Small Cities and Big Spaces are Big for Small Biz

Forbes Small Biz Small Cities 2009

Is Billings, Montana, the best small city to launch a new business?  Forbes thinks so.  Following up on a discussion about places rankings a couple weeks ago, I noticed a blurb about the Forbes Small Business magazine rankings in the November issue.

Oklahoma City was chosen as the best large metropolitan area for small business startups in 2009.  Huntsville, Alabama, got the nod for “Top Mid Places”

I’ve been to Billings.  It’s OK.  Billings seems to me like it wants to be Fargo, North Dakota, when it grows up.  Notice that Fargo, east a few hours on I-94 where I grew up, is on the list, too.  Sioux Falls, South Dakota, just down I-29 from Fargo and the closest metro to my front door, is on the list as well.  Bismarck and Rapid City are right there in the middle, Grand Forks and Missoula on either end.

So why Billings?

Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, Kevin Toohill yearned to experience the wide-open vistas of the western U.S. Today, the avid outdoorsman lives with his family in Billings, Mont., where he runs Beartooth Mapping, a firm that sells customized topographic maps and other geographic products. Its Web site,, allows consumers to customize maps by choosing the location, center, area, size, print finish and numerous other specifications. The company grosses between $2 million and $3 million annually.

The vast majority of MyTopo’s customers live in more populous states such as California, Michigan, New York and Texas. So why stay in Montana? One word: lifestyle.

“If big mountains and recreational activities are what you like, Billings is your place,” explains Toohill, 35. “We are two hours from Yellowstone National Park. There’s the best fly-fishing in the country. We’ve got horseback riding trails and white-water rafting. That’s what keeps us here.”

I can buy that.  It really describes Bozeman better, a short drive west on I-90, but not yet at that 50,000 population level to be recognized as an official US Office of Management and Budget Metropolitan Statistical Area.  But I do understand the attraction.

I love the Rocky Mountains.  At this particular point in my life I haven’t figured out how to “eat the scenery” as they say about finding a way to pay your own way Out West.  Or should I say I haven’t been willing to pay the price for the ways I know to do what I want to do.  Some folks I know who have been able to “eat the scenery” do it by going solo, or bringing a job with them—the classic “Lone Eagle” making their own way in the wired world.

A Forbes Key 3 for Places Rated

As I said in my last places-ranked post, Top 10 lists reveal as much about methodology as method, about assumptions as assets.

Billings’s business climate is best described as temperate. Unemployment is rising but remains well below the national average. The Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank, ranks Montana’s tax climate as the sixth most favorable in the country. And the national real estate bubble skipped Billings — today Montana’s foreclosure rate is the fourth lowest in the country.

Forbes lists an FAQ for methodology they used working with Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and an economist at UC-Santa Cruz to manage the data.  But I see in this narrative the Forbes Key 3:  Low unemployment, Low taxes, and Affordable housing. These jibe with Forbes’ America’s Best Cheap Cities in that last set of lists.  College towns also get a bump by weighing educational attainment as a sort of proxy: “Places with lots of young, highly educated residents tend to be college towns, and having a university nearby offers ancillary benefits for local businesses, such as training opportunities, research labs, and a built-in consumer base.”

There are alot of places that would get good marks for this Forbes Key 3.  It seems that an element comes into play—for small cities anyway—that Delore Zimmerman mentioned in his Blandin Webinar on the Future of Heartland America.  Certain nodes are experiencing Amenities-driven (e.g. Montana) and Technology-driven (Fargo, Sioux Falls) growth.  Zimmerman notices several potential forces for renewal in mid-America, including Baby Boomers heading for smaller towns, the housing crunch, and technological opportunities.   The places that thrive have all the good things, plus some more good things.

Amenities and technology are tie-breakers to which community leaders should pay attention.


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