Grunke column: Innovation Initiative Helps Startups Survive

New business can drive the growth that ends recessions. Those aren’t my words; they’re the words of the Montana Department of Labor, from a presentation at the 2013 State of Missoula Commerce Report in late January.

The proof is in the numbers. In 2007 — prior to the onset of the nationwide economic downturn — new firms accounted for fewer than 20,000 new jobs in Montana. Every year since then, that number has risen. In 2011 — the last year for which data is available — new firms added more than 60,000 jobs to our statewide economy.

By contrast, our state saw a net loss of jobs during that same period among employers that existed in 2006.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Missoula is a perennial hotbed of new business startups. Thanks to the presence of The University of Montana and Missoula College and our location at the hub of five valleys along major interstate transportation routes, our community boasts the creativity and resources that inspire entrepreneurial ventures. Moreover, our natural amenities make Missoula a place that people choose to live; for many, starting a business is a way to come here or stay here.

But there is an unfortunate second piece to Missoula’s high business startup rate: Our business failure rate is also higher than average. In fact, between 2007 and 2011, Missoula County experienced a net loss in the total number of employers.

At Missoula Economic Partnership, one of our primary goals is to preserve and enhance our community’s rate of business startups while reducing closures. Toward that end, in early 2012 we partnered with Hellgate Venture Networks, a local networking group for entrepreneurs, and the Montana Technology Enterprise Center to create the Innovation Initiative.

Stepping back for a moment, one of the most common issues we hear from entrepreneurs is a sense of isolation. Starting a new business can be all-consuming; most entrepreneurs don’t have time to seek out the knowledgeable specialists who can help them succeed. As a result, a frequent reason why businesses fail is a lack of critical information. Do they truly understand their markets? Are they properly capitalized? How can they attract the right talent?

This is where Innovation Initiative comes in. By providing a forum for entrepreneurs to connect with skilled, local business professionals and with other entrepreneurs, we are building a web of support to keep existing businesses above water and to help set startups on the right course.

Of course, there is no formula for guaranteed success (otherwise everyone would follow it). For that reason, we cast a wide net with the topics and experts featured on the Innovation Initiative schedule. In coming months our programs address topics that range from business valuation to project management to marketing.

These programs have grown directly out of requests and suggestions from our entrepreneurial community. All of them feature top experts from around our region — people who have already gone through the challenges that entrepreneurs face.

And all of them are provided without charge to anyone in the community. It doesn’t matter if you just had an idea for a new business last night or if you are trying to help your established company grow stronger: These programs exist to help you.

I have said before in this column that our best opportunity for economic growth lies in supporting existing local businesses. Through the Innovation Initiative, we are doing that. I urge you to join us.

James Grunke is CEO of Missoula Economic Partnership. Please check out the upcoming schedule of Innovation Initiative events at this link.

Missoula Economic Partnership | 500 N. Higgins Ave. | Suite 300 | Missoula, Montana 59802 | P: 406.541.6461 | F: 406.541.6464