Missoula SOUP micro-grants bring small businesses to life

“Here in Missoula, we’re a tight-packed community – small homes where nobody has places where they can just go and create,” said micro-grant winner Ashleen Spencer. “Missoula DIY is going to solve that problem. There’s nothing like this in our community right now.” (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

Ashleen Spencer’s dream to create Missoula’s first DIY craft workshop is nearing reality, thanks to a new series of micro-grant pitch contests for local entrepreneurs.

Missoula SOUP held its first micro-granting dinner last week, where diners could select one of four business ideas – pitched by their developers – to win startup funds raised via cash donations at the door.

“It’s an idea that comes from Detroit,” said SOUP organizer Grace Decker. “After the Great Recession, Detroit was really reeling, and the city infrastructure and neighborhood services really disappeared because the city couldn’t pay for them. People who lived there did a lot of cool and creative things to try and reinvent their city. It’s been successful, and has spawned other SOUP events in the Detroit area and across the country.”

By intent, the business ideas are widely diverse, and audience members can donate any amount at the door.

For the first Missoula dinner, presenters pitched health-care education classes, funding to showcase local bands through the KFGM Ballroom Series, and a Montana-themed mini-golf course. Spencer pitched her DIY craft workshop business and won more than $700.

Spencer has a long history with crafts, having dabbled in knitting, painting, crocheting and home remodel projects over the years.

“Our whole family is very creative,” she said. “My husband’s a skilled carpenter and we’re constantly upcycling and making new things. It just makes sense to turn this passion and this hobby into our life.”

Spencer said the micro-grant money will help with the down payment for a property lease; she hopes to open in May. Developing a business plan took two years, but she’s confident that other crafters will use Missoula DIY as a space to make and showcase their own products.

“Here in Missoula, we’re a tight-packed community – small homes where nobody has places where they can just go and create,” she said. “Missoula DIY is going to solve that problem. There’s nothing like this in our community right now.”

The space will include heavy equipment used for wood and metal projects, as well as areas for yarn crafts and a limited amount of storage. The business aims to provide a place for crafters of all abilities and ages, and hopes to provide extended workshop hours.

“We’re not just a craft workspace, we’re also a craftsman’s workshop,” Spencer said. “We’re going to have the space for, if you want to recycle a pallet into that dream picnic table, you can do that in our space. You can just tinker on projects that aren’t just glitter and glue.”

The SOUP micro-grant program itself fills a need, Decker said. In Missoula, organizations like Home ReSource and the ZACC have become cornerstones in recent years. They began in family homes years ago, when making a living and pursuing a dream were easier to achieve. The cost of living was lower back then, Decker said.

“We’re not going to see, in 20 years, a bunch of new brainchildren that have become community institutions unless we really do something to elevate that and try to give them more support at that very fragile, early brain stage. Because really, Missoula is becoming more and more unaffordable,” Decker said.

But why SOUP? “Stone Soup” is a folk story about a village that learned the value of collaboration when faced with a food crisis, she said. Its message inspired the business event’s name.

“All the villagers think they don’t have enough food to be able to share, but really when they each put a little something into the pot, suddenly there’s a lot more than it seemed like,” Decker said. “That’s the idea of SOUP, is that together, we make something that’s more than we could have imagined.”

Missoula SOUP will continue to sponsor grant dinners in the year ahead, with the next one scheduled for May 9 at Free Cycles.