A Hotbed for Startups

Montana is the top-ranked state in the nation for entrepreneurship, and the strengthening economy means more businesses will be born

By Molly Priddy
Britt McGillivray, owner of Made of Mountains, pictured at her new storefront in Bigfork on April 20, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

BIGFORK – As with many creators, Britt McGillivray’s current business endeavor began as a way to pass time in the evenings, a chance for her to relax and unwind with some creativity.

“It started out as a hobby, making jewelry after work,” she said, sitting in her brick-and-mortar shop on Highway 35 near its junction with Highway 83 that will open the first weekend in May.

Her jewelry brand, Poisonberry, became popular — McGillivray was one of the first people to use the shape of Montana with a heart cutout in the middle, which she copyrighted in 2012. By 2013, she was making her jewelry full-time in a studio that her husband Craig built at their Blue Bay home.

Wholesalers have been the bulk of her business, and when she added adventure-themed kids’ clothes in 2015, followed by adult clothing, McGillivray rebranded to include all the wares under the name Made of Mountains.

Her business evolved relatively slowly, she said, which made growth manageable. She learned the ins and outs of sales by working as the sales director for her previous employer, Meissenburg Designs in Bigfork. Even when she left to forge her own path, Laura Meissenburg remained a close mentor.

“It actually really helped me develop a product line,” McGillivray said.

Now, McGillivray’s shop will carry lines from other local makers, which she believes is an important aspect of her work. Supporting other creators is key, she said, because there’s enough room for everyone.

While there is only one McGillivray, there are many like her who followed their passion to make a living in Montana and the Flathead Valley. The state is a hotbed for entrepreneurs and startup activity: The Kauffman Index — a national organization that tracks and analyzes startup activity — ranks Montana as No. 1 for entrepreneurs among all states. For every 100,000 people here, 500 became entrepreneurs in a given month in 2016.

Montana ranked third for Main Street entrepreneurship (established small businesses), and 23rd for growth entrepreneurship (measuring growth of new companies).

One designation in the top spot is prestigious enough, but Montana has held the top spot for three years.

“It ties to the quality of life here,” said Montana West Economic Development president and CEO Jerry Meerkatz. “And the fact that it’s a big draw for young, middle-aged and older people, to feel like this is a beautiful valley, a beautiful place to come and have an outdoor life, a balanced life.”

Before joining the team at MWED in late 2016, Meerkatz spent 35 years in business management, much of it in the technology industry. Having held management positions at Compaq Computer Corporation and the Hewlett-Packard Company, Meerkatz said he has a special passion for helping local businesses thrive.

Spending so much time in the corporate world of big cities and 60-hour weeks, Meerkatz said he’s not surprised so many people burn out in those situations and dream of moving to a place like Montana, where life is a little simpler and there’s more space for imagination.

Raised in the Flathead Valley after his family moved here in 1961 and a graduate of Flathead High School, Meerkatz didn’t return to the valley for many years during his corporate career except to visit. He realized that coming back was the only time his mind truly relaxed and regenerated.

“I think simple is a good thing,” Meerkatz said. “I was in corporate for 35 years; when you’re on fast-paced, high-energy work all the time, more work than play, I don’t think you have a lot of time to let your mind wander toward what could be.”

Instead of spending half a paycheck on Silicon Valley rent or mortgages, or tens of thousands of dollars on a corporate-approved wardrobe, Meerkatz said the cost of living in Montana allows for freer capital to start businesses. He qualified that remark with a note that people working here in low- or minimum-wage positions likely spend a good portion of their paychecks on housing.

“It is a blocker to being creative and thinking about starting a riskier proposition, because you’re forced to protect everything,” Meerkatz said.

Still, that in and of itself can be motivation. The other side of that equation is people who are already here and have dreams that extend beyond Montana. They get creative in their business endeavors in an effort to get out of here.

“To get out or to settle in are two different motivators but two motivators that allow for a lot of people to get creative,” he said.

Christina Henderson, the executive director at the Montana High Tech Alliance, said her organization launched a study on startup activity, specifically technology, because of Montana’s national reputation.

The study, which was released and presented last week, looks at the “entrepreneurship ecosystems” in Missoula and Bozeman. It examines those cities in particular because they’re neck and neck for the most activity, Henderson said, but the Flathead Valley comes in a close third.

“There’s really innovative companies that have cropped up in the Flathead in all the different towns,” Henderson said. “You also have the Frontier Angel Fund II in Polson.”

Frontier’s fund is a collection of what are called angel investors, who pool capital to invest in early-stage companies, not just in Montana, but throughout the Pacific Northwest. Such a resource is important, Henderson noted, but the study showed that “Montana entrepreneurs held bootstrapping in high regard.”

“Some believed growing their company with little to no outside capital had allowed them to build a more sustainable enterprise,” the study reported.

“Living in Montana, I think people are multi-functional,” Meerkatz said. “They grow up having to do a lot of things and be creative and make less go further and do things themselves. By virtue of that, you have more positive feelings about what it is you can do.”

The Flathead also has what Henderson considers “strong anchor companies,” such as Applied Materials in Kalispell or ViZn Energy Systems and Proof Research in Columbia Falls.

“There’s just some really high-caliber, well-known tech companies that have planted operations there,” she said. “And those companies are spinning off other companies.”

Henderson reiterated the importance of Montana’s quality of life, which was highlighted in the study. Of the 52 people interviewed, only 20 were Montana natives. The rest came from various places in the U.S., drawn by a love for Montana.

“Montana’s quality of life is a huge attraction for entrepreneurs and for talent — the Flathead Valley, it’s arguably the most beautiful place in Montana,” she said. “The incredible beauty and outdoor amenities and the proximity to Glacier National Park are assets that are big attractions for knowledge workers.”

Meerkatz said loan activity at MWED for entrepreneurs has been hot, with new business ideas coming in the door all the time.

“We had the best year ever in terms of unprecedented amount of people who are qualified or closer to being qualified for new businesses and expansions,” he said. “That has been just a real indicator of the economy turning around, of people having faith in themselves and the economy to be able to take on a certain amount of debt they can manage.”

“We’re just doing a tremendous amount of good loans with good people who have good ideas and are really making hay with them,” he added.

With plans to open up shop just in time to snag the attention of the Spartan racers in May, McGillivray is excited about her opportunities. She moved into the new space in March, needing more space for production.

Not only is she now in a position to buoy other creators through her store, but McGillivray is also giving back to Glacier National Park, which is the magnet that drew her to the valley from Tennessee in the first place. Five percent of her sales go to the Glacier National Park Conservancy, which also helps boost her products in markets where conservation and green living are important factors.

“For me, it’s personal,” McGillivray said.

For more information on Made of Mountains, visit www.madeofmountains.com.

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