How One Deal Transformed Bozeman Into a Startup City With Global Aspirations
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In 2012, Oracle bought Bozeman, Mont.-based software company RightNow Technologies for $1.8 billion and single-handedly reset both locals’ and outsiders’ perceptions of the university town (population 40,000) and its opportunities.
When programmer Greg Gianforte moved to Bozeman 20 years ago to launch RightNow, he had a theory that he could build a successful company anywhere, thanks to the advent of the internet. He was right. That event proved to be a watershed moment for this 151-year-old city.
A handful of newly minted RightNow millionaires have spun off dozens of startups in the past couple of years and attracted talent from both coasts. Bill Clem, an industrial products and medical devices designer who graduated from Montana State University and stuck around, in 2013 formed KERBspace, a sidewalk-based smart parking meter and electronic billboard platform. Former Patagonia director Joe Walkuski came to town in 2002 to launch TEXbase, which streamlines production for clothing companies like Patagonia and Under Armour. He says things have changed since the RightNow sale. “It’s harder to find good people in town,” he points out. “But it’s easier to get people to move here from Silicon Valley or elsewhere.”
You don’t have to be a techie to launch a successful business in Bozeman. A growing number of outdoor companies, including Simms Fishing and Blackhawk, have shown that it’s possible to build a national brand from a small town, one that attracts talented professionals with a certain Type-A personality who like to play as hard as they work.
“A lot of companies in town have ‘powder day’ and ‘fishing day’ clauses written into their employment contracts,” says Molly Ambrogi-Yanson, a PR exec who moved north from Salt Lake City to work for MercuryCSC, and who has a free-floating vacation day to get outside when the weather lines up. “It’s understood that this is why you’re here.”
That competition for talent has driven up wages and boosted lifestyle perks relative to the rest of Montana, but Bozeman is still a bargain compared to Silicon Valley, New York City or even Boulder, Colo. Rob Irizarry, a RightNow alum who runs resource and networking organization StartupBozeman, recalls prominent venture capitalist Brad Feld of Boulder-based Foundry Group coming to town and saying that Bozeman reminded him of Boulder 15 years ago.
With a combination of RightNow money funding angel investments in local startups and a steady supply of graduates from Montana State University, Bozeman may seem similar to other startup hotbeds. But according to local business leaders, all anyone has to do is look up at the mountains surrounding town to see what makes Bozeman especially attractive. They’re what drew former semipro snowboarder Philip Sullivan, who graduated from MSU in ’96, to move back and open Wildrye Distilling, which sources its ingredients almost entirely from Montana.
“I still got in 30 days of snowboarding during the winter, even while I was in the middle of opening my business,” Sullivan says. “There aren’t many places you can do that.”