Quality of life in Montana is no longer a secret.
Quality of life in Montana is no longer a secret. (Paolo Marchesi)

Montana: Silicon Valley for Outdoor Gear

There's a reason all our favorite toys are now made out West

Quality of life in Montana is no longer a secret.
Jay Bennett

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When Adam Sklar decided to start Sklar Bikes, which makes custom handcrafted cyclocross and mountain rides, he briefly considered locating his company in Boulder, Colorado, or Austin, Texas. Then the Montana State University student thought, Why leave Bozeman?

“I went to school here mostly to go skiing,” says Sklar, 22. “But I loved being surrounded by people who are just as passionate about that as they are about their work.” 

That’s been happening a lot in Bozeman lately. “People who come to Montana State for that well-rounded outdoor experience don’t want to leave,” says Brit Fontenot, Bozeman’s director of economic development. The city has long been home to companies like Simms Fishing Products and Kletterwerks backpacks, but now young entrepreneurs are spread across the state, taking advantage of Montana’s blend of outdoor access, quality workforce of recent grads, and business-friendly regulations like easy permitting procedures and no sales tax. According to the Kauffman Index, which tracks business growth in the U.S., Montana had the highest rate of entrepreneurship of any state in both 2014 and 2015.

Much of the growth is in tech. After Oracle purchased Bozeman cloud-software company RightNow Technologies for $1.5 billion in 2012, former executives began funding ventures around the state. Most of the money has gone to technology startups—which continue to attract young workers from California and the East Coast.

“You can’t live here and not love the outdoors,” says Greg Gianforte, founder of RightNow. “One of our first interview questions was, ‘What outdoor sport do you enjoy?’ ” 

Those tech workers are buying into the outdoor lifestyle; today, Montana craftsmen are as common as Silicon Valley coders. Dan Brown and Barbara Pfannkuch started Meriwether of Montana in Whitefish, where they design camping enamelware. James Behring moved from Michigan to Missoula to found Behring Made knives. And Alex Buck launched BuckProducts in Bozeman, focusing on durable commuter packs.

“There is a sense of community with other gear companies,” says Buck. “Quality of life is more than just a perk here.”

From Outside Magazine, October 2015
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Lead Photo: Paolo Marchesi