Entrepreneurs live, work and thrive in rural communities. Broadband connectivity is the essential ingredient.
Across America, entrepreneurs are blossoming like spring flowers. They are cropping up everywhere. From the Silicon Prairie to the Southern Gulf to my back yard in northwest Montana, we are seeing start-ups grow successfully in unlikely places – creating jobs, innovating and attracting investment. We’ve made surprisingly swift progress. When I founded a ground-breaking tech company in northwest Montana, I was asked repeatedly, “How will you ever be able to grow a tech business from a small town in a flyover state?” The answer was, easy … technology would make it possible. And it did.
My husband, our daughter and I had moved to Whitefish, Montana, in 2002 from the Washington, D.C., area. We’d looked all over America for a community that had four seasons of recreation, good healthcare and public schools (our daughter was then 8 years old) and enough restaurants that we didn’t have to cook every day. My background was in telecom so I had seen firsthand the kinds of opportunities for business, healthcare and education that the Internet was making possible. We believed that we could make a living just about anywhere that had fast and reliable communications connectivity, and we found it in Whitefish.
I passed the Montana bar exam in 2003. In contrast to the Virginia bar exam I had passed years earlier, this time I studied for it not in a classroom but in my living room. In 2004 I was approached by a young entrepreneur with an idea for a revolutionary tech company. Combining his tech vision and my business skills, we launched a company in Kalispell, Montana, that today is known as Vubiquity, the largest global provider of multi-platform video services. In fact, still today, some of the most cutting-edge video compression and distribution technologies in the world are being developed in Kalispell by a team of brilliant tech pioneers who work with colleagues and customers located all around the world.
By 2007 we had raised over $30 million for this company that we had launched in a coffee shop with wi-fi. It seemed as if every person in Montana was part of our success. From the brilliant advice we received (pre-sell to customers), to the contacts we made (so you need to talk with ESPN?), to our investors (angels, a Montana telco), public relations support (the local economic development folks helped us “buzz up”) and our amazing team (rock stars all), so many people and businesses in Montana supported us that some days we felt like a statewide effort rather than a start-up struggling to pay our tab at the coffee house. I have said this many times before, but I don’t believe we would have had nearly such swift success had we been located in a more populated community or state.
I am also an investor in Montana’s first angel fund. Over the past several years, we have reviewed all kinds of deals for Pacific Northwest companies. We have looked at and invested in businesses from low-tech to high-tech. Some have sputtered, others have been wonderfully successful. In addition to my own entrepreneurial experience, these companies remind me that we were right – technology makes it possible.
Entrepreneurship is crucial for our nation and for our individual communities. Why? Because new companies – those less than five years old – create most new jobs in the United States. We often hear that small businesses create jobs. But not all small businesses are new businesses. Young, entrepreneurial companies grow jobs far more dramatically than older small businesses. That’s where technology comes in.
One hundred years ago, a thriving community likely had fertile land, extractable resources or a railroad. Today, thriving communities of all sizes and locations need entrepreneurs. They need their dynamism, their vitality, their sense of risk and possibility. To get off the ground, entrepreneurs need money, brains and broadband.
Money is the lifeblood of entrepreneurship for obvious reasons. Brains (or intellectual capital, as the money-folks like to call it) combined with money allow an entrepreneur to go beyond her own area of expertise to build the teams that make great commercial innovation happen. Broadband makes all of this possible – these days from just about anywhere.
All broadband technologies are important, but wireless broadband is particularly important for entrepreneurs who frequently work out of their homes, from the road and in ways that require substantial mobility. Like earlier mobile technologies, 4G networks bring opportunity closer than ever to a budding entrepreneur’s front door but at much faster speeds. These lightning-fast networks rolling out across the country are transforming how we conduct our business and are empowering rural entrepreneurs.
That’s critical. Broadband connected businesses bring in approximately $300,000 more in annual median revenues than non-broadband adopting businesses ($400,000 annually vs. $100,000 annually), according to Connected Nation. Nearly one in three businesses earns revenue from online sales that account for $411.4 billion in annual revenues for U.S. companies. Sixty-five percent of home-based businesses use the Internet to stay in touch with customers, while 59% advertise or sell their goods online. Add to this the fact that 98% of U.S. counties had at least one high-tech business establishment in 2011 and it becomes pretty clear that mobile broadband is as vital a tool for entrepreneurs as money and brains.
Entrepreneurship could be described as the opposite of flying an airplane: hours of sheer terror punctuated by brief moments of boredom. It’s not for the faint of heart, especially in rural and remote locations. But it’s an important tool in our nation’s arsenal to create jobs and a robust 21st-century economy. The right recipe of money, brains and broadband can make it happen anywhere.
Diane Smith serves on the board of Mobile Future and was co-founder and chief executive officer of an Internet television and advanced media services company in Kalispell, Montana.