Ten years ago, when I was starting a tech company designed to simplify scheduling for independent service professionals, I was laughed out of Silicon Valley. Not only was I seen as the antithesis of the founder prototype, the venture capital community saw my Montana location as hard to get to and a deterrent to attracting top talent. At the time, the feedback was humbling, but I decided to grow my company here in Bozeman, as I saw Montana not as a liability, but as an asset.
Since then, Montana has received recognition as a growing tech hub. Now, I can’t walk to a coffee shop without running into some of those same VCs, and my company has gone on to be a category leader. I’ve learned some poignant lessons building a company in Bozeman and seeking alternative sources for investment rather than continuing to chase down institutional funds.
Access to capital is changing
You hear debates all the time about whether or not to bootstrap, but in our case, I had no choice. At the outset, without raising a significant round of funds, my decision to go forward came from pure drive and passion. Seeking alternative investors doesn’t bring you tens of millions of dollars, but there are many advantages to finding “friendly” money from like-minded people to help you get through the rough patches in the beginning. Securing just enough to get the company started gives you the runway to find your focus.
While we were heads-down building our product, we watched countless companies enter the industry, often with massive funding from New York or Bay Area VCs. I would estimate that 70% of those companies no longer exist. When you have 40 million dollars, you’re likely to spend through problems rather than buckle down and do the work. We saw those companies, flush with cash, building every feature imaginable, which was ultimately a trap.
By running lean, you don’t ever have the opportunity, or luxury, to blow through millions of dollars to see what sticks. Without those type of funds, you’re forced to do things differently and to become especially thoughtful about what you do, and do not, implement. It can be painful work, but it will result in a more sustainable business if you can identify the two or three things that will really benefit your users, and do those things really well.
Through building relationships with private individuals from other industries, I’ve managed to raise capital to grow the company. This may seem like a harder path to funding, but in the long run, doing things the hard way sets you up with a strong foundation. This path has taught us to sip water through the desert and come out the other side.
Blooming where you’re planted
By not having those VC funds, and resisting temptation to build the company in a startup hub like Silicon Valley, I didn’t ever have to give up control of my company to a chairman of the board from another state. Owning every piece of a company means you control your destiny. This is important, as it not only forces you to be thoughtful with every decision, it allows you to stay true to your people.
Remaining in Bozeman since our founding, we’ve enjoyed low turnover, incredible quality-of-life, and been able to maintain keen focus on our product and processes. When you’re on your own island, you work harder, and create and cultivate your own culture — not the culture of fear and uncertainty that often comes with external forces. This creates stronger teams, who are able to remain focused on your mission, without distraction.
While we’re now recruiting talent from all over the country, our team is fortunate to have amazing people who we hired from right here in Bozeman. Our VP of product, Jane Crites, was working in horticulture and wine before we recruited her in the early days of the company. What’s notable about Jane, and many others like her, is that she would have been entirely overlooked by a typical Silicon Valley tech startup, but she’s been a driving force in gathering critical feedback from our partner businesses as we’ve grown. I believe it’s crucial to remain open minded about considering non-traditional backgrounds in recruiting, not only to maximize your pool of potential talent but to avoid passing over people with true passion and a fresh perspective.
Building a company off the beaten path can pay off in so many ways. While new challenges arise every day, I find myself so fortunate to be surrounded by super talented people who want to help make our users stronger, better, and more efficient.
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