Microsoft exec: Great time to be an entrepreneur in Montana

Billings Gazette

by Jenna Cederberg

If small businesses in Montana don't leverage the opportunities of the Internet, their competitors will. The opportunities are often free and ever-evolving.

Still, less than 20 percent of small business owners use the Internet to create a competitive advantage.

The boon small business owners and entrepreneurs could get by integrating the Internet into their business models was a main topic of discussion on Wednesday at Sen. Jon Tester's Small Business Opportunity Workshop in Missoula. The workshop included a keynote address by Butte native and Microsoft managing director Sean Thompson. It ended with a social media strategies presentation led by representatives from Facebook and Google.

The rapid development of technology has pitched the business world into a disruptive stage, which means it's a great time to be an entrepreneur in Montana, Thompson said.

"Technology is a reality today that needs to be incorporated. No matter what the industry," Thompson said before he spoke to a crowd of more than 300 in the UC Theater at the University of Montana.

During the speech, Thompson noted the Internet's market reach. Today, he said, the ability of business owners to create an online experience for customers is easy. You can create an e-mail account in five minutes, and it doesn't take a computer science degree to build a website.

Thompson also stressed the importance of the "Big Sky" factor.

Montana is a special place that has a sentimental hold on many people. If small businesses can effectively tap into the "Montana network" this emotion creates, they'll open the door to a host of business opportunities.

Thompson said he found early in his career a network of very successful people with ties to Montana. He's connected Montana to Seattle by starting the first out-of-state chapter of the Montana Ambassadors there.

That Seattle connection can circle back to help Montanans by hooking small business owners up with expert advice, funding and more customers, Thompson said.

Jack Rich, whose family runs Rich Ranch in Seeley Lake, knows tools like Facebook can be used to reach a "far-flung" and "widespread" customer base. As of Wednesday, 668 people "liked" Rich Ranch Montana Adventures on Facebook.

But the technology changes so fast it's hard for small businesses to keep up, Rich said.

Being able to hear updates at the workshop and get information for free, straight "from the horse's mouth," is very valuable, he said.

"You just feel more comfortable after listening to them, that it's OK to use it. Social media can be a business tool, and a legitimate one," Rich said.

The social media strategies portion of the workshop took business owners through the cheap and easy ways to use Facebook and Google as ways to reach customers and grow business.

Facebook representative Corey Owens pitched the notion that the 430,000 Facebook users in Montana are actually customers. And there's no better way to connect with your customers than on Facebook, he argued. The most important component Facebook adds is the chance for customers to have a conversation with businesses. Websites don't offer a "wall" for customers to vent, or to say thanks for the product.

The ads on Facebook, which appear alongside profiles that include matching keywords selected by businesses advertising there, help improve the ability of businesses to connect with and offer products to targeted customers.

Businesses can also learn a lot about customers on Facebook, Owens said.
Google representative Matthew Yalowitz highlighted the power of Google tools like Gmail, which many said they already use.

Gmail offers a place where businesses can store an unlimited amount of data. They can even run a website through the Gmail interface, Yalowitz said. Google Apps offers a quick and easy way to better communicate with customers and is free to businesses with fewer than 50 employees.

Yalowitz's figures showed that in 2009, Google's online tools helped generate $48 million in economic activity in Montana.

Being online "isn't really something we have an option about anymore," he said.