Eighteen years ago, my brother and I headed north on a planned road trip from our home in Salt Lake City, Utah, to Calgary, Alberta. I was 19, my brother was 17, and we figured that if at least one of us could legally drink it would be a pretty good weekend.
Fifteen miles outside of Helena, Montana, our plans changed. Around 2:00 in the morning, I woke to what sounded like an explosion. My brother was driving my brand-new Honda Civic when a truck on the other side of Interstate 15 hit a very large dog. A portion of that dog flew across the freeway, hitting and wrecking my car. Showing that Montanans can have a dry sense of humor, upon arriving on scene to treat my brother's broken ribs, the first thing the EMT said was, "Well, the dog is dead."
We spent the next week at the Helena Budget Inn while my car was being repaired.
We went and saw Coyote Ugly.
I got a tattoo on my forearm.
After that, we more or less ran out of things to do.
Though it is the state capital, Helena had about 25,000 residents back when my brother and I spent a week there. Things have changed over the past twenty years. Last week my wife (the director of OPO Startups, a nationally recognized coworking space) and I were asked to visit Helena to see their startup scene and give our insight.
There is a new millennial-friendly mixed-use development with a high-end steakhouse, movie theater, and hotel. And yes, even a town of 30,000 located more than 500 miles from the closest major metropolitan areas (Salt Lake and Seattle) has an entrepreneurial ecosystem. In fact, in some ways Helena has a startup scene larger cities would be jealous of. A few years ago, SoFi, the online student loan servicer that also provides personal loans and mortgages, contracted with two local programmers to help build their platform.
One of those programmers, David Thompson, is a graduate of the University of Montana-Western, Montana Tech, and the University of Montana. David had no interest in moving to the Bay Area, and successfully convinced SoFi to locate a substantial portion of its engineering team in Helena. Today SoFi is multi-billion-dollar startup, and David is the VP of Engineering, managing more than 100 programmers and engineers out of two locations in Helena.
Of course, one company doesn't constitute a whole startup scene. However, some of those engineers are likely to get their side hustle on, creating more startups and attracting even more engineering and technical talent to the community. The city already has two small coworking spaces, The Shop and Side Car. Montana is becoming a hub of bitcoin mining, and I had the chance to view my first bitcoin mining operation at The Shop.
For the last several decades--and especially over the last few years--we've heard a lot about the death of small towns and middle America. However, the success of SoFi and the emerging startup scene in Helena shows the potential for tech companies to be agents of economic revitalization in small towns and cities outside of the coasts. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone wants to live in New York or San Francisco. Some people truly prefer Helena, Montana, to Manhattan or San Jose.
I know I do.
And so do several other smart engineers, entrepreneurs, freelancers, and founders who are working to make Helena, Montana, a destination for tech talent.