John O’Donnell is the founder and Executive Director of TechRanch, an absolutely terrific incubator in Bozeman, Montana whose purpose is to help tech entrepreneurs grow their businesses faster, more efficiently and with less investment capital than they could otherwise. TechRanch has developed expertise in bootstrapping, recruiting talent in rural markets, raising capital outside of the major geographic areas of finance, and developing near term strategic plans aimed at getting a company to cash flow positive as soon as possible. We have learned where companies need to proceed slowly and methodically and where they can run fast. TechRanch was founded in 2000 by a group of Montana business leaders, and since that time has served over 60 start-up companies throughout Montana. Within a few years of founding, TechRanch was recognized in such publications as the Wall Street Journal and Forbes. I caught up with John at VCIR Fall in Park City and asked him a few questions:
How did TechRanch get started?
Montana State University and a few business leader across the state wanted to address the need to support Montana entrepreneurs in the knowledge based economy.
How did you get involved?
After 12 years in Seattle my wife and I wanted to try something new. Her extended family are ranchers in Montana so we had fallen in love with the area and the idea of small university town seemed like a great place to raise our kids and start the next phase of our life. When i showed up the leaders behind TechRanch asked if I would consider starting it and get it off the ground…..hard to believe that was ten years ago!
So many incubators from the late 90’s failed. How has TechRanch managed to succeed for so long?
First off we do not consider TechRanch as an incubator. Senator Baucus refers to us as a SWOT team for entrepreneurs across the state in the technology sector. The biggest arrow in our quiver is the Bozeman program with includes an incubator. We like that perspective. Another way we look at ourselves is like that of a fundless sponor, again very different than an incubator. We’ve done well for many reasons including strong financial support, deep partnerships with the right institutions and great people.
Who funds TechRanch?
What do companies get out of being part of the program?
Hard nose council from Gary, access to valuable people and resources, knowledge and being connected to a very strong network.
How long do they stay at TechRanch?
Most clients never stay at TechRanch. In house clients stay 1-2 years.
Does TechRanch do anything else in the community besides incubate companies?
We put together many educational and networking events for people thinking abut starting a company.
What type of companies do you consider?
Anyone that could create the high skilled jobs our stakeholders want to see in Montana. We also want long-term orientation. We would like to see more LigoCytes and RightNow Technologies.
Tell me about a couple of successful graduates.
Elk River Systems does Custom Ticket Printing. They have a small operation in a very small town that employees 5-10 people and another 10 or so here in Bozeman. Bacterin is another good story. One guy walked into my office six years ago and now employees 40 people in a very cool market with great technology from MSU.
What are the biggest challenges that startups face in Montana?
Funding. I am the only full-time resident VC with institutional capital.
What’s in the future for TechRanch?
We willl likely change our model as market conditions change. Not sure how that will evolve but we will still be a hub for entrepreurs, investors, service providers, advisors and people who want to be a part of the our ecosystem.
Who’s in your dream foursome?
Easy, that would would be my dad, my son Jack (both are golf nuts), and Fred Couples (my all-time favorite pro).