At Tester’s Business Workshop, Advice on Investing and Technology

Flathead Beacon

by Dan Testa

The strategy of Sen. Jon Tester’s small business workshop at Flathead Valley Community College Friday was to get entrepreneurs – and aspiring entrepreneurs – fired up, then explain how and where to channel that optimism.

“I rely on these three values – hard work, good communication and sticking together – as a small business owner and I rely on them as a U.S. senator as well,” Tester said. “We’re swapping resources and were making Montana’s economy stronger; let’s make sure we continue to go down that path that leads us toward success.”

Tom McMakin, a partner in the Bozeman-based private equity firm Orchard Holdings and a former COO for Great Harvest Bread Co., attacked the conventional wisdom concerning the conditions in Montana that can make it difficult to grow a business here: small population, slow growth, consumers with low income, odd tax structure and difficult access to capital.

“I think there are a whole bunch of people that will tell you that that’s not true,” McMakin said. “Here in Montana we have a competitive advantage resident in this state that is unavailable to folks in other states.”

Instead, McMakin argued that a small, well-educated population with a deeply ingrained work ethic, where personal connections between Montanans are deeply valued and overhead costs are low compared to urban areas, all make the state a uniquely hospitable place to start a business. Furthermore, it’s a state where people want to be, not just during their retirements or vacations.

“Our lives ought not to be in service of our business, but rather our businesses ought to be in service of our lives,” McMakin added. “Maybe the biggest competitive advantage that we have in Montana is that we have our priorities straight: We’re already here.”

And with that advice, a series of speakers and panels proceeded to outline in concrete terms for the audience of more than 200 the tools and resources available to those seeking to grow or launch a business, much of which dealt with how to get a loan or court investors. Between seminars, many of the agencies and businesses had set up tables in the lobby of the Arts and Technology building, allowing those present to learn more about specific programs and network with each other.

Bill Payne, with Whitefish-based Frontier Angel Fund, explained the characteristics angel investors like to see in a small business when weighing investment. Herb Kulow, senior portfolio manager for the Montana Board of Investments, outlined how the state can participate on portions of business loans, providing the borrower with low, fixed, long-term interest rates.

Morrie Shechtman, chairman of the Kalispell-based management consulting firm Fifth Wave Leadership, offered advice that was bleak and concise, but rang true: that modern business is a series of managing conflict; that the only successful business relationships are those where each party enjoys mutual growth; and that healthy corporate cultures provide employees with constant feedback, even if it’s negative.

“If you don’t want to manage conflict this is a hell of a time to be alive,” Shechtman said. “All relationships are disappointments at one stage or another; that’s the catalyst for the next stage of growth.”

After lunch, executives with technology giants Google, Microsoft and Facebook were on hand to discuss inexpensive ways small businesses could employ targeted advertising and social networking.

Addisu Demissie, who handles small business outreach for Google, described the Internet as a platform that levels the playing field between small businesses and established industry giants. Features like Google’s AdWords, which allows advertisers to target potential clients based on the search terms they type in, Google metrics and Google applications like Google voice and Gmail are all available to small businesses for fractions of the cost of traditional advertising outlets.

Microsoft’s Sean O’Connor, who manages small business strategy, touted the features of his company’s competing search engine, Bing, has many of the same features as Google through its adCenter, but was partnering with Yahoo! in the spring to offer their advertisers an even larger audience.

And though nearly everyone in the room raised their hand when Facebook’s Corey Owens asked how many people used the social networking site, he explained the ways businesses could use it to enhance their relationships with existing customers and draw in new ones.

According to Owens, approximately 300,000 Montanans use Facebook, which accounts for half the active Internet users in the state and a third of the total population. And unlike more conventional forms of advertising, Facebook allows customers to engage with a business, fostering an active, personal relationship rather than a passive one.

“It increases the effectiveness of ads by something to the tune of 70 percent,” Owens said, “and that makes it incredibly powerful.”