It starts with a dream, but it takes a lot of late nights, hard work
and trial and error.
Successful Montana entrepreneurs shared their secrets to making a small business run under the Big Sky at a panel attended by business people from across Montana.
Representatives from a local manufacturer, a clothing company owner and a distillery spoke about the hurdles they've had running Montana businesses at the Invest in Success conference put on by the Small Business Development Center at Montana Tech on Thursday.
They also shared tips and tricks for building a solid local business and keeping it viable amid competition.
Kalispell's Chris Parson, director of the Small Business Development Center in Kalispell, introduced Mike Robins and Dave Robins of SeaCast, of Butte; Dave Uhl of General Electric; Sarah Calhoun of Red Ants Pants of White Sulphur Springs; and John and Courtney McKee of Headframe Spirits, Butte.
Mike Robins said there's a lot of risk starting a new business, but there can be a lot of rewards. He said he's watched the company he cofounded grow from a small operation in which he made wax parts in his kitchen to an aerospace parts manufacturer partnering with General Electric.
Of the six panelists, four said that they'd never gone to school for business, and that they didn't know what to expect in their first foray into the world of business.
Calhoun said she had no idea what she'd gotten herself into when she set out to create durable work pants made for women's bodies.
"Start a business? How hard could that be?" was the first thought Calhoun had when a business owner challenged her to create her own pants company if she wasn't happy with wearing men's work pants.
She said it turned out to be a lot more work than she expected, but she's enjoyed success across the nation, just as the other panelists have.
Each business owner had a story to tell about an important relationship that made the company work. Calhoun described a chance encounter with a producer and designer from the Patagonia clothing company whom she met while reading a business book at a coffee shop in Bozeman. He became one of her mentors.
Mike Robins explained that getting to know the competition in the beginning process of creating SeaCast turned out to be a great move. He said competitors were helpful, and the relationships meant a lot once SeaCast got going.
By the end of the presentation, panel members had all pointed out ways they could help each other, from SeaCast creating Red Ants Pants' belt buckles to Red Ants Pants' clothing SeaCast's welders in work gear. The McKees and Calhoun had met previously, and Calhoun sits on Headframe Spirits' board of advisers.
Courtney McKee explained that networking and not being shy about what they were trying to do were both important pieces to the process of starting their business. And keeping a circle of mentors like Headframe's board of advisers is imperative to keep the business on track, she said.
"Just because the doors are open doesn't mean we're any smarter than we were before the doors were open," McKee said.
Through it all, it's important for Montana business owners to keep working hard -- and know that anything is possible.
"Don't underestimate what you're capable of," Calhoun said.
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