When Will Price ’99 departed his fast-paced life amid expanding tech startups in the Bay Area for the far-flung regions of the Rocky Mountains he was hardly alone.
“My intention in going to Montana was more driven by lifestyle choices,” says Price of his 2014 move to Bozeman, Montana. “I wanted to live close to mountains and rivers and in a public university town. You know, get out of the big city environment.”
What he didn’t initially expect was to find so many other people with his skills or experience making the same life choice. “But when I got here,” he says, “I found that Bozeman and Missoula are very much like Boulder or Portland, or Austin maybe 20 years ago, where they're becoming havens for really intelligent, really gifted people across all age spectrums who want access to the outdoors, public land, quality public education, universities, clean air and water, and less traffic.”
Price quickly became intrigued by the disconnect between Rocky Mountain university towns that were home to intelligent people with entrepreneurial skills and the seed capital needed to fuel economic growth in such communities. He theorized that while there was certainly a demand for venture capital, companies located outside of the home geography of VC firms don’t benefit from being evaluated based on qualitative characteristics, such as the strength of the founding team or their capabilities. Instead, capital is conditioned on a level of financial metrics and achievements that allow investors to make quantitative evaluations from afar. The problem is these quantitative metrics—such as minimum amount of revenue, customer acquisition costs and a well-defined lifetime value churn rate—are generally expected of more advanced companies, not startups.
“This creates a catch-22 for entrepreneurs located outside of the major markets,” he explains. “How do you produce a company that has those metrics if you don't have access to money?”
This paradox led Price to found Next Frontier Capital, a venture capital firm that focuses on investing in technology companies located in Montana and the Rocky Mountains. Since its inception in 2015, the firm has seen $186 million invested in its portfolio. In contrast, the region’s companies received less than half that amount in total between 1995 and 2015. And Price believes that these regions will continue to grow.
“Anecdotally, I think people are looking to live lives that are more balanced and fulfilled,” says Price. “When you take away 10 hours of commuting from a person's week, you allow them to then fill that time with more satisfying and meaningful activities. So places like Bozeman are beneficiaries of people coming here with that desire and with the energy to go after it and make that life happen.”
Another consequence of this form of migration is a more collaborative business landscape. Price explains that since most firms targeting the Rocky Mountains are relatively small compared to their coastal counterparts, they are more inclined to work together.
“There remains a need for firms to cooperate, to syndicate together. So that leads to a really natural referral process where we'll invite a firm into our deal, and then we'll get into one of their deals. It's not a dynamic where anyone is trying to take every last dollar for themselves.”
Price acknowledges that there will be challenges in charting this new frontier for venture capital. Unintended consequences could include urban sprawl and income inequality affecting these relatively tight-knit communities, but he believes the opportunities are more apparent and might help address these concerns.
“When people are more satisfied with life they feel a responsibility to make their community a better place,” he says, adding that individuals working in the traditional major markets can still take part in helping to spread economic growth to new regions. “The major markets are fundamentally necessary because there's not enough capital locally, so there's a bridge role that people can play between smaller markets to the major markets. And ultimately, it's bridging these two worlds that we need to see more people working on.”