Global venture capitalist meets with Missoula startups on national tour

Global venture capitalist Paul Singh met with students on Tuesday at the Montana Code School at the Montana Technology Enterprise Center. Singh will spend the week in Missoula as part of his North American Tech Tour. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

If ambition is equally distributed across the country, then the one thing that sets a city apart may be its ability to train workers in emerging fields, a global venture capitalist said Tuesday.

Paul Singh brought his North American Tech Tour back to Missoula for the second year, making a morning stop at the Montana Code School before meeting the founders behind several successful startups tucked into the Montana Technology Enterprise Center.

For the students learning to code their way to success and new opportunities, advice from one of the world’s leading business investors was as welcome as it was free.

“We’ve been to a lot of places now and we’ve learned there are two things that are kind of true,” said Singh. “The first is that everyone seems to think you need venture capital to be successful, and I disagree with that.

“The other thing we’ve noticed is that ambition is pretty equally distributed across the U.S. It’s the skills training that’s lacking. What you guys are doing here with the code camp is really important.”

The Montana Code School, along with the Big Sky Code Academy, have both made strides in teaching a new generation of students how to speak today’s digital language.

While most apply the burgeoning technology to a number of tasks, the students perched on beanbags while listening to Singh will be writing tomorrow’s applications.

On Tuesday, those hopes included Ryan Duarte, co-founder of Montana Root Applications and SolarScreen, and Molly Bradford, founder of HG Enterprises, both based in Missoula. Along with a number of other entrepreneurs, they spent the morning gleaning advice from Singh and what he looks for while investing.

“This is a good opportunity for Missoula,” said Andy Gordon, a self-proclaimed “technofile” who has started several businesses and works as the marketing manager for Clearas Water Recovery in Missoula. “It allows us to leverage outside networks, and certainly outside interest in Montana. We’ve got momentum in the ecosystem here.”

That momentum has placed Missoula high in a number of surveys exploring the nation’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Among them, an April report by the Montana High Tech Business Alliance ranked Missoula ranked 9th out of 394 metro areas in its startup rate.

Montana also has topped the charts four years in a row for its startup activity, according to a separate report by the Kauffman Foundation. Getting Singh back to the Garden City for a second year marked an opportunity to showcase the latest crop of entrepreneurs.

Paul Singh in Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“This allows us to keep that flywheel spinning and continue to educate outside investors, outside founders and people who might want to come here and build their company,” said Gordon. “It allows us to leverage functional expertise and potential venture dollars from outside networks we wouldn’t typically have available to us by inviting them here to show them what we’ve got.”

Singh has worked at both ends of the spectrum, from entrepreneur to global venture capitalist. He and his partner sold their businesses in Virginia in 2009 and have since invested in more than 2,000 startups, including MakerBot, Twilio and Credit Karma, among others.

He admits to passing on investments in Uber and Air BNB.

“About 70 percent of what we invest in is venture scale, which are companies that could potentially be really, really big,” he said. “The other 30 percent are what we call mainstream businesses, like restaurants, or the after-school code camp for children in South Dakota.”

While the businesses may differ, he said they share a commonality in their ability to use technology to sell a product or service.

“A lot of people think it’s the apps that get funded or the software companies, but you have to recognize that technology is the supporting actor,” he said.

“There’s two stages of every company – will it work and how big can it be. From our perspective, if you can sell one thing to one person you don’t know, you’ve answered the will it work question. At that point, all we have to talk about is how big will it be.”

As for the difficult grind to generate revenue, Singh said it’s never pretty in a new business, though it remains central to success.

“Your first $1 million revenue is just going to be brute force,” he said. “There’s never anything elegant about $1,000 a month or $1 million annual revenue. Nothing is pretty at that stage in the company.”