Grunke column: Small successes will add up to big growth

Earlier this month, our community notched another business attraction success when Bozeman-based ikuw Solutions announced it plans to move its headquarters to Missoula. Founded in 2008, ikuw provides software training for business clients around the country through its offices in Bozeman and Helena.

Starting in January, the company will offer classes in Missoula, with a plan to establish formal offices by March. Once the local office is opened, ikuw (pronounced “I Q”) also intends to expand into software development, with two projects already planned, according to company Vice President Kevin McManus — who, together with his wife (and company president) Leeanne, will move to Missoula permanently.

It has been more than a year now since Missoula Economic Partnership first connected with the McManuses. Over the intervening months, we have introduced them to potential clients and suggested local programs and services that could help them get up and running locally. In the end, the McManuses saw a strong enough business case that they decided to make their move. (They intend to keep their offices in Bozeman and Helena open as well.)

This is exciting news for them — and for local companies that will no longer have to fly their employees to distant cities for software training. For the Missoula community as a whole, it may not register as major economic news: ikuw is, you see, a company of three employees. Even with immediate plans to hire two or three additional employees to focus on software development, ikuw still will initially count as one of Missoula’s many small businesses.

People (myself no doubt included) look forward to the day when a major company arrives in town with plans to hire hundreds of workers at professional wages. But the reality is, those ribbon-cuttings are few and far between. The short- and long-term growth of our local economy ultimately depends much more heavily on the incremental growth of existing local companies and the attraction of small businesses such as ikuw.

Anyone with a 401(k) has heard the mantra of diversification. Just as it is important not to pin your personal retirement savings on the fortunes of a single company, so too a community built around one employer faces far greater risk than a community with a diversified economy.

These truths do not make the work of economic development easy. Sure, a small company can arguably pick up and move its operations and staff to Missoula more easily than a large company. But the due diligence that those small companies perform before they move is often just as thorough.

Missoula Economic Partnership aims to serve as a partner in that process, helping potential incoming companies track down critical information, build personal connections and develop a strategy in which Missoula makes sense. Meantime, we provide similar services to local companies, helping them connect with resources and expertise that make it possible for them to grow.

All of this means the work we undertake for a company hoping to add two new employees is often no different than the work it takes to help a different company add 10. We know that the challenges and risks that both companies face are equally daunting. And in the end, we know that the success of both companies is equally important to the overall economic health of our community.

Such small growth might not generate the kind of attention that accompanies the arrival of a major new employer. But it doesn’t take a big ikuw to know that small growth is smart growth.

This column by James Grunke, CEO of Missoula Economic Partnership, originally appeared in the December 23, 2012 edition of the Missoulian’s Western Montana InBusiness.

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