Tester’s Kalispell workshop brings together Internet giant, small businesses
KALISPELL – Hundreds of business owners and entrepreneurs gathered Friday in Kalispell, hoping to find the capital and the know-how to become, perhaps, the next Google.
And at least some of the day's advice came straight from the virtual horse's mouth, with the Internet search giant itself making an appearance at the small-business workshop convened by Montana Sen. Jon Tester.
"Montana is home to some of America's hardest-working, most innovative self-starters in business," Tester said. "What we're doing with these workshops is making sure all entrepreneurs in Montana are aware of the tools out there to help grow their businesses, and boost jobs for Montana."
Bringing Google to rural Montana, to a crowd of not a few mom-and-pop business owners, made sense because every big business started as a small one.
"We were actually founded in a garage," said Addisu Demissie, Google's small business outreach specialist.
Some of Friday's advice was high-tech, looking to the future of e-commerce – how to build an online presence, how to link customers through the Internet, how to combine search engines with social networks with advertising with daily news to create a perfect storm of commerce.
Not surprisingly, most of those suggestions came from the virtual giants attending, outfits such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook. They each touted Internet applications that help businesses find customers, and customers find businesses, through interactive and targeted networking.
The Internet, Demissie said, has finally leveled the playing field between big business and small, and Google generated $54 billion in nationwide economic activity in 2009, and $48 million in Montana.
According to Corey Owens, from Facebook, about two-thirds of Montanans have Internet access, and half of those – some 300,000 – are on Facebook. Statistics such as those, combined with the fact that 90 percent of customers search online before buying, help explain why Demissie believes an Internet presence for today's small business is "an absolute necessity."
It is not, however, the only necessity. Friday's conference highlighted a number of state, federal and private partners to whom businesses can turn for expertise and even funding. Some offer business loans, some workforce training, some business coaching, some market research.
The notion that Montana is a hard place to succeed as an entrepreneur, said Tom McMakin, is simply not true. McMakin is former chief operating officer at Great Harvest Bread Co. – a Montana-made success story – and partner at the private equity firm Orchard Holdings.
Yes, he said, Montana has a small population, and no real marketplace, and relatively low incomes, and is far from venture capitalists. But McMakin believes those downsides also are upsides – they mean the state is home to a highly educated workforce, willing to work for rural wages, networked together and connected by only a few degrees of separation.
Even beyond the Big Sky, he said, Montana ex-pats share a bond, and are willing to help each other.
And perhaps most importantly, he said, the state enjoys a popular "metabrand" – "Montana is known across the United States and the world as a good thing," he said.
As for venture capital, McMakin suggests that the financial investment world is flattening, and Montana is just a mouse-click or a plane ride from anywhere.
"We actually have competitive advantages that other places don't," he said. "That gives us a leg up over entrepreneurs in other states."
Montana has all the pieces – access to technology, market cache, research laboratories, universities, business experience, banks, education – to compete anywhere.
Great Harvest Bread – with help from some of the agencies on hand Friday – grew from a small-town operation to 220 storefronts in 40 states, with $90 million in annual revenue, proof that venture capital and expertise exist here, if business owners know how and where to look.
That, in fact, is the thrust of Tester's job workshops – to hook those in need with those who can provide, in a kind of capitalist speed-dating. Investors from Cleveland have pumped money into Belgrade firms. Denver is invested in Three Forks. Warren Buffet is banking on Bozeman.
If a business has a solid product, "then capital," he said, "will find a way."
Much of that capital comes from people such as Bill Payne, an "angel" investor operating the Whitefish-based Frontier Angel Fund. He's sunk money into 52 companies, including many Montana-based firms, and offered a primer on the kinds of outfits he's looking for.
Generally, he said, he's betting the jockey, not the horse, banking on people with integrity and experience who have surrounded themselves with quality advisers.
And that, said Morrie Shechtman, is a pretty good approach. Shechtman chairs Fifth Wave Leadership, where he preaches the economic gospel of "human capital."
You can't compete with technology, he said, because in today's world that's available to everyone. Same with advertising, outreach and government grants. All of that's been "commoditized" in the democracy of the information age.
What sets a business apart, Shechtman said, is its investment in quality people, employees who aren't afraid to challenge and to push and to grow and to change.
"The only thing information hasn't commoditized is people," he said, adding that "there is no more plateauing" in successful business. "You're growing, or you're dying."
Tester praised the presenters, thanking them for "helping us rebuild an economy that can always use help."
This was the fourth in a series of jobs workshops sponsored by the senator, and the first in northwest Montana – arguably the corner of the state most hard-hit by the economic downturn.
Tester's recipe – hard work, good connections and working together – was emphasized repeatedly throughout the day, and its importance was underscored by Payne's observation that small startups are what truly drive the nation's economy.
Over the past 30 years, Payne said, companies less than five years old added 40 million jobs nationwide. In those same 30 years, companies older than five years actually shed jobs.
The hope for events such as Friday's is that Montana can help provide some of tomorrow's employment, and perhaps some of the next Googles.
"These events have been incredibly successful," Tester said, "and I encourage all businesses in the Flathead and across the state to take part."