Several well-known Missoula businesses like The Dram Shop, a popular beer, wine and cider taproom downtown, owe part of their success to the Blackstone LaunchPad at the University of Montana.
Other businesses, like Chilton Skis, are trying to become successful and are using the LaunchPad for resources. LaunchPad is a program that’s designed to teach entrepreneurial skills to people with an idea for a new business through individualized coaching and venture creation support. The program provides idea exploration, startup consultation, mentorship, community connections and workshops. Recently, LaunchPad's funding paid for two Missoula entrepreneurs to pitch their ideas at a tech startup incubator and investment entity called Tech Stars in New York City.
George Gaines, the founder of Chilton Skis in Missoula, was selected as one of seven out of 40 businesses to pitch on the final night to compete for cash prizes.
“It’s a high-intensity, high-paced two-day long workshop,” Gaines said. “I didn’t win, even though it seemed to me I got the biggest rise out of the crowd by far. But Blackstone LaunchPad has been very positive for me, and this week-long trip to Manhattan was just one example of that.”
Gaines crafts hand-made skis out of pine beetle-killed wood that’s salvaged from forests around western Montana, including some areas that burned in wildfires this past summer. He has a partnership with a wood-chipping business in Bonner called Willis Enterprises to get access to the wood, and he also uses other composite materials.
As a Ph.D. student at the University of Montana, Gaines had access to the resources provided by the LaunchPad program.
“LaunchPad has been absolutely critical to the success of a lot of small businesses,” he said. “I wonder how many spectacular ideas never came to fruition in western Montana because entrepreneurs never had access to the kind of resources I had access to. We are entering an era where the state is ascribing a high level of importance to entrepreneurs in the state. So programs like this and people like Paul Gladen who directs that program, are indispensable, important and instrumental to the continued development to entrepreneurial activity in western Montana.”
Gaines said he worked closely with Gladen since he founded his business in August 2015. The program provides legal consultation, market development, accounting advice and insurance expertise.
“You get out what you put into it,” he said. “You still have to work hard. But they will recognize you are dedicated if you meet them halfway.”
In spring 2016, Gaines won third place in a statewide business startup challenge, won Best Manufactured Good and tied for first for Best Elevator Pitch. He successfully raised $28,000 through a Kickstarter campaign.
“We spent the following six months spending money as strategically as we could to fulfill those pre-orders for skis,” he said. “We need to enhance our production to build skis more efficiently and confidently so we can take a higher volume of orders. We are committed to preserving high standards of craftsmanship and are committed to non-traditional materials supply chains that tap both urban tree canopies and the forests of western Montana.
"It’s a time and labor intensive way to source wood for anything, ski building included. But we are committed to this material acquisition philosophy.”
To get assistance from LaunchPad, you need to either be a student, faculty, alumni or staff member at UM. Gladen, the director of the program, said the funding comes from the Blackstone Charitable Foundation and there are now almost 20 versions of the program in the U.S. and Ireland.
Gaines, in fact, had not yet come up with the idea for a Kickstarter campaign before he spoke with Gladen.
“It’s something that come up in our conversations together,” Gladen said. “A Kickstarter campaign can be useful, depending on the nature of the business. For a lot of potential startups with consumer-ish products, it’s a good way to get strangers to buy products and become validated to other customers. It’s by no means the only path, but it’s a path.”
Gaines is working hard to get his Bitterroot Buttersticks skis available for pre-order, and he has big plans for his company thanks to the mentorship he’s gotten from the Blackstone LaunchPad program. Gaines calls his business model an “unprecedented level of environmental sustainability” in the ski industry, and he’s focused on getting the word out about his products.
“I don’t want to give anybody the impression that LaunchPad is going to build a business for you,” he said. “I would caution anybody who is thinking entrepreneurship is a way to avoid having a job. You are going to do the work of five people. But it’s incredibly rewarding if you actually do the work to see results come to life.”