State of Missoula: entrepreneurs vital to local economy

Michelle Huie, founder of VIM & VIGR, turned a good idea into an international business from Missoula. She was one of several entrepreneurs featured Tuesday during the State of Missoula event hosted by the Missoula Chamber of Commerce. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

It was the kind of job that left Michelle Huie behind the wheel for hours on end, crossing the region’s highways selling pharmaceuticals. In her early 30s and in good shape, her legs began to ache, leading her to a physical therapist who suggested she try compression socks.

That bout of discomfort tied to Huie’s former occupation played a central theme Tuesday as she explained how she became a successful entrepreneur selling a popular brand of compression socks.

Once faced with the daunting task of implementing a good idea with little funding, she can now look back at the journey and grin, saying her Missoula-based business, VIM and VIGR, is a success – one that’s owed in part to the support of the wider Missoula community.

“Last year, we sold over 100,000 pairs of compression socks,” said Huie. “We’re in about 700-plus retail locations nationwide, as well as Canada, Japan and Hong Kong. Our plan is to expand globally.”

Huie was one of several entrepreneurs featured Tuesday during the annual State of Missoula event hosted by the Missoula Chamber of Commerce.

This year’s focus, “Building Tomorrow’s Missoula: The Entrepreneurial Economy,” offered success stories and motivational talks. It also touched on the hurdles and fears entrepreneurs face as they struggle to compete on a regional, or global, scale.

“Because there aren’t that many people with startups here, I think there are more resources available,” said Huie. “If I were in a town like New York, Seattle or Portland, I’d be one of thousands of other startups trying to get funding – get some type of mentorship. I’ve had so many people reach out to me in Missoula, asking how they can help out this business.”

While Missoula’s reputation as a growing tech hub and entrepreneurial hotbed has gained attention over the last year, appearing in national articles and rankings, the city’s economic direction wasn’t always so certain.

Bryce Ward, a regional economist with the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, was among the skeptics. The city’s economy was more of a question mark than a certainty. It had no flavor and no direction, and it had little to hang its hat on.

“It wasn’t obvious what the foundations of Missoula’s economy were,” said Ward. “But whenever I hear about the stories of entrepreneurs here in Missoula, it makes me feel better about Missoula’s economy. It makes me feel more optimistic.”

Three decades ago, Ward said, entrepreneurship wasn’t a hot topic. Missoula, like most other regions of the country, had an economy closely tied to its natural resources.

But economies change over time, Ward said, and today’s knowledge-based industries have replaced yesterday’s extraction industries. Wealth is no longer tied to what lies underground, but rather, he said, it’s tied to knowledge, and knowledge can lie anywhere.

“This has clear implications for regional economies – places that can harness knowledge work and create knowledge products,” said Ward. “Those are the places that are more prone to survive, because there’s less work to do in these natural resource industries, and more work to do in these knowledge industries.”

Entrepreneurs are vital to an economy built on knowledge, and in this category, Ward said, Missoula is in good standing. Roughly 40 percent of the local population holds a bachelor’s degree or higher, placing it 24th among the nation’s 318 metro areas.

It also offers the human capital needed to reach critical mass.

“That’s the role of an entrepreneur in a more knowledge-based economy,” Ward said. “They’re the ones who have the idea, they’re the ones who organize the resources to execute that idea, and they’re the ones who figure out whatever obstacles are inherent in your place, because every place has an obstacle.”

The city’s entrepreneurial undercurrent often goes unnoticed, though the success stories aren’t hard to find and were abundant on Tuesday.

Brian Morgan founded Adventure Life to sell global travel packages that consider preservation and sustainability. Linda Miller founded Paradise Dental Technology to make better dental hand instruments.

Bryce Ward, a regional economist with the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, discusses the vital role entrepreneurs play in the Missoula economy. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

She now sells them in 48 countries around the world and like most other entrepreneurs, she started with an idea based upon an opportunity.

“I noticed that 40 to 70 percent of dentists and dental practitioners had ergonomic issues,” said Miller. “So we addressed that. That’s where were started. We focused on creating instruments that were more comfortable to patients, and more comfortable to the practitioners.”

Last month, Smart Asset ranked Missoula 9th among the country’s small to mid-sized metro areas for its level of entrepreneurial activity. The rankings followed a similar report issued by the Kaufman Foundation earlier in the year, noting the city’s high number of startups looking to capitalize on market opportunities.

In the 12 hours that John Hagmaier spent in Missoula before Tuesday’s presentation, he’d already observed that entrepreneurial spirit and its support network, including the University of Montana.

As the founder and owner of Common Wealth Growth Group, based in Virginia, he offered the city’s entrepreneurs 30 minutes of advice. One, he said, the journey never ends. Two, it’s wise to invest in those who work to make a business a success.

“You want to know something that I learned?” Hagmaier said. “The employees I hired went all in with me. Don’t forget that, sitting at your tables. The people here in Missoula, maybe they didn’t start your company, but the day they worked with you, they went all in with you.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com