Grunke Column: Montana’s entrepreneurs receive well-deserved praise

“We’re No. 1! We’re No. 1!” We all love cheering for our favorite sports teams, but how often do we have an opportunity to raise the roof for our state’s entrepreneurs? And even more importantly, how often do we examine the factors that make Montana such a great entrepreneurial environment?

Thanks to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, we recently had the opportunity to do both – and the results are heartening.

First, the shoutout: For the fourth year running, the Kauffman Foundation’s national report ranked Montana as the No. 1 state for entrepreneurial activity. It’s no fluke. We’re doing something right.

In fact, the foundation was so surprised by Montana’s consistently superior ranking that it funded a study focused on the “entrepreneurial ecosystems” in Missoula and Bozeman.

Working in collaboration with the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, MonTEC and the University of Montana’s Blackstone LaunchPad, the foundation recently released its detailed and enlightening report, “A New Frontier: Entrepreneurship Ecosystems in Bozeman and Missoula, Montana.”

It’s fascinating reading, rife with lessons that we can utilize in our economic development efforts.

Key among the report’s findings:

• The high level of entrepreneurship in Missoula and Bozeman is leveraged by “dense networks of active local support organizations which were well perceived and utilized by entrepreneurs” (nonprofits, university-related groups, government and individuals);

• “Entrepreneurs in Montana seek out resources, participate in events and meet mentors beyond their hometowns,” often traveling 200 or 300 miles across the state for those opportunities;

• “Entrepreneurs in Montana have diverse backgrounds, coming from all over the country, with Silicon Valley or international experiences”;

• “Montana companies enjoy the high level of workforce locally, with a high retention rate built upon the quality of life offered in the region.”

Let’s look at some of those findings in more depth.

First, trade associations, networking groups and peer-to-peer relationships play a vital role in entrepreneurial support systems nationwide, but the level to which government and elected officials were cited as a positive factor in Montana’s entrepreneurial ecosystem surprised the researchers.

In other parts of the country, in fact, government exerts a decidedly negative influence – often creating a “barrier” to entrepreneurship.

“In contrast, Montana entrepreneurs have leveraged support from the federal government for grants, consultation and procurement; state government for trade shows or grants; and elected officials, such as senators and the government,” the researchers found. “Entrepreneurs reported referrals from the governor or senators, considered them the ‘champions’ of entrepreneurship, and expressed trustful relations.”

As one rural manufacturer said: “It is incredible that a small company like this has that direct contact. Sen. (Jon) Tester and former Sen. (Max) Baucus have both been here. … When I see them on the street, they know me by name. … What other state can you have this? Can you imagine in California, having the governor’s ear? Or the senator’s ear?”

Montana’s entrepreneurs also reach out beyond their hometowns or metropolitan areas for mentorship, inspiration and networking opportunities, the researchers found. Ours is a land-vast and sparsely populated state, but that seems to encourage – rather than thwart – connections and collaboration between communities.

Entrepreneurial activity thrives in Montana (and Missoula, in particular) not despite, but rather because of, our small-town ethos and community mindset. This, too, differentiates us from large metropolitan areas elsewhere in the country.

“At the bottom line, Montanans knew each other well and felt comfortable giving referrals, and those connections were built out of open relationships with small degrees of separation,” the Kauffman report concluded.

As one entrepreneur noted: “These are people that have been willing to meet for lunch, spend time on a phone call, etc., to help me process issues or opportunities. … I feel confident I could call just about any business leader in Montana and they would jump to help if they could.”

Then, too, praises were lavished on our state’s economic development, university-based and incubator organizations. We’re a big, spread-out state with a small-town, we’re-all-in-this-together attitude.

And the entrepreneurs couldn’t say enough about their employees, who shattered the urban myth that the “real” talent is concentrated in the nation’s known high-tech mega-centers.

Said one interviewee: “I think Montana is unique in the sense that you can take highly educated, well-informed people and combine them with people who maybe have no academic background but are just brilliant, hardworking, willing to get it done. Those two coming together is unique in my experience.”

Taken as a whole, the Kauffman Foundation’s report is an important reminder that neither entrepreneurship nor economic development happen overnight. Missoula’s entrepreneurial culture is the result of long-term relationship building and dedication to this place and its unique and highly valued way of life.

Rather than emulate or imitate Silicon Valley or other fast-growing tech hubs, the report recommends that “Montana should set its own goals and its own ways to achieve them,” because “entrepreneurs in Montana benefit from having locally based assets reflected upon the local culture.”

Based on my own observations of – and experiences with – the entrepreneurial community here in Missoula, I couldn’t agree more.

James Grunke is president and CEO of the Missoula Economic Partnership. This column originally appeared in the April 30, 2017 edition of the Missoulian’s InBusiness.


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