The Next Tech Launchpad

With remote work models, flowing capital, and a slew of tech startups and relocations, industry leaders say the Flathead Valley is growing into one of Montana’s key tech communities

By Maggie Dresser
Beacon file photo

For the last two decades, David Mayer worked in the technology industry for two Fortune 500 companies – working for Microsoft and later taking a job at Insight Enterprises based out of Phoenix.

During Mayer’s 25 years in tech, he noticed there was a need for information technology (IT) services geared toward smaller companies that lacked the resources to have their own department. He left his corporate job in the southwest and launched Endpoint Utility Corp in Kalispell in 2021 to provide on-demand IT services for small businesses like developers and realtors in the Flathead Valley.

Since Mayer has worked to build his business, he has also gotten involved on the board of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, a statewide nonprofit organization focused on tech growth, and he recently helped start a Flathead chapter.

“We’re trying to build an IT community of folks in the Flathead,” Mayer said.

Mayer has collaborated with Flathead Valley Community College (FVCC), local tech business leaders and remote workers to join forces and build a community to network, talk about the industry and localize the concept of the state’s tech business alliance.

According to Analysis of American Community Survey microdata, 22% of new residents and 14% of long-time residents worked from home in Montana from 2020 to 2021.

Since the pandemic led to a surge in remote workers in the valley, Mayer says the local chapter creates a space for those employees to find a community in the Flathead. Remote work has also changed the tech industry, triggering high turnover and job hopping among tech workers who are looking for a work culture that fits their needs.

At the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, Executive Director Christina Henderson says there’s a mixture of responses to remote work among statewide tech companies.

“Some companies have adapted and said, ‘that’s fine – if you don’t want to come back to the office, you can stay remote or hybrid,’ but others have really pushed to retain a culture in the office work and they feel that that’s important to doing good work,” Henderson said.

Henderson said that while many companies are telling employees they must return to the office, some are maintaining the remote model in order to recruit the best talent and to retain their staff.

“There’s definitely a sense that something significant has changed,” Henderson said. “If you do decide to be fully in person, you are knowingly going to cut yourself off from some percentage of workers. I think remote work used to be a more selective thing that some people did that was sort of tolerated. Now it’s much more mainstream – the expectation has really changed.”

At GL Solutions, a local software company, CEO Bill Moseley relocated the business from Bend, Oregon to Kalispell in 2021, citing a better business environment and comparatively more affordable housing. He has since hired 45 new employees with hopes of everyone working in the office, but he said some qualified applicants wouldn’t consider positions because they weren’t fully remote.

Moseley said when the office was completely remote during the height of the pandemic, the company’s productivity dropped 30%. He said remote work isn’t realistic for some of the positions, like entry-level jobs that require more training and coaching. He’s been able to offer flexible schedules for some of his employees who can’t find childcare, and he allows some of his long-time workers to be remote, but he prefers the office environment.

“We don’t like the remote approach very much,” Moseley said. “When COVID first started in Bend, we were forced to go remote. We measured productivity and we had an immediate reduction. We can’t afford it.”

Now that big tech companies like Microsoft have been laying off employees, Mosely said the larger labor pool has prevented some applicants from being too picky and he’s noticing more interest. Some positions that were historically difficult to fill are now seeing more applicants.

Since more tech startups have launched in the Flathead Valley and more businesses have relocated here, industry leaders say northwest Montana is starting to follow trends in Missoula and Bozeman, which are considered the tech hubs of the state.

At Two Bear Capital, Head of Engagement Liz Marchi says the venture capital company is investing in businesses across Montana. The firm invested $22 million in Missoula-based biotech company Inimmume in 2020, and founder Mike Gougen is also working to bring a biotech center to the Flathead, she said.

“The capital is flowing from Whitefish to other companies in Missoula and Bozeman,” Henderson said. “There are a lot of ways in which the Flathead Valley is part of the bigger network. We don’t have the geographic limits you might see in other states.”

In the last five years, Henderson says the Flathead Valley is catching up with Missoula and Bozeman, with Two Bear Capital as a significant driver of growth and entrepreneurship.

Anchor companies like Applied Materials and Nomad GCS have continued to grow in the valley while a significant amount of software and startup companies have come online.

For Mayer at Endpoint Utility, the start of his IT company serving local customers has been a welcome change since working for Fortune 500 companies throughout much of his career, and he predicts more tech growth in northwest Montana.

“The Flathead Valley is on the launchpad,” Mayer said.