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UM students quiz Missoula business owners on entrepreneurship

From left to right, Kyle Pucko, co-founder of Geofli; Amy McQuilkin, founder of Betty’s Divine; Todd Frank, owner of the Trail Head; and Zack Millar, founder of the Dram Shop, answer questions from University of Montana business students about being an entrepreneur. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

A group of Missoula business owners sat before a class of University of Montana students on Friday to discuss their path through the gauntlet of entrepreneurship, one where they’ve learned to overcome their mistakes and take challenges head on.

The owners of Betty’s Divine, the Trail Head, the Dram Shop and the software firm Geofli, each elaborated on their personal path toward success and issued morals of knowledge to the class of inspiring entrepreneurs.

The event was hosted by Estella Anderson, director of career development at UM, and moderated by Paul Gladen, the director of Blackstone LaunchPad and CEO of the Montana Academy of Distinguished Entrepreneurs.

“We’re a software company that allows anybody, regardless of technical background, to change or replace website content based upon your location,” said Kyle Pucko, co-founder of Geofli. “Somebody visiting your site from New York would see something different than somebody visiting your website from California.”

Geofli launched in 2015 and won its first paying customer in January 2016. Pucko described the effort as rewarding, though he and co-founder Nick Shontz eased into their endeavor while holding on to their day jobs.

Along the way, they set out to improve the digital experience by personalizing websites based upon geographic locations. What interests someone in Montana may be different than someone in New Jersey.

“A lot of software companies start as weekend and unique projects – sort of as side hustles,” said Pucko. “For us, that was certainly the case. We worked nights and weekends building it, seeing if it was something people would use while calculating our decision.”

Amy McQuilkin, founder of Betty’s Divine, also performed her due diligence, though she approached her own startup from a different angle. The UM psychology graduate opened her shop in 2005 and has been diversifying her product offerings ever since.

McQuilkin was 28 at the time she decided to pursue her idea, though she’d been fiddling with the concept for years. She was denied financing by the first bank she approached, though she later found support with the help of the Montana-Idaho CDC.

The program helped her vet her idea and write a business plan.

“After I was turned down from the bank, I went to them (Montana-Idaho CDC) and they gave me my loan,” said McQuilkin. “I still work with them today. Two years ago, they helped me purchase my building without any money down.”

Todd Frank, owner of the Trail Head, starting working with the popular Missoula business in 1994 before purchasing it in 2000. At the time, the outdoor retail industry was undergoing what Frank described as a “significant market disruption” with the growth of the Internet.

Students at the University of Montana listen to the discussion on business ownership. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Frank also embarked on a costly renovation of an old downtown warehouse and admitted to knowing little about construction. The process burned up his first line of credit, leaving little money to stock his new store with coats and skis.

“For like six or seven months, I didn’t know if it was going to work” he said. “There’s always that moment of doubt. But you stand at the edge, and if you don’t have some self-doubt about the what-ifs, then you haven’t done your homework. It just isn’t that easy.”

Frank also encouraged the students to get to know their banker. It’s a piece of advice that comes up often in entrepreneurial discussions around Missoula, and one the four businesses owners take to heart.

Every upstart business owner looks bad on paper at the start, Frank said. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a way.

“What you do in life is sales, whether you work in that job or not,” he said. “When you sit down across from a guy who holds the purse and can say yes or no to your idea, you have to have your sales skills polished. You have to have the answer to his questions.”

Zack Millar learned similar lessons in launching the Dram Shop with his wife, Sarah. The two opened the tap room and growler filling station in 2015 – an effort Millar said happened out of necessity. He had few other options at the time, though he had ideas and perseverance, both of which have paid off.

“One of the most engaging things about owning a business is the problem solving,” Millar said. “The challenges are different every day, but it keeps you engaged. Every day there’s transactions between your and your suppliers, you and your customers, you and your landlord. They all require attention, and if you do any of them poorly, you’re doing a disservice to your business.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at [email protected]

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