How One Tech Company Built A Successful Business In Missoula
In 2008, Michael FitzGerald was a Web developer in Missoula who didn’t like his job. He was also a writer with an MFA in fiction. But whenever he tried to send his stories out to literary journals, magazines and potential publishers he ran into problems.
“As a writer sending out work, it was just kind of a jumbled process," FitzGerald says. "Some places accepted email, some places had these expensive enterprise systems, some places had these kind of home-made hacked-up forms, some places only accepted mail. And I just thought it was such a crappy, disjointed process there had to be a better way.”
So FitzGerald and his friend, Bruce Tribbensee, another disgruntled Web developer, sat down to talk about starting their own business. That conversation launched Submittable, a Missoula-based company that now has more than 9,000 clients in 35 countries. Submittable employs 14 people. FitzGerald says it wasn’t easy getting here.
“The very first year we made $491 for the entire year," says FitzGerald. "And I have a wife and two kids, and my wife’s a screen writer. So it was very, very stressful and lean. And as founders you did everything. We built the product, we sold the product, we supported the product, did customer support. We answered support calls 24 hours a day."
A third partner, John Brownell, joined the business a few months in, and they are now growing at the rate of one new position each month and providing services to a long list of huge organizations.
“Customers include CBS, CBC, NPR and pretty much every English Department in the country," FitzGerald explains. "Submittable allows any organization to accept and review large files and data sets. Examples are producers accepting films, publishers accepting manuscripts, audio producers accepting radio pieces. Originally we were trying to solve a problem for myself as a writer: How did I get my manuscript in front of the right people. And we started by building something for me."
FitzGerald continues, "We built essentially an opportunity marketplace where all the publishers would be and all the writers could go. And after nine months of coding, we hadn’t talked with any of the actual publishers and when we went to talk to them within minutes it was obvious that we had built the wrong thing."
Their errors did bring some positivity though, FitzGerald says.
"During the demo, they really liked this component that would take a Word file and transcode it into a Web-friendly version of a Word file, so that they could read it in a browser or on their phone or on an iPad," he explains. "And then they could vote on it and annotate it. And we ripped out 90% of the functionality and we just sold that little widget—the ability to accept a file and then review it in an organization among the staff, share it, collaborate around it. And that piece took off.”
But why run a high-tech business from Montana? Wouldn’t it be easier to do business from Silicon Valley or New York City? According to FitzGerald, Montana’s people turned out to be the irresistible asset.
“We have a very educated population and we have very personable, nice people," FitzGerald says. "So we early on said, okay 50% of our product is customer support. And when was the last time you called a company and got an awesome, smart person who could fix your problem?"
"And so if you call somebody," he continues, "even if you’re only paying us $14 a month, you get a person, and you also—in my mind—get an awesome person. So we started figuring out what the benefits of doing it in Montana were and doubling down on that. Similarly, I guess the audience can’t see this, but in my mind we’re in a great space.”
Submittable’s work space is on the third floor of the Florence Building in downtown Missoula. Except for a few glass-walled offices, the 4,000 feet of space they occupy is wide open. Stand-up desks are scattered around at what looks like random intervals and angles. There’s a blue bike leaning against a chair sitting near FitzGerald’s desk, which stands in a wide alcove near the entrance.
“I can’t imagine a better office," he explains. "And it costs, literally—I know this—it costs 10% of what a square footage costs in San Francisco or New York. So I can get ten times the office space, in a majestic setting. I’m sitting on sales calls and looking out at the M, and it’s an easy place to do business.”
But it hasn’t always been easy for Michael FitzGerald and his partners to run an international high-tech business from Montana. Travel, for instance, has been challenging.
“Our last trip back to New York was a four-day trip that ended up taking eight days," FitzGerald says.
This was due to a string of canceled flights. And yet, Fitzgerald sees an upside in all that.
“On the other hand, since you can’t travel, it really forces you to create a scalable product that doesn’t need a traveling sales team,” he explains.
Perhaps Submittable’s success can be traced back to a sign that hangs on a wall just inside the front door of their office space. That sign reads: “Make something people want.”
In the process of making what FitzGerald wanted—an easier way to submit his writing to publishers—he and his partners created jobs for themselves, employment opportunities for others, and an exciting new high-tech business in downtown Missoula.