Missoula-area startups are increasingly seeing local resources for entrepreneurs align with their goals.
The action piece of turning ideas into realities is catching up with the aspirations component, said Joe Fanguy, director of the Office of Technology Transfer at the University of Montana. And that’s spurring a renewed sense of optimism for the future of Missoula-based startups.
“It’s the first time I feel like something will actually happen,” Fanguy said.
Now, the leaders at different organizations such as the Montana Enterprise Technology Center, the Blackstone LaunchPad at the University of Montana and Missoula Economic Partnership are thinking long-term and have a unified message, he said.
An entrepreneurial drive is nothing new to Missoula, said Pam Haxby-Cote, regional director the Blackstone LaunchPad.
“I think it’s the Montana way. I actually think it’s innate, ingrained in us,” Haxby-Cote said.
However, programs like the Blackstone LaunchPad give it credibility on a national stage.
“Well, if Blackstone’s there, there must be something here,” Fanguy describes as the reaction the LaunchPad receives around the state – and country – when Missoula is considered as a hub for startups.
The program creates a connection point between students and the business community so that the focus is on education and careers at the same time, he said, instead of on education and then job as a sequence.
Being able to connect with the correct business professional or community resource from one spot means that people are more likely to follow through on their ideas, Fanguy said.
“People are starting to feel less shuffled around,” he added.
The LaunchPad also provides people with a sense of validation and gives them a safe place in which to share ideas and hear that they’re not crazy or stepping out of line for having an off-the-wall idea, said Paul Gladen, the LaunchPad’s director.
MonTEC provides the next step for businesses, Fanguy said, adding that he expects the center and LaunchPad to feed off each other.
The Missoula Economic Partnership has an even wider net than MonTEC and serves as a facilitator between businesses and lending agencies, grant programs and more.
“We’re the tool box,” said James Grunke, MEP’s CEO.
The connections MEP helps entrepreneurs make keep them from feeling lost and help them constructively pursue ideas, Grunke said.
People choose to live in Missoula and many push to create a job so that they can continue to, he said.
Between the LaunchPad, MonTEC, MEP and other programs, entrepreneurs have a continuum of support, he said.
“So you have a system of support now from inception to hopefully the next RightNow (Technologies),” he said, referring to the successful Bozeman-based company.
“What people need to see is others have done it; I can do it too,” he added.
Although technology startups get a lot of attention, startups don’t have to be technology-related.
Take, for instance, Coo Baby.
The shop that caters to children younger than 18 months and their mothers opened on Higgins Avenue in May.
At the time, owner Gillian Fetz had an infant daughter herself, as well as an older son.
She had owned the Learning Tree previously and, after having to order many baby items for her daughter online, she decided her next venture would be a baby store.
While she knew what she wanted from a creative side, she needed help with the logistical side of things and reached out to Montana Community Development Corporation for classes and mentoring.
“It’s invaluable, it really is,” Fetz said about having people who want to see you succeed.
Once open, Fetz faced another challenge – getting to know her downtown customers.
Originally, she stocked the store for children younger than 3 but modified her stock based on sales.
“Why fight it, man? Just embrace it,” she said.
Support from other downtown business owners and local shoppers has been extraordinary, Fetz said.
The attitude of other downtown owners is, what’s good for one business is good for all, she said.
“So let’s all work together and try to achieve that” is the general vibe, she added.
Like Fetz, the partners at Helix 3D Additive Fabrication Systems also have had to be flexible, and have experienced large doses of support from other entrepreneurs and resources in the community.
“Don’t get stuck on anything,” said Michael Manhardt, who created Acuity Design, the company that spun off Helix3D.
In the process of helping clients create concrete expressions of their ideas, Manhardt realized that there wasn’t an accurate or cheap enough 3-D printer on the market to meet Acuity’s needs. So in June Manhardt and his partners began to focus on creating an industrial style 3-D printer that was less expensive than the current models.
In February, the partners created Helix3D and are working to complete product development and expand from their new digs at MonTEC.
While they’re not experts on things such as how to form corporations, others in the community are and have been generous with advice, the partners said.
Missoulians in general seem excited about startups, said Ben Malouf, CEO and co-founder of Helix 3D.
“It’s not so dog eat dog,” Malouf said.
Their recent move into MonTEC also helps. The incubator provides them with low overhead costs and access to business tools they would otherwise have to pay for out of their tight budget.
“A lot of it is not having to worry about the little stuff,” Malouf said.
“So we can concentrate on innovating and growing the business,” added James Fields, a partner who heads up operations.
Fundraising remains a major challenge, the trio said.
“Probably the hardest thing has just been doing it on the cheap so far,” Malouf said.
Because they began the business without outside capital, the founders had to make personal sacrifices.
Fields went so far as to sell his car to make sure he could meet his other financial obligations. He still uses his bicycle as his primary mode of transportation.
“So it’s been a challenge for me to get to work,” he said, laughing.
The challenges have been worth overcoming, though. A successful Kickstarter campaign showed there was a demand for their 3-D printer.
Ultimately, they said, they love Missoula, and their company has the potential to add to the town’s economy while providing them with the livelihood they need stay.
Making some money would be nice, too, Malouf said.
“There’s more to it than that, obviously,” he quickly added. “There’s a satisfaction that comes from building something out of basically nothing.”
That kind of satisfaction is what leads to serial entrepreneurs, said Nathan Stephens, who is a fixture at several different startup organizations in the Missoula area.
The continuum of resources is boosting the ease with which people can start their own businesses, said Stephens, who organizes Startup Weekend Missoula.
Before options such as the Blackstone LaunchPad, MonTEC and Startup Weekend came onto the scene, entrepreneurs gathered in lose-knit peer-to-peer-style groups, he said. Now, there are places for people to go for help and direction, he added.
The startup weekend, which started last year, brings together people with ideas and professionals who can mentor them for a weekend-long exercise in business planning. It provides the push for people to move forward with ideas they may have been unsure about, either because they wondered if there would be demand or because they weren’t sure where to start.
At the end of the weekend, participants leave with connections to professionals in various fields and mentors who can help them navigate the startup process from finances to legalities, Stephens said.
Ty Weber attended the weekend last year and left with the idea for Signup Cheetah, an online system for people to gather others together – from volunteers for community events to carpoolers to poker night participants.
The idea wasn’t Weber’s originally, but the hospital administrator from Kalispell was put on a team to help develop the idea. After the weekend, the group fell apart but Weber continued to pursue the idea and partnered with Mike Kazmier to continue the work.
“I knew that I would use it and the validation of that weekend and really wanting to make that idea succeed from that weekend because it was such a powerful experience,” Weber said about why he kept pushing.
Having a network of professionals has helped speed along the process.
“Now if I’ve got a question about something I’ve got a network that I previously hadn’t developed very completely,” Weber said.
Roughly a year after the startup weekend, Signup Cheetah is online and Weber said he expects to have any kinks worked out and be charging for services within a few weeks.
While Weber said he has startup ideas, he wouldn’t have acted so quickly to turn one into reality without Startup Weekend Missoula.
“I definitely wouldn’t have decided to pick a project and spend the time and energy and money that I have this year,” he said, adding that he hopes to start a similar weekend in Kalispell.
“It got me passionate to create again,” he said.
This year, 30 university students will attend Startup Weekend Missoula on March 7-9 through the LaunchPad and will then return to campus with the LaunchPad support system to help them finish fleshing out their ideas, and MonTEC is donating resources as a prize for the weekend’s winner, Stephens said.
Some challenges, such as limited co-working space and Internet infrastructure, still face entrepreneurs, Stephens said, adding that he’s hopeful the challenges will be diminished. Already, a group is working to create a co-working space for entrepreneurs to share services such as a fax machine, and there’s a push to build gigabit speed, high-capacity fiber broadband infrastructure.
I think there are pieces of that puzzle that aren’t in place yet, but they’re on the horizon,” Stephens said.
Although many in Missoula don’t have access to high-capacity fiber broadband, it’s the very thing that breaks down some other barriers, such as geography, Stephens said, adding that technology in general is leveling the playing field between places such as Denver and Missoula. “Which is why I think we can do it here.“
Different resources and groups also are creating something not concrete, but equally important to success – an environment that accepts startups when they succeed and when they fall flat, Stephens said. “What we’re doing in Montana specifically is making a safe place for people to validate their ideas.“