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John Bishop, a staff consultant for Advanced Technology Group, works at his desk in this file photo from last year. 

“The high-quality workforce plays a major role in the growth of our state’s technology sector," said Tom Stergios, senior vice president of strategy and corporate development and GM of ATG in Missoula. "For ATG, this means a close partnership with the University of Montana, where ATG recruits graduates and alumni who have the opportunity to do world-class consulting work in Montana, have an exceptional standard of living, and still find time to go rafting and skiing on weekends.  The study findings show that entrepreneurship can thrive in small communities, not just in Silicon Valley.”

TOMMY MARTINO, Missoulian

Missoula has the ninth highest business startup rate per capita among 394 metro areas in the United States, according to a new report funded by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a nonprofit foundation that is focused on entrepreneurship and education.

The report, called “A New Frontier: Entrepreneurship Ecosystems in Bozeman and Missoula, Montana,” was released Monday during a meeting of more than 100 business leaders and government officials at the new Missoula College building.

Bozeman ranked 12th nationally for its per capita rate of business startups.

The report, billed as the first-ever study of Montana’s business ecosystem, is a research collaboration by the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, the Montana Technology Enterprise Center, the Blackstone LaunchPads at the University of Montana and Montana State University.

It was led by University of Kansas researchers Yasuyuki Motoyama, Emily Fetsch and Sharah Davis and is based on 42 interviews of Montana entrepreneurs and support organizations and a survey of 178 companies in the region. The report includes a lengthy explanation of what’s behind the findings, as well as the implications.

“This report overturns common assumptions about entrepreneurship in smaller metros and rural areas,” said Christina Henderson, executive director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance and a co-author of the study.

“Montana's recent startup boom shows that disruptive technology is bringing high-paying jobs to rural communities, that Montana’s high quality of life and beautiful landscape are a magnet for knowledge workers, and that it is possible – even common – for entrepreneurs to build global businesses in very small towns,'' she said.

The study found that Montana’s high level of entrepreneurship is partly due to dense networks of active local support organizations, such as non-profits, university-related research, access to government officials and successful entrepreneurs serving as mentors to younger aspirants.

Compared to other places, the study also found that:

  • Montana entrepreneurs have diverse backgrounds and seek out resources and mentors beyond their hometowns.
  • Montana businesses  target national and international markets and procure their inputs globally.
  • Montana companies have a high level of locally hired workers with a high job retention rate built on the quality of life here.

Many of those interviewed cited outdoor and recreational activities as the reason they choose to stay here.

“People are outside walking their dogs, mountain biking, hiking, on the river, surfing on their lunch break,” said Molly Bradford, cofounder and CEO of GatherBoard in Missoula, a tech company. “That’s a celebration of balance that we don’t work to live and live to work, but both.”

According to the report, a number of company founders said that Montana's wild landscape, and the type of people who are drawn to it, have shaped the state's business culture.

John Baldridge, the director of survey research at the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said there may be other reasons why so many people start businesses here.

Because there are a lack of big companies here that are constantly hiring, people have to start their own companies to make money, he noted.

“Entrepreneurship is a pretty good thing, but sometimes it's done out of necessity,” he explained. “That is to say, if you have a low population density and a low density of employers, then to have employment some people may find it necessary to make their own job. The fact that so many people make lemonade out of lemons is good."

He said other low-population states like Alaska and North Dakota also have high rates of entrepreneurship per capita.

"It’s sort of a common-sense thing,'' Baldridge said. "I’m not trying to poke holes in the good news, it’s just trying to calibrate it a little. We all need to kind of have that perspective.”

Either way, the mood was jubilant at Monday’s press conference. Governor Steve Bullock was in the house, as was Congressional candidate Greg Gianforte. Gianforte founded RightNow Technologies, which has been credited with creating hundreds of high tech jobs in Bozeman.

"We recently learned Montana leads the nation in job growth,” Bullock said. “Our unemployment rate is nearing historic lows while more Montanans are at work than ever before. I'm pleased to see Missoula, Bozeman, and all of Montana recognized as leading engines of economic growth across the country.

"Our efforts to create a strong business environment are paying off for Montana businesses and workers through innovation, good-paying jobs, and economic success."

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