Skiing and being an entrepreneur are a lot alike. You know the pace could kill you, but you can’t resist the thrill and the risks are worth it. Duct tape can help.
Little JJ was too short to reach the rope tow, and we had to solve this problem. My baby brother was two-and-a-half years old, my sisters were four and seven, and I was age nine. We had skied down the bunny hill together at Marshall Ski Area outside of Missoula–my idea as the bossy eldest—and now the only way back up was an evil, barbed rope tow.
Have you ever used a rope tow? Your job is to grab the rope, which is moving at about 10 mph uphill on a 500-foot loop suspended between a motor and a giant pulley. You line up next to the rope as it whips by, standing in the frozen tracks left by zillions of (mostly) parallel skis that went before you. Your job is to survive going from a complete stop to letting the rope pull you, balanced on your skis, up the hill, at what feels like 50 mph. So you grab the rope.
A little context: It was 1976 and we Stones had just moved to Montana from Maryland, Texas, Missouri (twice) and Georgia. In Montana I found nirvana—this little family ski joint with its rickety wooden chair lift. I was shy of people, chunky for my age, a bookworm with a funny Southern-ish accent and zero friends in this latest new place. But the first time my father strapped skis on my feet, I flew–slippery things on my feet just worked for me. I disappeared into beginner tree skiing on gentle slopes, pretended I was racing the ski patrol (who would have ripped my ticket had they seen my attempts to imitate them) and literally sang and laughed out loud as I tore down the slopes.
I looked at the evil rope, and I looked at my tiny brother. All I could think was: Uh-oh.
I already knew that frozen green rope, myself a veteran of at least three Montana winters. It’s stronger than you are, and meaner too. It would tear any surface it touched for too long, from your gloves to your face. You had to grab it gently enough that you weren’t knocked onto your stomach and dragged but strongly enough that you didn’t tear your gloves down to your hands in just one turn because Mom said your gloves need to last the ski season. We weren’t really good at this yet, hence the three layers of duct-tape Dad had wrapped over each of our palms since last weekend’s damage.
JJ wasn’t tall enough to handle the speed. The hissing rope had an even chance of either dislocating one of his arms or dragging and hurting him. No good.
“JJ,” I ordered. (Bossy, like I said.) “Come stand in front of me here by the rope, and grab my knees.”
“ ‘Kay!” said JJ, skating over in front of me and crouching.
“WHAT?” said Nancy, age seven, and totally wise to the risks in my sudden strategies.
I braced my half-bent legs, and my little brother did the same, reaching behind to hold my knees. He was just out of diapers, and I was suddenly feeling like I needed one.
“You are CRAZY!” Nancy laughed. Little Anna just watched, mouth hanging open, as I snagged the angry rope, JJ hung on for dear life, and we rocketed up the hill. At the top, I looked back and saw my sisters had pulled off the same maneuver.
Skiing and being an entrepreneur are a lot alike. Like skiing, you know the pace could kill you, but you’re addicted to the sheer risk—even though people tell you you’re nuts to try. For me, the lure of untapped market opportunity is irresistible, like untracked powder. I knew I’d arrived as an entrepreneur when people stopped calling me “crazy” and started calling me “visionary.”
“Crazy” is what colleagues called me in 1997 when I left CNN for the internet. I didn’t care – I was hooked on my computer and the creaky, loud modem that delivered headlines and conversations when I wanted them, instead of waiting for the six o’clock news or talking to friends’ answering machines. So I left my first career, journalism, and became a California entrepreneur.
Without my Montana upbringing, I don’t think I would have gone for it in Silicon Valley. As I told my hometown paper, The Missoulian, my definition of Western values is the ability to think independently and to create something from wide, open spaces – while being accountable to a community where people know your name. For me, as a media strategist and storyteller, the world’s best user laboratory was Paxson Elementary and Hellgate High schools, working at the Western Montana Fair and Southgate Mall, debating God with Mormon and Catholic friends (we were Protestant) and cruising the drag on weekend nights (um, sorry Mom and Dad).
Welcome to the last best place, Montana — where folks are entrepreneurial by default: If we want something in this gorgeous, remote state, we have to create it ourselves. That’s why, when Silicon Valley engineers told me female users would never embrace technology, or blog, and that women didn’t typically raise venture capital, this Montanan ignored their advice. I knew the kind of women I grew up around would fall in love with the efficiency and power of computers!
Tech machinery? No problem: Most women I knew growing up operated chainsaws, power tools and manual transmissions as handily as sewing machines – and I was just a town girl; women on ranches can build anything. Efficiency? Yes please: Montana women lean in and pull everyone else along with us, holding jobs and raising kids and creating the fabric of our societies, from church socials to public policy to local performance arts. An internet economy? Bring it: The neighborhood moms who helped raise me could stretch a $10 bill for days with help from coupons, or a side hustle such as Mary Kay or Amway, and always find a Band-Aid, a cup of sugar or a stern word when you needed it most.
If you told my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Lizotte, or even my government teacher, Ms. Copley, that this sarcastic, half-hearted student with big hair would create a media startup that paid women to write, they would have spilled their coffee on your face. But that’s what happened. From 2005-2014, I was CEO and co-founder of BlogHer Inc., where I grew an idea for a grassroots conference into a start-up reaching 100+ million women a month, with $30 million in annual revenues and a proprietary technology platform for engaging social media audiences. We paid women to tell their stories and share their photographs about everything from parenting to politics, while BlogHer marketed their work and split advertising and marketing fees with these creators. In 2014, I sold BlogHer to SheKnows Media, creating the #1 women’s lifestyle digital media company in the United States.
Since nine out of ten start-ups fail, I’m happy with my first at-bat as a CEO. My proudest accomplishment is the $36+ million BlogHer Inc. paid out to 5,700 women bloggers and social influencers from 2009-2013 for work-for-hire and advertising revenue shares. Plenty of our contributors were rural women. And all of our checks mattered: When we asked how women used BlogHer income, they reported investing it back into their own growing businesses, as well as paying mortgages, rents, and bills for groceries, medical care and credit cards.
Montana, with its vast beauty, dangerous elements, and history of human accomplishment and suffering, schooled me. I learned what motivates people, what it means to be part of and responsible for the welfare of a community, even when the weather, the economy or life goes south. And make no mistake – from the first clash of white settlers with Native or First Americans, Montana’s survivors have been lean, mean and innovative. That’s why our growing economy is such a triumph, the result of the independent thinking and work ethic that absolutely characterizes Montanans.
You may have read of the wealth and jobs created by Bozeman’s RightNow Technologies, acquired by Oracle for $1 billion, and S&K Technologies, a family of five subsidiary companies owned by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. But now there’s a whole new crop of entrepreneurs: You are reading Mamalode, which I consider to be America’s best parenting magazine, published out of Missoula. I hope you also will try out Red Ants Pants LLC, work wear for women, just one of our growing number of Montana-made fashion companies. Founder Sarah Calhoun’s inspiration, the Red Ants Pants Foundation, hosts a music festival that now brings 15,000+ people and about $3 million to the state!
You’re invited to join us, and I hope you seriously consider it. Fortunately for permanent and seasonal residents of our beautiful state, the internet has no borders, and our cost of living here is lower, even though, as you’ll see, our standard of living is so much higher. What’s even more exciting is that you can get the independent-thinking work ethic here for a much smaller cost of employee acquisition and cost of doing business.
With a season pass and a little duct tape, who knows what you’ll be inspired to accomplish?