By Martin Kidston
Montana topped the charts for the fourth year in a row in a national ranking of startup activity, the Kauffman Foundation reported on Thursday.
The 2016 report on entrepreneurial trends in each of the 50 states also placed Montana high in the number of startups launched by business owners looking to take advantage of a market opportunity.
“We’re the number one place in America to start a business,” said Andy Shirtliff, the small business advocate with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “The state of Montana’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is strong.”
Release of the annual Kauffman report coincided Thursday with the Last Best Conference in Missoula, where entrepreneurs and business owners from across the state gathered in a South by Southwest style event aimed motivating one to pursue his or her goals.
Shirtliff, who announced the report’s findings during a morning breakout session, credited the state’s top ranking to the entrepreneurial spirit of Montana residents, along with several programs implemented over the past three years by Gov. Steve Bullock.
Among the contributing factors, Shirtliff named talent, culture, density, capital and state government.
“When we talk about talent, we’re talking about the people in this room,” Shirtliff told those in attendance at the Top Hat Lounge. “We want to help entrepreneurs, or future entrepreneurs, follow their dream and chase their goals.”
To make that easier, Shirtliff said the Governor’s Office of Economic Development recently launched the “Small Business Navigator.” The Web-based platform helps entrepreneurs plan, start, operate and expand their business in the state.
The platform was developed by the Small Business and Downtown Key Industry Network, itself an extension of Bullock’s Main Street Montana Project.
“We see our role in government as trying to clear the runway to help businesses do their best,” said Shirtliff. “We’ve knocked down barriers – the silos between different agencies – to make it a little easier for businesses so it’s not an elaborate scavenger hunt.”
According to the Kauffman report, Montana’s rate of new entrepreneurs ranked first among the nation’s 25 smaller states at .50 percent – down from .54 percent in 2015. That equates to 500 new monthly startups per 100,000 residents, the report said.
The state also scored high in “opportunity share of new entrepreneurs” at more than 84 percent. The statistic measures the number of new entrepreneurs who launched a business because they saw a market opportunity.
“These latest reports on startup activity in the United States… highlight those places where new business activity is especially vibrant and encourages us to understand their approaches further,” the report said. “By measuring where strengths and weaknesses are happening, we hope to empower communities everywhere to make entrepreneurial success a universal, not a scarce, phenomenon.”
Among the nation’s 25 smaller states, Montana, Nevada, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Alaska took the top five spots in that order. Kentucky, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire and West Virginia rounded out the states with the lowest ranking.
Davey Madison with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development said the Montana Small Business Roadshow was also working to help residents in rural towns channel the entrepreneurial spirit.
The program, a product of Innovate Montana, has already stopped in the likes of Troy and Libby to help provide the tools and resources entrepreneurs need to get rolling.
“One of the things that often gets overlooked are the smaller, rural communities,” said Madison. “They don’t have events like this. They don’t have network groups or venture groups.”
Jenn Ewan, vice president of Missoula Economic Partnership, praised the Kauffman report’s findings, saying entrepreneurs were integral to the local economy.
“That’s what companies are built upon,” she said.
Shortly after the report was released on Thursday, staffers for GOP gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte also weighed in, saying Montana continues to see more college graduates leave the state than move back.
The issues has become one of the benchmarks to Gianforte’s campaign.
“Arguably, no one has done more to boost Montana’s tech sector and mentor Montana entrepreneurs than Greg Gianforte,” said Ron Catlett, a Gianforte spokesman. “For a career politician like Bullock to try and take credit for high tech and entrepreneurs in Montana is a little bit like Al Gore trying to take credit for inventing the internet.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org