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Stubbornly high unemployment and sluggish economic growth have persisted even though economists say the deepest recession since the Great Depression officially ended in June of 2009.

Fortunately, the nation's troubled economy hasn't stifled entrepreneurial activity, the job creating process that happens when somebody decides to build a better mousetrap.

In fact, the Kauffman Foundation reports that the rate of entrepreneurial activity has reached its highest level in at least 15 years in 2010, when 556,000 new businesses were created each month.

And Montana ranks as the nation's second most entrepreneurial state. The Kauffman Foundation calculated Montana's entrepreneurship index at .47 percent, which means that Montana has 470 entrepreneurs per 100,000 in population. That compares to a national rate of .34 percent.

But the latest Kauffman report on business startups provides another telling statistic. Many new businesses being created are sole proprietorships rather than businesses that hire employees.

"Since it began, the recession has triggered annual declines in the rate of employer enterprise births," said Carl Schramm, president and CEO of the Kauffman Foundation. "Far too many founders are choosing jobless entrepreneurship, preferring to remain self-employed or to avoid assuming the economic responsibility of hiring employees."

Aaron McNay, an economist for the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, says it's not easy to pinpoint the reasons for Montana's high rate of entrepreneurship, but several factors could be at play.

A favorable tax environment, a relatively well educated workforce, and the relative scarcity of large corporations have all been suggested as reasons for Montana's high rate of entrepreneurship.

Here, Billings Business profiles three business owners who have pursued different paths to entrepreneurship.

Location, Location, Location!

Lila Buen hasn't taken a day off since she opened Billings Best Yogurt in Shiloh Crossing last July. But don't get the impression that she's anxious for a chance to prop her feet up in front of the TV after more than 250 consecutive days on the job.

Buen comes to her don't-stop work ethic naturally. While raising her family on a farm near Glasgow, there was never a shortage of work. Billings Best is also open seven days a week, which provides plenty of opportunity for her to be on the job.

But what keeps her going back every day is that she really enjoys running a family-oriented business.

"I love it. We know so many of our regular customers by name," Buen said. "It's rewarding the way our current clientele recommends us to their friends. We've grown through word of mouth. It's been a real pleasant experience."

Billings Best Yogurt, located next door to the Shiloh 14 theaters, caters to a steady stream of movie goers, shoppers and families. Teens who drop in for a late-night treat are among her best customers, Buen said.

The retailing philosophy is taste before you buy. Once customers pick what kind of yogurt they want, they can create a customized treat by selecting from dozens of toppings, which are arranged like ingredients from a salad bar.

Because the yogurt is sold by weight, the customer can dish up as little or as much as he wishes.

More than 60 flavors of yogurt are offered, although no more than 10 are available each day.

"We always have chocolate, vanilla, a no-sugar flavor and a non-dairy flavor," Buen said. So far, the most popular flavor seems to be cake batter, which is a rich vanilla flavor that's reminiscent of yellow cake.

Billings Best Yogurt is the fourth business that Buen has owned. After her children were grown, it seemed like a natural thing to do. She opened a small printing business in Glasgow in 1994. The Glasgow Radio Shack store followed in 2000 and in 2004 she opened Liberty Tax Service in Billings.

"I did taxes for five years but decided that I wanted to do something that was more fun, and this is it," Buen said.

When Buen saw the property in Shiloh Crossing was available, she fell I love with the location. The store has her own design touches, including the purple-hued color scheme, custom furniture and tile.

"That was fun for me. Before, I had franchises, and that limits what you can do," Buen said.

As an owner of multiple businesses, Buen hasn't forgotten that running a business carries risks.

"You put everything you own into it. Of course it's risky," she said.


Time is money

Wayne Wilcox isn't yet 30 years old, but he has already started four businesses, and he's constantly on the lookout for starting new ones.

"When I was working for a large corporation, it always seemed like the more I worked, the less I made," said Wilcox a Billings native, whose ventures include an ATM business, an advertising business. He promotes big-name comedy acts in Billings and has developed a touch-screen recipe guide that helps food service workers remember recipes.

Many business owners spend countless hours on the job. But Wilcox is looking for work that gives him time to pursue other things.

"I was thinking about finding a job where I didn't have work all the time," he said.

Wilcox hit on the idea for his first business about three years ago.

"I was sitting in a friend's business and saw the ATM machine, and I started thinking about it and the bell just rang," Wilcox said. He decided to invest in an ATM machine, which began paying for itself immediately after he set it up.

The business grew. Today, Wilcox owns 20 ATM machines.

Initially, Wilcox financed the ATM business by using credit cards. But as the business grew, the machines generated enough profit that he was able to pay off the loans.

"My family asked me if I was scared, but I said I have no fear of this. It's not really that scary," Wilcox said. "The ATMs are paying for themselves."

The second business, Advanced Wall Advertising, came about as an offshoot the ATM business. Initially, Wilcox wanted to find a way to promote his ATMs.

"We got halfway into it, and then we decided to start going to business owners and asking them to put up our screens with advertising messages in high-traffic areas," he said.

The TVs are placed where customers are likely to see them, such as near restaurant cash registers and near the front desk in motels.

Wilcox's partners in Advanced Wall Advertising are Colby Hernandez and Bobby Reynolds

After one year, the screens have been installed in 20 Billings businesses, and plans are under way to introduce the program in Bozeman. The ads are uploaded to the TVs remotely, which saves time and money.

The business has benefited because prices for high-definition TVs have plunged in recent years. For what it used to cost for a 32-inch screen, you can now buy a 60-inch screen, Wilcox said.

Advertising messages are tailored specifically to a business. For example, when a restaurant agrees to display a screen, a competing restaurant won't advertise on that screen, Wilcox said.

Wilcox has been friends with Lukas Seely since they were youngsters. After Seely began making a name for himself in West Coast comedy clubs, he wanted to bring big-name comics to Billings. Wilcox was eager to help him out, and together they have brought Louie Anderson, Pauly Shore and other top comics to Manny's, formerly the Asian Nites Casino.

"This business is more heartfelt," Wilcox said. "This one takes time to build connections."

The touch screen business is still in its formative stage. So far, it's being used at the Orange Julius store in Rimrock Mall. The screen uses instantly recognized icons rather than words. Workers use it to make it easier to follow a drink recipe, saving time and cutting waste.

"Pictures are the quickest way to reach the brain," Wilcox said. "We use images to get the point across quickly."


Filling openings in technology

Despite the fact that millions of Americans are desperately looking for work, some employers can't find a way to fill certain jobs because of a shortage of skilled workers.

Openings for computer programmers, network technicians, engineers, security specialists and business intelligence specialists can sometimes be difficult to fill. That's why Kathy Hildebrand decided to form Arrow Solutions Group, a Billings-based technical staffing agency.

"Nobody was supporting companies the way I wanted to, with the level of service that I wanted to," she said, explaining her decision to go into business a little more than two years ago.

Hildebrand's professional background is in technology and staffing. She worked in an information technology outsourcing company before she decided to go in on her own.

"I act as a go between for technology people and the end users," she said. "Having been in the technology world, I can talk the talk and understand how to screen folks."

Arrow Solutions Group can help place workers for special projects or permanent positions as part of what Hildebrand describes as "flexible staffing solutions" to meet business's needs.

Hildebrand said running a business is something that she has always thought about. But she didn't jump into it without first doing some research.

"My appetite for risk certainly isn't extreme," she said. "It was all carefully thought out. There are people who can jump into things and don't think about it, but that's not me."

The business is growing, and so far Hildebrand is glad she made the leap.

Arrow Solutions Group works both with companies looking to hire and with technology workers who are looking for work.

"Technical people sometimes don't know how to market themselves," she said. "My job is to market them and their skill set to the right employer."

According to Forbes magazine, technology workers have been on the employment service firm Manpower's list of hard-to-fill jobs for four years. Virtually every aspect of global business requires computers and computer networks. Also, advancing takes additional education in the technology world.

Arrow Solutions Group places workers in Montana and northern Wyoming. Because of a small population and a relatively rural location, Montana's big selling point for technology workers is quality of life, Hildebrand said.

A natural market is Montanans who have worked in large urban areas but are interested in returning home.

"Some of the best people grew up here, when to school and went off to work in Seattle or some place like that, but they're ready to come back," she said

Last year Hildebrand and her friend Judy Chapman, president of Brookstone Communications, a Billings marketing and communications firm, launched TecNet, a networking group for people who work in technology. Local businesses host the gatherings, and so far the turnout has been good.

"People in technology tend to keep to themselves. But this has been a good experience," Hildebrand said.




Editor of Billings Business, a publication of The Billings Gazette.