbines cast aside by Midwestern farmers who no longer needed to produce their own power since rural electrification.
“We were living on this farm in North Wolcott with no electricity and no running water and I was commuting to Goddard and trying to figure out issues at the farm, and that’s when I started getting fascinated with wind energy,” said Mayer.

So, along with Dave Sellers and Scott Neilson, Mayer began to go out to the Midwest to “chase windmills.”

And, they caught them, too, and brought them back to Vermont where they refurbished and sold them to a growing number of people interested in getting their energy from alternative sources.

A two-line mention about the blossoming company in Mother Earth News yielded a letterbox of requests, and their first official orders.

The trio went to the U.S. Small Business Administration for a loan and were granted $50,000. “We didn’t think they would give us the money, but they did and we put some ads into various farm journals and as responses would come in we would map out a route, rent a huge U-Haul truck, and drive around and tear the turbines down and bring them back to Vermont, refurbish them and sell them,” said Mayer.

Eventually, they began to run out of old machines to fix up, and in the early 70s the federal government was beginning to put money into renewable energy.

So, Mayer and his partners landed a couple of government contracts and began to develop their own wind turbine designs.

Mayer lasted with the company for 15 years before he had a change of heart.

Northwind Power specialized in helping to provide power in remote places, and one of those customers was the U.S. Navy — one of two government contracts the company had at the time.

“Here I was a draft resister and an antiwar activist sitting before a group of uniformed naval officers talking about our contract, and I started thinking to myself what would I have done at 18 and I decided that I needed to do anything to get out of that position and I was dissatisfied with the notion of being a military contractor,” said Mayer.

So, Mayer took an idea he had been developing while at Northwind Power, which was taking Macintosh computers, refurbishing them, and reselling them. It was a traditional, mail-order catalogue company — Maya Computers — that lasted nearly six years. It began in his home in Greensboro Bend, and ended at the Odd Fellows Hall in Warren.
After that, he began to work as a general manager of a software company — Portfolio Software — in Richmond. The company developed programs that allowed computer users to keep an appointment book on their computer. These programs were needed in the days before Apple and Microsoft integrated calendars, date books, and other such personal information managers into their operating systems.
He lasted there for several years before the company closed its doors, and then worked for America Online for about a year before starting Small Dog in 1995.

“I had always been interested in Macs from my days at Northwind, and with the growing Internet,” said Mayer. “By the time I started Small Dog, I wanted to start an Internet company.”

At the time, Apple was having trouble selling off its inventory, so Mayer began going to auctions and buying up computers — lots of computers.

Mayer and his son Hapy were ad reps for AOL at the time Mayer began to buy and resell Macs.

“We were AdRepDon and AdRepHapy,” Maye recalls. “Working at AOL meant we were able to post free classifieds. So, we would post ads about the Macs we had for sale on AOL and that’s how we started the business. Gradually, it was harder and harder to do both, and Hapy would come over every Sunday and do the books. Finally, I knew that we could not do it all ourselves, and so I gave him half the company and told him we should make this a real business and that’s when it really launched.”

Despite never wanting to go into retail, Mayer said the pair was forced to open a retail store in Waitsfield.

“That first store wildly exceeded our expectations,” said Mayer.

Just last month, Small Dog opened its first full-time store in Chittenden County — in an old retail space on Dorset Street in South Burlington.

Mayer said he and his son always knew they needed to be in the Burlington market, but said it needed to be the right combination of location and personnel to make it happen.

That happened last year when he formed a board of advisors for the company as he looked to double the size of the company as part of his effort to turn Small Dog into an employee-owned venture.

Two members of his advisory board, Burlington attorney Steve Magowan and John Osgood, a real estate developer, helped him find and secure the space in South Burlington. Magowan serves on the South Burlington City Council and knew of an ideal space for Small Dog, and Osgood helped him figure out the lease.

The Burlington-area store will help the company grow by about 30 percent, possibly more, said Mayer, so he is still looking for ways to grow the business in ways that keep its fun flavor. Dogs are a mainstay throughout the company, and humans often rub tails with canines on the showroom floor.

Small Dog will also be ramping up its Internet business, too, as a way to grow. Mayer also sees great potential in music for Small Dog, given that nearly half of Apple Computer’s revenue is currently coming from the sale of iPods and iTunes. For Small Dog, music is about a third of sales.

Small Dog is certainly bulldog-ish when it comes to customer service and care. “We were pretty well-known in the Mac community before we launched our website, which was about three years into the business, so we already had a strong following. And, we sell to people all over the world and you don’t get that reputation without a focus on customer service — that’s definitely our secret weapon.”

The biggest challenge to growing a business in Vermont, said Mayer, is the cost of health insurance to employees. Mayer, who is the former chairman of the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, is a firm believer in universal health care coverage. He also believes decoupling health care from employment would save businesses money and be better for employees.

“Thirty five years ago it cost about $1,500 to provide insurance for a family, and today that is easily $12,000 to $13,000 a year,” said Mayer. “That’s an enormous overhead.”

He likes to say that he is in the computer business, not the health care business, and he thinks employees should be able to choose their provider and not rely on his business to choose which network of doctors they can use.

Still, Mayer said Vermont’s entrepreneurial business culture is what makes the state a good place to start. Combined with a great workforce, the right business can thrive. And, thrive Small Dog does.

“When Hapy and I started the business, we weren’t able to work for anyone else and really in order to make a job in Vermont you have to invent it, and as we added employees we felt that developing a socially-responsible business was vital to our mental health and so we were committed to doing that … . I also think we have a more productive and loyal workforce than any other state. When I talk with other business owners in other parts of the country they have problems that I’ve never had to deal with in terms of employee dishonesty and employee movement and the training and recruitment issues that come along with it. We have employees who want to grow with the company and many of them I have to pressure at the end of the day to leave.”

Still, despite the successes, Mayer wants to make sure he grows the company in a way that is healthy.

“I’ve always sworn to myself that I wouldn’t run a company where I didn’t know everyone’s name. I like my businesses to be small and manageable,” said Mayer. “I have always found that I’ve had more fun and made more money as I kept my companies small.”