The Montana Business Assistance Connection in Helena recently honored the first three graduates of its Accelerated Startups pilot project.
The Accelerated Startups program is a collaborative effort between the business assistance connection and Edge Marketing and Design to provide resources, accountability and mentorship to new startups in the Helena area. The participants started the six-month program in the spring and finished last week.
Spy High is a Helena-based company that sells a patented trail camera mounting system and accessories.
Montana Bones is a clothing, jewelry, accessories and tooled leather brand that showcases founder Dana Holzer’s love for Montana.
Rayna and Scott Bouma of Caffeic opened the Helena coffee company about a year and a half ago because of their passion for good coffee.
Graduates of the program's initial run are Montana Bones clothing company, Caffeic coffee roasters and Spy High, which sells a patented trail camera mounting system.
Brian Obert, executive director of the business assistance connection, said the idea came about after a visit from Dustin and Megan McKissen. Their visit was held in conjunction with a LinkedIn event held between the business assistance connection and Edge.
Obert said the McKissens saw a lot of potential in Helena, and that it was encouraging hearing from an outside group that programs similar to those in big cities could be developed here for Helena.
According to publications Dustin provided to Obert, he said, Helena has a startup scene that would make larger cities jealous. Referring to a previous article in the Independent Record, Dustin noted that SoFi could have moved to Silicon Valley but that not all the talent in the country lives, or wants to live, in the Bay Area.
“That’s where the startup idea was born,” Obert said.
Accelerated Startups came to life when Dustin Stewart, owner and digital product manager for Edge, suggested it to Obert.
“Edge did a lot of the work forming the curriculum for the program,” Eric Seidensticker, program manager for the business assistance connection, said.
Stewart said the Helena community was rife with need for a program like this.
Stewart said he has participated in several startup programs throughout the state, and not every community has a major company investing resources into programs like this.
“But we don’t necessarily need that," he said. "We looked at all the area professionals that would be able to contribute and formed a program around that."
When forming the curriculum, Stewart wanted to focus on things startups typically have to figure out on their own. Pricing, value proposition, identifying customer base and marketing are areas of focus.
“We wanted to connect these startups with community resources and expertise to help fight through these hurdles,” Stewart said.
Obert said a lot of their customers get started in their business and don't understand the fundamental aspects, including marketing.
“Finding out who clientele are and how to reach them is important," Obert said. "Along with identifying your product and knowing what itch you’re scratching.”
The goal of Accelerated Startups is to provide a support system and education for these budding businesses to consider these aspects.
“Coffee for instance is no different than hops or wine," Obert said. "There is high and low-end. Caffeic is more than just coffee roasting. They have a niche and focus on a certain market.”
Applicable to all three graduates, Obert said, was help guiding the businesses toward their market.
Montana Business Assistance Connection was created with the purpose of improving the economy and livability of Lewis and Clark, Broadwater, and Meagher counties. The goal is to help businesses start, improve, expand, relocate or transition to new ownership. In turn, this will help the community's business climate, thus increasing the quality of life for businesses and residents.
“My take on it is that we needed to break that traditional mold,” Seidensticker said. “We had a phenomenal turnout for this first program.”
“This helped us get away from the traditional methods,” Obert said. “We knew as long as we found where the businesses need assistance, we could have a program like this.”
Seidensticker said he thinks it’s important to increase the visibility of businesses like these.
“It shows that Helena isn’t just a sleepy government town,” he said.
This first iteration of the program was built around the applicants, all of whom said that running their startup was not their primary job.
“I think it went really well and the companies we had in the program were a great fit for the pilot,” Stewart said. “It’s important with any program like this to have businesses at the same stage so that they can relate to each other. We don’t want a 10-year business with a first year business.”
Stewart said they will continue to experiment and adapt the program to the applicants in the future.
“They were on board with the idea that this was an experimental run,” Stewart said. “Going forward, we can take a lot of the lessons we learned and improve the program.
“They were all very driven,” Stewart said. “That’s what set them apart. We had no worries about accountability with them.”
For the next session of Accelerated Startups, which will take place in April, applications will be accepted Dec. 1 through Jan. 15, 2019.
“We already have a laundry list of candidates interested in the application when it goes online,” Obert said.
Obert said they also have offers from more area businesses organizations, including the city, the Helena Area Chamber of Commerce and the Business Improvement District.
“What works here doesn’t necessarily work everywhere else,” Obert said. “This program is small but it works for Helena.”