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.