Montana startups find mentors, new perspectives at Early Stage MT HyperAccelerator

Seven Montana companies participated in the Early Stage MT HyperAccelerator in Bozeman in July. Alosant, Cardsetter, Elation, Elebase, Sellout, Superior Traffic Services, and WebBuy spent one week with mentors and instructors at Montana State University’s Jabs Hall. Photos courtesy of Early Stage MT.

By Katy Spence

After seven years in the real estate data industry, Alosant co-founder Mike Swanson was ready for a change. He and his business partner, April LaMon, founded Alosant in Bozeman in 2017.

Alosant is a tech platform to help manage lifestyle and amenities around real estate communities. It uses artificial intelligence to help remove the “burden of choice” from folks looking to get involved in their communities but who may feel overwhelmed by the options.

As Alosant’s founders looked for ways to grow, the Early Stage MT competition seemed like a good place to start.

“I wanted to force myself to do something new,” Swanson said. “Part of it was to get out there and learn more about the tech ecosystem in Montana, and part of it was looking for funding.”

Alosant was named the runner-up in the Early Stage MT Bozeman regional competition on May 22 and became one of seven companies to participate in the week-long HyperAccelerator in July. The other participating companies were Cardsetter, Elation, Elebase, Sellout, Superior Traffic Services, and WebBuy.

For five days, Swanson and other company leaders met with investors and business experts in Montana State University’s Jabs Hall, courtesy of the university. As part of packed curriculum, CEOs worked on their pitches, planned exit strategies, honed their sales and marketing plans, and met with individual mentors to help guide them through each step of the process.

Without a background in marketing, Swanson said learning how to talk about his business to investors was one of his goals for the accelerator. His “Aha” moment came during a presentation from Josh Spitzer, COO & CFO of onX. Spitzer spoke to the entrepreneurs about telling their business’ story through pro forma statements, or using numbers to tell the story and how the business will achieve its goals.

“Telling a story via numbers really resonated with me,” Swanson said.

Swanson said another valuable part of the HyperAccelerator was the opportunity to connect with mentors several times each day.

Ken May, Founder of Cottonwood Ventures, was one of more than 30 mentors who worked with companies over the course of the accelerator. May has mentored burgeoning companies in the past, but he said this was his first experience in an accelerator. His background working with large corporations brought a different perspective to the small startups. May said he also gained a greater respect for small companies.

“I appreciate the nimbleness and sheer courage of those looking to start up their enterprise,” May said.

May said part of a mentor’s role is to bring a big-picture perspective to startups who may be overwhelmed with day-to-day details.

With a background in real estate, May asked specifically to work with Swanson, who he found to be grounded and open. May encouraged Swanson to rethink Alosant’s pricing model and sales approach.

May learned about the opportunity to mentor young companies through Frontier Angels Managing Director Pat LaPointe, with whom he’s been working for several years.

While other Montana accelerators have followed the more traditional months-long format, Early Stage MT’s week-long HyperAccelerator was the first of its kind in the state. LaPointe said the curriculum was based on a tried-and-true program from the Rockies Venture Club in Denver, who have been running this format a couple of times a year for the past three years. With their help, Early Stage MT adjusted the program for their specific needs.

LaPointe added that the week-long format allowed the entrepreneurs to gain valuable training and mentorship without forcing them to be away from their businesses for months at a time.

While this was Montana’s first HyperAccelerator, LaPointe said it will not be the last. If everything goes according to plan, the Early Stage MT competition will become an annual event and will continue to include the HyperAccelerator experience. LaPointe said there’s potential that more than one HyperAcclerator could be held each year to continue connecting Montana’s entrepreneurs with resources around the state.

More than 30 mentors worked with Early Stage MT companies to hone their pitches, plan exit strategies, and learn how to tell their company story more effectively.

 

“The HyperAccelerator is a way to start spreading the word about training and mentors in Montana,” LaPointe said. “Our goal is to provide a platform for existing Montana businesses to begin to play on a larger stage.”

In addition to providing training and mentorship, LaPointe said that the HyperAccelerator subverted assumptions some companies had going into the program.

“Several companies were skeptical coming in,” LaPointe said. “It surprised them the breadth and depth of training curriculum that was available, and it really forced them to rethink a lot of aspects about their business.”

Alosant’s Swanson said he was one of the skeptics. Having bootstrapped companies in the past, Swanson had always been hesitant to go down the investment path. The HyperAccelerator gave him a new perspective.

“There’s a perception when you’re going for funding that the investors take advantage of the situation,” Swanson said. “It’s really not the case. They bring value beyond money, and in the end, everyone’s goals are aligned.”

The final phase of the Early Stage MT competition will be a statewide showcase on September 22, where the seven companies will compete for an investment of $50,000.

For Swanson, the statewide event is a chance to demonstrate what he learned in the accelerator– how to hone in on the problem and tell his story effectively. More than that, it’s an opportunity for the greater community to see what diverse and interesting businesses are right here in Montana.

“People will be inspired by what entrepreneurs are doing in Montana,” Swanson said. “Here are seven solid companies really thinking outside the box.”

Originally from the east coast, Swanson said Bozeman and the great Montana tech ecosystem have welcomed him and his business partner, April LaMon. Having settled in Bozeman, Alosant is dedicated to growing in Montana.

“We really do want to put some roots here in Montana and hire people from Montana, or bring them here,” Swanson said.

The September 22 showcase will be held at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman from 9am – 5pm. Learn more and register to attend the showcase.


About the Author: Katy Spence is the Staff Writer and Digital Content Specialist for the Montana High Tech Business Alliance. She worked previously with the Missoula Current and Treesource, and has an Environmental Journalism Master’s Degree from the University of Montana.

About the Publisher: Launched in 2014, the Montana High Tech Business Alliance is an association of 350 high tech and manufacturing companies and affiliates creating high-paying jobs in Montana. For more information visit MTHighTech.org.

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