Building an Economy on High-Tech Foundations

By Beacon Staff

When Greg and Susan Gianforte moved to Bozeman about 20 years ago and started RightNow Technologies, a company that developed customer relationship management software, in a spare room in their house, critics said a high-tech company such as theirs wouldn’t survive in Montana.

“They said, ‘You don’t have world-class talent, venture capital, airline access or bandwidth,’” Gianforte said in an interview last week. “None of those things ended up being impediments.”

By the time Gianforte sold RightNow Technologies to Oracle for $1.8 billion in 2012, the company had 1,100 employees worldwide and $225 million in annual revenue, and was the largest commercial employer in Bozeman, with an average wage of $86,000.

Now, Gianforte is taking on another role, one of a high-tech cheerleader for the state of Montana. The Gianfortes recently founded Better Montana Jobs, an organization dedicated to creating more high-paying jobs in the state.

“High-tech is not just for the geeks. In our business in Bozeman, only about 10 percent of our expenses were spent on software development. Most of the expenses were payroll expenses related to accounting staff, sales, and marketing administrators,” Gianforte said. “High-tech creates opportunity for people of all stripes. The geeks are like the seed corn: without them none of the other businesses grow.”

Gianforte will be in Kalispell on April 1 to discuss Better Montana Jobs, with a public presentation at Sykes Diner in Kalispell at 6:30 p.m. Also on April 1, Gianforte will meet with five local businesses for an entrepreneurship mentor session, and over lunch will sit down with about 20 local businesspeople for a roundtable about Flathead Valley-specific ideas.

The Flathead is already home to successful technology companies, such as Nomad Global Communication Solutions, Avail-TVN, ViZn Energy and Quadrocopter, and Gianforte believes there is more room to grow.

The visit to Kalispell is part of a larger tour Gianforte is making of the state for the Better Montana Jobs project. Part of the project is a plan to increase wages, which includes promoting high-tech, organizing businesses, helping entrepreneurs, and preparing the younger generation.

“We’re 49th in the country for wage scale, and high-tech and high-tech manufacturing can solve that problem,” Gianforte said.

High-tech manufacturing includes any business where you need advanced skills on the shop floor for the manufacturing process, he said, such as at Proof Research.

“Those are good-paying jobs,” Gianforte said. “Good jobs require diligence, work ethics, and skills.”

The average high-tech job in the United States in 2012 paid nearly $95,000, Gianforte said during his presentations at various Economic Outlook seminars from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana.

Those earnings are about $35,000 more than the average manufacturing job, he noted, and preparing the population for more skilled labor will require education and participation from local businesses.

One of the major pieces of the puzzle is education, and Gianforte said two-year schools such as Flathead Valley Community College will be key in training workers. It’s also important to ensure the younger generation is up to date in their technology skills, he said, and one of the partner organizations with Better Montana Jobs – CodeMontana – has already started teaching 1,100 kids across the state about coding.

About 50 of those students are in the Flathead, Gianforte said, and as whole, all of the CodeMontana students have completed more than 40,000 computer coding exercises since last September.

A vibrant, high-tech community would also affect other local businesses, he said, because the dollars flowing from robust payrolls would ripple into the local economy in various ways.

Gianforte estimates that 25 more businesses like RightNow Technologies throughout the state would create 15,000 more high-paying jobs and about $120 billion of economic value over 15 years.

But what has Gianforte found to be the biggest impediment to creating high-paying jobs?

“Skeptism,” he said. “People say, ‘Oh yeah, but Bozeman’s different; it can’t happen here.’ High-tech and the Internet remove geography as a constraint.”

Businesses need to sponsor internships or mentorship programs, he said, and the education needs to be available to people of all ages. If local economies can get on board with the idea of promoting high-tech, it could move Montana out of 49th place, he said.

“The message is, ‘Hey, it’s possible in Montana,’” Gianforte said.

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