Advancing Beyond the Missoula Lifestyle Business

By COLIN STONER

As entrepreneurs and business owners in Missoula, we fall into this category quite often: Lifestyle businesses.

A lifestyle business is one that is run with eyes on a certain level of income with minimal interest in growth beyond that level. Any company that is getting a form of private investment usually has an exit strategy, which details how the founders plan to get out of the business (sales, mergers, IPOs, etc). Those are usually big business discussions with a lot of zeroes at the end of them.

The exit strategy for a lifestyle business is much simpler and less profitable. Usually, you would just quit what you were doing, or maybe you die. That’s about it.

My name is Colin Stoner, and I run a lifestyle business. Acceptance is the first part of healing, right?

I relocated to Missoula with my wife five years ago from San Francisco after spending the previous five years in the hustle and bustle that is the Bay Area. Ninety minute commutes each way from San Francisco to Menlo Park were not difficult to leave behind, nor were four-digit rents for apartments smaller than most garages, or $5 pints of bland beer. I left behind some great friends, contacts, and resources, but I was on a mission for life balance and a plethora of microbreweries.

When we relocated, we were both fortunate enough to bring our jobs with us, hers full-time with benefits and mine on a contract basis, which has evolved into a consulting role. I quickly learned that Missoula was a tough job market, and the comparable wages for high tech jobs were, well, not comparable. AAPLs to oranges. I feel very fortunate to be able to experience the best of both worlds, consistent work that pays well, and being able to live in an area that has a very high quality of life.

However, I found myself falling victim to a new enemy once I got settled in this tiny, much less silicon valley. I thought because I worked in tech, that I was always going to be a high-growth style business, but soon realized that my consulting was a lifestyle business.

Sure, I could chase up more work on a Tuesday, but it was sunny and 80 degrees and these golf courses sure are beautiful. This would be a great Friday to make some phone calls, except there is a major winter storm coming in and I should probably get to Big Sky before it does. After all, quality of life is why I relocated, right? Balance be damned.

The view of Missoula from Mount Jumbo.

The view from Mount Jumbo: Just one of the reasons why lifestyle businesses reign inMissoula.

In 2009, I took my first big leap to get beyond the lifestyle business when I co-founded Openlink Mobile, a text-message marketing tool for businesses to connect with their customers via their cell phone. No apps, no proprietary platforms, no problem. We won the Business Plan Competition at the University of Montana in the high-growth division and were on our way to becoming a real business with, gulp, real expenses.

Two years of blood, sweat, and tears later, we shut Openlink Mobile down, largely because we struggled to get any local traction. I declared Missoula to be a largely useless economy to any tech entrepreneur and went back to playing a lot of golf and skiing. Oh yeah, that consulting thing too.

The one major takeaway I got from Openlink Mobile was discovering that my real passion was in the entrepreneurial game, not consulting. Conceiving, developing, and transforming an idea into a tangible product is something I live for. Two years of working extremely long hours was only tiring once it was all over. In the moment, I somehow had an endless supply of energy and passion for what I was doing.

Since leaving Openlink Mobile behind, I found myself growing a bit jealous of friends and colleagues who were finding their entrepreneurial stride while I continued to stay in the comfort zone the lifestyle business provides. I see their struggles, remember going through some of the same issues, and long for the days of taking those risks in hopes of hitting it big.

I don’t get that feeling from my consulting business, and I miss it. There are great, engaging projects from time to time, but all have clear endings and are much more shallow in the pleasure I derive from them. They end up being meaningless flings, and in business, I’m growing tired of the one-night stands.

This year, I’ve rededicated myself to chasing pipe dreams. I’ve been encouraged by the current focus being put on Missoula’s economy to create jobs that aren’t just three month construction projects, but real businesses with long-term plans.

The Hellgate Venture Network continues to be a fascinating group of Missoula entrepreneurs to have a beer with and discuss ideas far larger in scale than our glacier-carved valley. The Missoula Economic Partnership has also shown some clear direction and ideas for the future of Missoula’s economy, which is more than I’ve seen from any civic-based group since I’ve been in town. Combined, HVN and MEP have formed the Innovation Initiative to give entrepreneurs access to local experts two days a week at MonTEC, another great resource to nurture the local entrepreneur community.

Missoula does suffer from “brain drain” at the University of Montana, but that does not mean there is a lack of knowledge capital to draw from. Most people would be amazed to know that people like Mike Sparr (Goomzee), Kevin O’Reilly (Orbital Shift), and Paul Gladen (Muzeview) choose to build and conduct their web-based businesses from Missoula. These are all local entrepreneurs running businesses with a national reach who are chasing their own pipe dreams, and locally they number far more than the three mentioned in this space.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with lifestyle business, and it is a large part of what makes Missoula such an attractive place to be. I, for one, still strive for more.

I think you’ll notice over the next couple weeks, months, and years that I am not alone in wanting to put Missoula on the entrepreneurial map.

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Colin Stoner, a Missoula entrepreneur

Colin Stoner is a Missoula IT consultant and entrepreneur. He has worked in almsot every aspect of IT, and loves most of them that don’t involve Microsoft. He is a Linux nut, a Python hack, and a lover of the cloud. When not stuck behind a monitor wall, you can find him enjoying a beer at one of our many breweries, skiing anywhere but Snowbowl, or playing handball at the Peak.