Lumenad, a fast-growing digital marketing tech company in downtown Missoula with 50 employees, capitalizes on Montana’s outdoor recreation opportunities to entice clients and recruit talented workers.
“We wouldn’t have some of the brands and clients that we have if we weren’t located in Montana,” said Anthony Krolczyk, director of marketing at the company. “It resonates on a different level when we’re in Montana and understand the value of our natural resources. We’re in a unique position to ask key clients to come up and go on the river, go fly-fishing or hiking."
Krolczyk was speaking at a roundtable panel discussion sponsored by Business for Montana’s Outdoors, a coalition of 180 businesses representing 5,000 workers that advocates for the value of public lands and the outdoors as an economic asset.
"I can’t begin to tell you how rubbing elbows on the river a little bit goes a long way to bring in significant accounts and revenue and growth," he added.
Marne Hayes, the executive director of the coalition, convened the panel of local tech company representatives to highlight the importance of the state’s mountains, rivers, lakes, prairies and trails as a major reason why the tech industry is flourishing here, paying an average of $68,544 per job compared to the statewide average of $44,775 per job.
The tech industry is growing faster than the economy as a whole, and Missoula especially has seen an explosive growth in the tech sector. Companies like onXmaps and Submittable have attracted millions of dollars in venture capital, while tech companies like ATG, Lumenad and ClassPass have gone on hiring sprees.
The tech industry in Montana provides 15,000 jobs and $1.03 billion in wages.
The message that Hayes and other tech leaders spelled out on Thursday was summed up best by a quote from Larry Swanson, the director of the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West, who said that “protecting and enhancing Montana’s environmental amenities is essential for sustained economic growth.”
Eric Siegfried founded onXmaps, a company that developed a smartphone app that turns a cellphone into a fully functional GPS unit and mapping system to help hunters and hikers find public lands and avoid getting lost. The company is based in Missoula, has hired dozens of high-paid workers here and recently landed more than $20 million in venture capital funding.
“We are passionate about the outdoors,” Siegfried said. “Our company wouldn’t exist without public lands. They inspire our products and our team members as they think about how they can access the outdoors and how to make the outdoors more accessible.”
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Christina Henderson, the executive director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, said the work culture at Montana tech companies is unique.
“I got an email from a software engineer because he and his wife are looking to move out of Seattle,” she said. “He was really excited about onXmaps. He went on the website, and he was reading about how if somebody on the team gets a deer, they put it in packages in the freezer and everyone takes some home."
Henderson said that man, like many city dwellers, seeks a different culture that Montana offers.
"He said, ‘That’s exactly the kind of place I’m looking for because 90 percent of my coworkers in Seattle would call PETA if that happened here.’ So Montana has a unique entrepreneurial ecosystem and we need to embrace that, and not try to be like Silicon Valley. We need to be Montana.”
Henderson added that Montana tech companies have a unique mix of assets that have created a culture that’s “really attractive” and presents something different.
The next step is for industry and government leaders to find a way to better tell the story about how Montana's outdoor recreation opportunities and amenities present a "comparative advantage," according to Chris Mehl of Headwaters Economics, a research firm in Bozeman.
"You are the hot sector right now," he told the crowd. "You have a lot more political power and you are getting responsiveness to that."
Diane Conradi, a Whitefish attorney, said she spent years helping to make the Whitefish Trail, a multi-use recreation trail, a reality. She said a recent study found that the trail boosted the local economy by $6.4 million largely due to spending on expensive bikes, attracting more tourists for longer periods of time and spending on other community businesses. When Glacier is too crowded, for example, people flock to the Whitefish Trail to go mountain biking.
"We need to be getting real about investing in outdoor recreation infrastructure," she said. "It makes a difference. Those kind of community-driven amenities are going to be the new normal. We need to protect, enhance or create those assets. There's no reason your community shouldn't be a hub."