Bobcats in Business: MSU students, grads get started in Bozeman

Bozeman, Mont. Population: 37,000. Not necessarily a major urban center, and perhaps not the best place for recent college graduates or students to launch a new business venture.

But current students and MSU graduates are flexing their entrepreneurial muscles and finding a niche in this community, due to a market that — according to some dedicated business owners — favors local enterprises over national chains.

A university town nestled between towering mountain ranges, Bozeman manages to attract a wide variety of people, and many business owners have tapped into this diversity. The following MSU graduates and current students described how they started their own businesses in this small community.

Finding a niche

“Bozeman is very unique,” said Nick Bennett, owner and operator of Montana Mobile Meats Ltd. The community is an “active, health-conscious crowd” that values local food and strives to understand where its food is coming from, he described. “They like to see how their game is handled.”

Founded shortly after Bennett graduated in 2008 with a business management degree, Montana Mobile Meats is a wild game processing company that prepares meat on site, allowing customers to see how their game is processed. The business has flourished as a result of this unique model.

Bobcat Mattress has also found a successful home in Bozeman, which owner and operator Alonzo Antonucci said is due to the college-town atmosphere.

Starting the business with his brother in spring of 2008, Antonucci ― who at the time was a junior pursuing a global studies degree ― wanted to ensure that “students get the best quality sleep, with the premise that [college] students don’t normally get the most sleep.”

For a period of about five years, Antonucci experienced poor-quality sleep ― often getting an average of only three hours a night ― thanks to a serious back injury. To help the situation, he “spent a pretty penny for a good bed,” he said. This experience is a major reason why he started his business five years ago.

A major challenge for entrepreneurs in Bozeman and other small towns “is identifying a viable business opportunity,” said Scott Bryant, associate professor in the College of Business. “[An idea] often comes from an entrepreneur’s background,” he explained. “He or she can identify a need and a solution that others can’t see.”

Bennett, who is currently selling his business after moving to Lewistown, recognized the needs of the community and designed Montana Mobile Meats based on these needs. Originally it was the idea of fellow student Kenny Braaten, who did not want to pursue the business. However, with Braaten’s permission, Bennett expanded on the concept and started his company, realizing the challenge in taking game to be processed after a successful hunt. By combining his own game processing skills with an outfitted truck, Bennett was able to provide a mobile option.

Kyle Steiner is another young businessman who saw a viable business opportunity and pursued it. While working on a marketing class assignment last year, the MSU junior came up with the idea to develop an app that, among other things, offers locally owned businesses a place within the app to notify clients of deals or events. After months of development, his mobile app ― “bozemanSYNC” ― launched earlier this year.

The app only features locally owned businesses, he said. “These are places that are special to Bozeman.”

Steiner credited the environment of Bozeman and the MSU campus for helping him develop the idea. He explained that the idea’s strength lies in the strength of the Bozeman community, as people support local businesses that “thrive on being original” and take a risk.

Sam Welborn, also an MSU junior, took her own risk by opening Zocalo Coffee House with her brother and a business partner last September. They recognized Bozeman as an “ideal” place to open up the business, in that the community gets behind and supports local business “wholeheartedly.”

While on the surface Zocalo seems like a typical coffee shop, its origins stem from a rather unique business plan. According to Welborn, it started when her brother, Luke, became involved with a Guatemalan orphanage while at the University of Colorado, and later wondered why a for-profit business cannot contribute to charitable causes like the orphanage.

Initially, the siblings and their partner, Ryan Mouns, looked to develop a concept where each cup of coffee sold would buy a meal for a child in the orphanage, and the owners would also lead trips to Guatemala for community members. While this system has not been set up yet, “we’re working toward accomplishing [it],” Welborn said.

After months of upfront work such as location scouting, assessing competition and spending the summer constructing their business’s interior ― including “a lot of painting,” Welborn said ― the three owners are “all hands on deck” and working as many shifts as they can to the keep the business going.

Like Zocalo, Antonucci’s business also had humble beginnings. He created his own niche in the Bozeman community by catering to students and making an effort to provide quality service. When the mattress store opened in 2008, Antonucci and his brother sold two mattresses out of the back of a truck. Starting from this small means, the brothers eventually were able to expand the business, moving into their current location on Huffine Lane, west of Bozeman, in 2011.

Throughout the growth of the business, Antonucci said, they maintained a “customer care approach,” offering free delivery and set-up, often on the same day as the purchase. Through predominantly word-of-mouth advertising, Bobcat Mattress has expanded to its current size with 38 beds on the showroom floor.

Another business catering to local needs is Bridger Brewing, which opened its doors earlier this year under the leadership of Dave Breck, along with co-owners David Sigler and Jim Eberhard.

Breck and a partner started their first business in Bozeman, Watershed Professionals, after Breck received his master’s degree in engineering from MSU in 2000. After taking a year to get its first client, the business grew substantially and eventually restored around 50 miles of spring creeks in Montana. However, Breck ― a passionate homebrewer who worked at Spanish Peaks Brewery while in graduate school ― always had his eye on opening a brewery in Bozeman.

“Bozeman people are smart, they’re savvy, and they want a good product,” he said. “You can’t count on Bozeman people supporting a local place with a bad idea. If you have a good idea and follow through on it, they’ll pick you over the national chain that will take money out of Bozeman.”

Facing the challenges

Though the small-town atmosphere of Bozeman has its advantages, it also provides many obstacles for technology-driven businesses like bozemanSYNC.

Steiner explained he has had trouble getting businesses to buy into his new promotional technology. “[Local businesses] like utilizing old means of communication that are being pushed out, but are still popular in places like Bozeman,” he said.

Convincing businesses that mobile apps are the way of the future in advertising ― rather than traditional means like the newspaper or television ― has been Steiner’s biggest struggle. “Most college kids don’t watch TV and don’t read the newspaper,” he said. “Most, though, have smart phones.”

“Big cities have accepted this technology,” he continued. “There’s more competition [in cities],” and when businesses use mobile apps to promote themselves, it spurs competitors to buy into the same technology.

Welborn’s biggest challenge is more personal, and involves trying to balance her time-consuming role at Zocalo with her school life. It’s “very hard,” she said. “I know I’m accomplishing something; it just might not be getting ahead in school right now.” She said it is difficult to watch her friends get ahead in their studies while she falls behind by taking only two classes per semester this year.

However, the business has to take precedence over her classes, she explained. If something “doesn’t get done or falls through the cracks” at the business ― even something as simple as running out of milk ― it is likely the business will fail.

“I can retake a class,” she said. “But I can’t just restart a business from the ground up.”

Learning their crafts

While Welborn struggles to balance her business with her education, other local entrepreneurs describe the value of the real-world, practical experience they gained on the job, in addition to lessons they learned in class.

“MSU’s entrepreneur program struck a key with me,” Bennett said. “Starting college knowing I wanted to be self-employed someday, it only made sense to study business.”

However, a difficult decision came when it was time to start Montana Mobile Meats. “Coming out of school you can work for someone and have a guaranteed paycheck,” Bennett said, but choosing to start a company means there are no guarantees. You have to “invest and work hard” in order to make a profit, he added.

Antonucci also knew that he wanted to own his own business after graduating from college. “I wanted to be in charge of my successes and failures,” he said. However, he chose to pursue a degree in something he was interested in, feeling that the best way to learn how to run a business would be to “go to work” and gain hands-on experience.

While Breck said his MSU education helped him with problem-solving skills and discipline, his more practical experience came from 12 years of consulting after graduate school.

“I couldn’t have started [this business] right out of college,” he said about Bridger Brewing, which he learned is a far more complicated operation than a consulting business. He did not take any business classes at MSU, so he “wasn’t prepared for the business side.”

Breck learned how to run a business by “wearing every hat” in his consulting firm, performing tasks such as accounting, surveying and dealing with permits. As a result, he felt “much more prepared” to take on the challenge of opening a brewery.

Reflecting on his many years in the world of business, Breck offered some advice for potential entrepreneurs.

“Stay the course,” he said. “If you truly believe in something, and you’re doing it for yourself and nobody else, stick with it.”