From the editor: Being older than dirt has its advantages

2013-09-01T00:00:00Z From the editor: Being older than dirt has its advantagesBy TOM HOWARD The Billings Gazette
September 01, 2013 12:00 am  • 

In my nearly 30 years working at The Billings Gazette, I’ve had the good fortune of witnessing a lot of fascinating business start-ups as well as a few spectacular failures.

Ask anybody who has worked with new businesses and they’ll confirm that the odds are stacked against entrepreneurs. Only about half of new businesses survive at least five years, and just one-third survive for 10 years, according to the Small Business Administration.

Some ventures failed perhaps because they were a little ahead of their time. Soon after I started working for The Gazette’s news bureau in Cody, the state of Wyoming launched an effort to diversify its economy by investing in a number of small but risky start-up companies. One of them was an outfit that dreamed up what seemed like a great idea at the time: vending machines for the booming movie rental business. To rent a VCR tape, you swiped your credit card, made your selection, and your movie popped out of the machine.

Back then, VCRs were flying off store shelves and families planned their weekends around visits to the video store.

The inventors envisioned a nationwide network of movie-dispensing kiosks. But the Wyoming video vending venture closed before it could get started. If I recall correctly, the company was plagued by nagging technical issues that the owners never managed to sort out. But every time I walk by one of those Redbox video kiosks, which have largely replaced Blockbuster and other bricks-and-mortar video rental stores, I think about that small start-up whose idea might have succeeded if the timing had been different.

Now for some successes. I never get tired of City Brew, the Billings-based chain of coffee shops that has evolved into a strong regional chain. Check out the new store in west Bozeman near Rosauer’s. Founder Becky Reno was also in the video rental business for a time, but she got out of that business.

Red Oxx, a Billings company that has cultivated a worldwide following for its rugged soft luggage, started out small. Company founder Jim Markel Sr. spent 20 years in the military and was an expert parachute rigger. He adapted those skills to civilian life by manufacturing specialized weight training equipment in his basement.

It was a good niche business. But in the early 2000s, Red Oxx went in a new direction by concentrating on rugged, soft luggage. Except for its lone retail outlet in Billings, all sales are made through the website. This company has done a great job developing its brand. It’s fun to visit Red Oxx’s Facebook page and read the glowing testimonials from all over the world. Back in July customers Deborah and Jake Brooks from South Carolina paid a visit to the Billings factory. That’s some serious customer loyalty.

And you may be wondering about the spectacular failures? None eclipses Montana Power Co.’s decision to exit the safe and steady utility business and jump into fiber optics. It was a monumental misstep that lost millions for investors, employees and retirees.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Follow The Billings Gazette

Activate Full Access RED

Popular Stories

Monthly Features

Engineering firm rides Bakken wave to downtown Billings expansion

Engineering firm rides Bakken wave to downtown Billings expansion

Just two years ago, Anvil Corp. was a sleepy little engineering firm on the Billings West End that focused on design for the oil and gas industry in Yellowstone County.

8 hours ago Photos

Photos

Loading…

New sugar beet harvester has wow factor

New sugar beet harvester has wow factor

HARDIN — On his second lap around his sugar beet field south of the Crow cutoff, Brett Nedens looked up from his harvester’s controls and realized he was again being followed.

September 19, 2014 6:00 am Video Photos

Photos

Loading…

Futurist urges Chamber to be open to learning from young workers

Futurist urges Chamber to be open to learning from young workers

Starting at the bottom and clawing your way to the top of the corporate ladder worked for baby boomers and their parents.

September 18, 2014 4:28 pmLoading…
Get weekly ads via e-mail

Deals & Offers

Featured Businesses