The isolation of living in a small town in the mountainous northwest corner of the least populous state in the Union could be deemed a deterrent to new business, but many Jackson entrepreneurs seem to see it as just the opposite. Within the isolation they find motivation and inspiration.
Most successful business people don’t head off into the wilderness to start a new venture. Yet in Jackson, Wyoming, it is a familiar story: people who moved here for the climbing, skiing, and adrenaline eventually put down roots and want to contribute to the community in a myriad of ways. And in a place like Jackson Hole, that means they have to create their own economic success stories.
Jackson boasts successful local businesses of nearly every stripe. It’s also a breeding ground for non-profit organizations, like 1% for the Tetons, or upcoming Vertical Harvest: a vertical greenhouse to supply fresh produce in this inhospitable climate and employ special needs members of the community.
Much of the valley’s entrepreneurial spirit comes from necessity. Jackson is isolated. The nearest major cities are five (Salt Lake) and nine (Denver) hour drives away. That fosters lots of opportunities for local business startups.
And no one has taken better advantage of the climate than Stio founder Steve Sullivan (a.k.a. Sulli), whose first endeavor was the co-creation of the wildly successful outwear company Cloudveil. Sulli speculates that the very things that bring people here to play—the mountains and wilderness—often become the inspiration to work, as well.
“I think that the spirit of the mountains and the truly outdoor lifestyle are very conducive to independent businesses cropping up. I’m continually amazed by how vibrant the business community is here,” he says. “Maybe it is the long dark Wyoming winters, but Jacksonites tend to be very industrious. People are always working interesting projects here.“
Many local entrepreneurs weren’t planning to pursue the path of business ownership, but when opportunity and ideas knocked, they followed. Kate Schade, of Kate’s Real Food moved to Jackson Hole to ski powder. Shade worked in restaurants, ski shops, and on an organic local farm in summers, and lived ‘the dream,’ until the crew of friends pestering her to sell the little homemade energy bars she’d created became too much ignore. She created the ‘Tram Bar,’ and these days, her small business has passed half a million dollars in revenue.
It is a lot of work. Schade admits she never envisioned spending so much time behind a desk, running a successful company. But her enterprise provides a forum for advocating for her values through her work. “What really drives me to keep going is that I want to be able to help promote play, and sustainable organic agriculture, in a way that I would not be able to do otherwise,” she says.
Due to modern technology, businesses that otherwise would not be able to survive out in the middle of nowhere have the potential to export Jackson-esque values to other places, and see impressive success.
However, entrepreneurial drive doesn’t always have to be about exporting some of the unique values and character of Jackson to others. Sometimes, it is just about seeing a niche and filling a need for the community.
Teton Educational Services founder Nick Grenoble, a teacher, realized that the town lacked a quality tutoring company before launching his business. “I wanted our students to have the same advantages in education as students in bigger cities,” says Grenoble. “Plus, there’s such a wealth of human capital—so many highly educated, talented people move here for the lifestyle, but still want to give back.”
Jackson is very small; the entire Teton country population barely tops 20,000. Ski bums who tire of working in the tourism service industry often face a choice: move to a bigger city for more professional opportunity, or create their own opportunity at home. Choosing the latter is tough, but well worth it, say Jackson’s entrepreneurs.
“There’s a lot of ingenuity here, and I think a lot of it comes from such a positive outdoor-centric existence,” said Sulli. “We aren’t a culture tied to our computers. That frees up our minds up to think outside of the box, outside the bubble…and this freedom fuels imagination and creativity which, in turn, opens the door to life and business opportunities.”
It is this drive and determination to stay put in the Tetons that fuels the entrepreneurial scene in Jackson. These entrepreneurs in turn share the unique values of an outdoor-based lifestyle. Thanks to modern communications, businesses that shouldn’t be able to survive tucked up in the middle of nowhere can thrive, and inspire far beyond the valley of Jackson Hole.