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Billings is the place. 

WalletHub, a personal finance and economy website, ranked Billings on its top ten best places to start a business list, highlighting the city's business-friendly ecosystem. 

Kris Carpenter welcomed the news. 

"We don't talk about what's really great here enough," she said. 

Carpenter owns Sanctuary Spa & Salon, The Joy of Living and, along with her son and daughter-in-law, Black Dog Coffee House. The Joy of Living recently opened a second storefront in downtown Billings. 

WalletHub ranked nearly 200 metropolitan cities across the U.S., looking at three metrics and evaluating each city based on those measurements. Measured was a city's business environment, availability of resources and business costs. 

Billings ranked relatively high on the list, coming in eighth out of 182 cities. Still, the city was bested by some of its neighbors, including Missoula, which came in fourth (Billings and Missoula were the only two Montana cities the website measured).  

Around the region, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, ranked third; Bismarck, North Dakota, ranked sixth; and Cheyenne, Wyoming, ranked seventh. 

Coming in first was Oklahoma City. 

Andy Zoeller, the Billings city finance director, wasn't surprised by the city's national ranking on the list.  

"The entry cost is pretty low," he said. 

A license for a small business looking to launch within the city starts at $55. Every month, the city approves licenses for everything from cleaning services to lawn care companies to general contractors to clothing shops. 

Sometimes the business names or the services they offer get pretty creative, Zoeller said. March saw licenses approved for a company called Ambitious Thinker, which the city classified as a miscellaneous business. Another company registered as the Ministry of Propaganda and another as the Wrecking Clowns Dance Crew, both classified as services by the city. 

The city also sees a lot of business license applications for tattoo parlors, Zoeller said. 

Overall, the city issues and renews thousands of business licenses every year. Because companies aren't required to report when they stop operating, the city has no specific data on how many of those businesses fail each year.

Overall last year, the city of Billings issued 1,105 new business licences and renewed another 5,400. Not included in the city's license numbers are businesses that would be regulated by state boards, like dentists, lawyers, chiropractors and cosmetologists. 

Carpenter sees the advantages Billings offers to businesses just starting out; she's been part of the small-business community in this town for years. And this year she's serving as president of the board for the Billings Chamber of Commerce. 

"It's a great place to start a business," she said. "But how many small businesses don't make it year after year?"

When she hears news like WalletHub's ranking of the city, she's not particularly surprised. The city offers amazing — and many times free — resources for small businesses to take advantage of, she said. 

And in part, that's why it can be frustrating to see small businesses fail. 

Big Sky Economic Development houses several programs designed to train and support small businesses. Carpenter would love to see more new business owners make use of the resources. 

"The EDA is incredible at the training they do and the help they offer," she said. 

She pointed to her own experience and to the fact that she's had her own businesses fail.

"I'm a lot more careful now," she said. 

For example, she said, when she was preparing to open Sanctuary Spa & Salon, Carpenter had put in her business plan that she was going to use 4,000 square-feet of space.

Using the small business services offered by the EDA, Carpenter submitted her business plan and learned that in order to be profitable, Sanctuary would likely work better as a 3,000-square-foot operation. So she made the change. 

"You have to learn the numbers part," she said. 

Crunching numbers and performing smart research so that she was prepared for what lay ahead was a big part of her success, she said — that, and her willingness to work hard.

Billings has a strong sense of community, and that also adds a positive impact to the business environment in town.

"Without a good community, my small business doesn't survive," Carpenter said.

If Billings wants to improve the environment for businesses it needs to dream bigger, many city leaders and boosters have said for decades. The city needs more large industries to come to town. Those large industries build up the area's economy, which helps small businesses thrive. In the absence of those industries, Billings loses skilled workers and advancing executives to other cities.

Carpenter again pointed to Sanctuary. As a salon and spa the majority of her employees are women. Fairly regularly, an employee leaves the salon when her husband has taken a better job or a bigger promotion with a company out of town because those opportunities don't exist in Billings. 

"We have to be bolder about taking bigger steps," she said. 

Ultimately, Carpenter feels optimistic about the city's business-friendly atmosphere and sees a bright future in Billings' economic growth. She sees it in the success of her own businesses. Still, she misses the white-knuckle excitement and bone-weary satisfaction of opening a new business. 

"If I could start another small business, I definitely would do it again," she said.  

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Source: WalletHub

Business Reporter

Business Reporter for the Billings Gazette.