High-Tech Meets High Altitude

A few months ago, I saw a cow aimlessly wandering among the cars in the Gap parking lot. The irony of the picture seemed to illustrate perfectly the crux of why so many high-tech entrepreneurs are moving to Montana.

The life of a tech entrepreneur is grueling. At first, the entrepreneur is faced with every responsibility, from managing the books to developing the technology. Fourteen-hour days are common. Then there’s the significant amount of risk an entrepreneur assumes. This causes considerable stress, but many entrepreneurs like to balance that intensity with the equally intense outdoor activities Montana offers. “Being an entrepreneur is intense,” says Jen Boulden, owner of Ideal Bite, a Bozeman-based internet technology company. “I need to live somewhere that will allow me to participate in an equally intense outdoor pursuit, balancing the stress that comes from working extremely long days. Montana is that place.”

The Internet, FedEx, and an airport with daily flights to major cities have removed many of the geographic barriers to launching a start-up in Montana. Additionally, organizations like TechRanch (whose mission is to help high-tech entrepreneurs succeed) and MSU have created a start-up-friendly environment. As a result, Montana is a place where entrepreneurs can have their cake and eat it too.

Left My Heartburn in San Francisco
Take Don Fornes. After spending ten years in Silicon Valley as an investment banker and software executive, Don was ready to start his own high-tech company. Knowing that, thanks to modern technologies, he could conduct business from practically anywhere, Fornes used different criteria to select the location for his new business. “I wanted to be closer to the outdoors,” he says. “If activities like skiing, cycling, trail running, etc. are literally at my doorstep, it’s easier to integrate them into my workdays. This is hugely important to me because I don’t want to just take part in these activities; I want to become good at them.” So, after extensive research, Fornes packed up his car and moved to Big Sky to start RiverGuide, Inc., a free, web-based resource designed to help small- and mid-sized businesses research and select software. Fornes noted that, although all of the activities he is passionate about are available in San Francisco, they are more tightly integrated into Montana’s culture and daily routine His outdoor passions are no longer weekend pursuits.

Exiting the Beltway
Now consider Jen Boulden. Before starting Ideal Bite, a business that provides free email tips advising more than 55,000 subscribers on ways to be a little more “green” in their daily lives, Boulden lived in Washington, D.C. and spent three hours a day commuting. Now, rather than starting her day in the car, Boulden, whose passion is endurance horseback riding, starts her day on the trail with her trusty steed. Just 15 minutes from the trailhead or barn, it’s easy for her to get her “horse and nature fix” everyday.

Boulden fell in love with Montana while completing an internship for her MBA at Papoose Creek Lodge. Boulden says that it was a natural decision to live in Montana and launch Ideal Bite. “I couldn’t see myself working from a cubicle in the city to save the world. Where would I get my inspiration?” she says. Boulden notes that while she was in Atlanta, New York, and D.C., she developed strong relationships with great businesspeople, which meant that she could work from anywhere as long as she knew how to remain connected. And, according to Boulden, “So far, so good.”

Return of the Native
Then, there’s Craig Delger, born and raised in Billings. After graduating from MSU, Delger, who wanted experience with high-profile players in the software industry, left Montana to work for Red Hat, Visio, and Microsoft. After marrying, Craig and his wife (also a Montana native) decided to return to Montana and raise their children. The proximity of mountains, ski hills, and rivers; small communities; and fewer people and less traffic we key factors in their decision. The state of the software industry, Delger’s success, and the contacts he had made throughout his career also made returning possible.

Once in Bozeman, Delger launched InfoGears, which provides software solutions that integrate and automate business and marketing processes, and ProLite Mountain Sports, an outdoor specialty retailer. As Delger noted, “A typical day for me involves working hard and playing hard. If there’s time left, I’ll sleep.”

Entrepreneurs like Fornes, Boulden, and Delger, as well as other high-tech entrepreneurs such as Greg Gianforte (RightNow Technologies), Andrew Field (PrintingForLess.com), Chris Nelson (Zoot Enterprises), and Larry Johnson (ILX Lightwave) are helping to shape the future of Montana’s economy by creating more high-paying, clean technology jobs that reduce brain drain and increase the state’s tax base. And as they’ve all discovered, the ability to operate a business from anywhere, an entrepreneur-friendly infrastructure, and limitless recreational opportunities make Montana an ideal location to launch and build a successful company.