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June 29, 2012
Press Release: Startup Bozeman Blog: "Montana, More Than Just a Kickass Vacation!" - Innovation and Entrepreneurship Day Re-cap

Montana: More Than Just A Kickass Vacation! June 29, 2012

This post’s title / beautiful quote / bumper sticker came from Elke Govertson of Mamalode during last Thursday’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Day in Missoula sponsored by InnovateMontana, it spoke volumes to me about what’s going on in Montana and where we are headed.

I was honored to be invited to speak on a panel at the event by Liz Marchi of Frontier Angels & spent the day awed by the energy, grit and determination of Montana entrepreneurs who are out there every day driving business success despite being in the middle of (the most beautiful) nowhere.

Three themes emerged for me during the day:

1) Montana entrepreneurs are leveraging the Internet’s democratization of place to start the businesses of their dreams in an environment that encourages creativity and allows for an amazing work/life balance that’s difficult to find elsewhere.

2) A drive to help realign the educational systems from kindergarten onwards to prepare our children for the future world in which their pioneering spirit, entrepreneurial skills and innovative approaches to solving problems will empower them to succeed.

3) An incredible pay it forward mentality in sharing what they’ve learned & their network of connections and giving newer / younger entrepreneurs the benefits of their learning and experience.

The quantity, breadth & depth of presentations, panels and conversations is too broad to cover here, I’ll share what I perceived as the highlights.

Below, Liz kicks off the event with a slide that says it all about what’s going on in the Montana Startup ecosystem:

The speaker lineup was stellar, Elke and Jeremy Brown kicked the day off in style with their stories of growing up in Montana, being highly competitive with each other (as seen here at the race starting line, Jeremy’s on the far left & Elke’s wearing the cool striped shorts) and driven to succeed, which they both clearly have.  Jeremy spent time at K&L Gates (law firm of Bill Gate’s dad) , has returned and now works at Dorsey Whitney.  Elke has built Mamalode into what’s widely recognized as the best (online and print) parenting magazine in America.

Montana native Lisa Stone rocked the keynote, telling the story of her journey in creating the BlogHer empire with two cofounders.  She’s built an amazing business based on a win-win model that’s got some very impressive metrics:

Lisa shared  stories and some great quotes from along the way (any mangling / misinterpretation is my responsibility):

“Nobody from nowhere”, which I took to mean that it doesn’t matter who or where you are, you can make your dream happen.

Advice from Caterina Fake (Flickr) on taking investment: “People first, Terms second, Valuation third.”

“Choked to Death by Founders”, this one fits into my mantra that ego has killed more companies than any other factor.

“Never be a solo founder, you’re not that smart, I don’t care who you are”, resonated with me as I’ve tried that and failed.  Nuff said.

“We fight fair” in talking about the relationship between the three co-founders of BlogHer.  They split their equity evenly among the founders to create an environment where everyone was equally driven to succeed & shared equally in that success.

“You just have to be vulnerable with your board”, they’re there to help, lead with the bad news and let them know you need their help to fix it, then tell them the good news which led to “Good news can always wait.”  As a longtime builder and manager of teams, I wish more people understood that even though the news is bad, that’s what needs to be dealt with, without blame but quickly and as a learning & growth opportunity.

Next up was the team from Avail-TVN, presented by Diane Smith and Lou Fontana.  Another amazing story of overcoming the odds in Kalispell Montana to build a company that now manages over 28,000 hours of video monthly from 300+ content providers reaching 74 million homes in 28 countries!

Diane characterized it as a journey of “pioneers, rock stars and geniuses” threading their way through the “valley of death” to build the business, swinging for the fence while it the same time wondering (love this Montana expression) “if the dog catches the car, what do we do with it.”   They clearly caught the car & figured out what to do with it!

For the next session, the theme changed to education, with a great presentation by Cameron Lawrence on how business schools need to change their focus to producing innovators, inventors & entrepreneurs.

It was great to see an educator at this level so passionate about and understanding of the changes going on in the world of work as well as the need for a fundamental shift in mindset to ensure success in the future.  I saw good parallels to Seth Godin’s book Linchpin and others driving this forward thinking in eduacation.

In talking about the leverage technology provides in business, Cameron used the examples of Google, Facebook and Twitter’s employee count vs. their size / influence, citing the “disproportionate effect with far fewer people” than say, GM, to use an old school example.

I loved the fact that he carved time out to let two of his student teams present the business ideas they had been developing in his class, one of the teams had built (and demonstrated) an MVP and the other had sufficient work done that a good coder could get started building.  He was also upfront about the fact that one of the teams “didn’t show up to the fight” and got failing grades.  This stimulated a healthy discussion about the need to support / encourage failure as a learning tool.

Bobby Clay announced the launch of StartupMontana, which went live that day:

Alex Philip closed the day with the story of three successful companies he’s built in Missoula (GCS REsearch, Adelos and TerraEchos).

Alex’s companies deal with GIS and Big Data & the presentation was littered with terms – Sensor Web, the Internet of Things and 3VI (Volume, Velocity, Variety) at exascale…

He closed the presentation with a passionate appeal to the audience to invest in the education of the next generation of Montana entrepreneurs.  His approach here was along the lines of “do what you can with what you have where you are”, encouraging everything from $500 donations to support kids with specific needs at the K-12 level up through the alliances between K-12, the university system & private enterprise to guide students toward the knowledge that will provide them with the skills to become the future of America.

Alex also provided one of my favorite quotes of the day, with regard to solving the hard problems and making change in the world:

“Ya Gotta Get Off of Gilligan’s Island”…

Andy Gordon summed up the spirt of the day nicely here.