If Wyoming could see the world through inventor Bob Fuziak’s glasses, it would be one in which his fledgling company employs dozens across the state, making and distributing cool, video sunglasses.
An energetic, budding entrepreneur who works in a makeshift loft in Jackson’s industrial area, Fuziak’s small flip-out video camera is just the thing for his Teton County bros and gals who want to record their epic snowboard run, the monster cutthroat they just hooked, or the bruin they suddenly encounter on a mountain bike trail. Omni-Wearable glasses are distilled from years of brainstorming, consulting, patent filing, prototype constructing, and mentoring in the art of entrepreneurial focus and product birthing. The retractable, streamlined Go-Pro-like camera is set unobtrusively in the temple of the glass’ frame and flips out on a hinge to instantly record. The baseline concept’s potential is expansive — from heads-up military applications to journalists having a tool at hand for the decisive moment.
Fuziak’s vision — a Kickstarter campaign seeks funding for a refined prototype — may help chart a way off Wyoming’s rickety three-legged economic stool of energy, tourism and agriculture. In communities around the state, innovators like Fuziak, and other leaders, are assembling groups that seek ways to better what has otherwise been a constrained future.
Many would pick themselves up by their own bootstraps. Others seek public funding. This year, for example, the University of Wyoming’s John P. Ellbogen entrepreneurship contest drew a record number of entrants vying for a $15,000 prize.
Determining government’s role in entrepreneurship continues to be a difficult question for Wyoming’s business and political leaders. Gov. Matt Mead and Wyoming Senate President Eli Bebout (R, SD-26, Riverton) pushed through a bill in the 2017 legislative session appropriating $2.5 million to establish the Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming [ENDOW]. The measure was approved despite criticism that it simply creates another bureaucracy, may promote crony capitalism, and duplicates work done by the Wyoming Business Council.
On April 20, the governor named 25 residents to the ENDOW executive council, which seeks to advance and promote economic diversification. The state’s economic development agency, the Wyoming Business Council has tried to stimulate business in 23 counties and recently residents of Buffalo, Sheridan and Gillette have assembled the New Growth Alliance seeking an economic spark. In Jackson, Fuziak nurtures Omni-Wearable from a growing crucible called Silicon Couloir constructed by innovators and business leaders.
A stumble leading to a leap?
As Wyoming’s fossil-fuel economy stumbles, more residents appear to sense a need for a break from its boom-bust cycle. But the state’s No. 2 industry — tourism — won’t be the replacement, says Robert Godby, an associate professor at the University of Wyoming and director for the school’s Energy Economics & Public Policies Center.
“Jobs in the tourism sector typically are lower paying,” he says. “Hours are different – not standard —and for that reason expansion of that sector won’t replace job losses in the commodity industry where salaries are quite a bit higher.” Other tourism oddities include the industry’s seasonality and, frequently, the lack of skills or education required for employees.
Tourism doesn’t need the materials required for a coal mine or oil field — machinery and equipment. There’s little to none of the distribution infrastructure, like pipelines and rail transport, that commodities require.
“You just don’t have that kind of backward and forward supply chain that you have in commodity production or manufacturing,” Godby said. Plus, tourism is site-specific, usually requiring attractions that are unique — or at least markedly different from other places. As Wyoming residents look for alternatives, “we can’t turn the whole state into a resort,” he said.
Fuziak had his share of experience in the tourism and service industry. He worked his way through college running a pizza joint and managed the Snake River Brewery and Restaurant in Jackson for years. His original idea for glasses that could be used in a universe of ways was too bold, he discovered when he turned to a Jackson entrepreneurial nonprofit called Silicon Couloir.
Fuziak took Silicon’s startup intensive business development course for 10 weeks. It required 200 hours of class time and included post-program mentoring. Today the course costs $5,000. He learned to answer key questions and find a target audience. “Why would somebody want it?” he had to ask himself.
Instead of creating a heads-up visual system with myriad applications that would take on the world, Silicon taught him to focus. “Rather than trying to develop these smart glasses, I pivoted to this wearable pivoting docking camera system,” he said.
The shift put him in a familiar environment. Omni-Wearable will have a home in the outdoor sports and social media world where cameras thrive. It might be just the thing that his Teton County brosaphines want. Heads-up military targeting systems can come later. “This is like a stepping stone,” Fuziak said.
When she moved to Jackson in 2008 after a successful investing career on Wall Street, Liza Millet at first had a hard time finding like-minded people who wanted to talk about more than biking, skiing and boating. A graduate of Dartmouth and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, she found in 2010 a group that thought the community was primed for an entrepreneurial ecosystem.
“In order to live here and be happy, I had to be creative,” Millet said. “My mission in life is to help people find their abundance,” including by aiding others build businesses. “It’s fun for me.”
The nonprofit, the name of which marries the tech world with a gnarly ski run, (the most famous being Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s Corbet’s Couloir) was born. Today Silicon Couloir offers a variety of programs, in addition to the Startup Intensive, a partnership with Central Wyoming College. It hosts regular “chance meetings” networking events, a leadership intensive course (also with CWC), a business micro-intensive course (with Spark JH, a co-work space), and Pitch Day. It has a stable of certified Wyoming-based “angel” investors, the only such group in the state she knows of.
Fifty to 80 people flock to the chance meetings. For a business climate to thrive, “there has to be an opportunity to run into people regularly,” she said. Pitch Day, when CEOs describe their ideas, draws an audience of 250 to 300. Twelve companies a year present to the angel investors.
Jeremy Tofte worked in the restaurant and service industry for decades running Thai Me Up, a popular downtown Jackson restaurant where he began to brew beer 20 gallons at a time. He established Melvin Brewing and with business partner Will Morrow began to look for ways to expand. “We just needed a meeting with potential investors,” he said.
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Silicon Couloir invited him to meet about 15 prospects from the angel group and he made his pitch with a beer tasting session. “It was pretty good,” Tofte said. “Except none of them knew anything about beer.”
Turns out that didn’t matter. “One person came up afterward, gave me his business card and said, ‘call me,’” Tofte said. “He said he looks at about 300 deals a year and chooses one.”
The business card belonged to Gregory Wright, a “global investment banker for more than 30 years with [a] track record of winning and executing financing and advisory transactions at bulge bracket and boutique banks across geographies, sectors, products, and clients,” according to his LinkedIn profile.
“Without Silicon Couloir we would not have had access to him,” Tofte said. Wright is now on Melvin’s board of directors. The company — irreverently named after a “front wedgie” — achieved its five-year goal to create 30 jobs in 15 months. It is, Tofte says, “one of the fastest growing breweries in American history.”
Megan Grassell was 17 when she helped her younger sister shop for her first bra. The 13-year-old tried on “a leopard push-up bra that was as empty and as fake as the ad on the wall beside her,” Grassell recalls in the foundation story for her own clothing company. She started Yellowberry to make a more appropriate garment for tweens, frustrated by underwear that sought to make girls look more grown-up than they are.
Within about a year Grassell went in front of the audience during Silicon Couloir’s Pitch Day in 2014, telling her story. The nonprofit was “really important for Yellowberry,” she said and Pitch Day was “how I raised a seed round of funding.”
She found the fabric she wanted and, with help from her mother, had 400 bras made. “I launched my websites and sold like three,” she said. Then schoolmate Jackson Tisi made a video and she launched a Kickstarter campaign, exceeding her goal.
“In a couple of days, it kind of went viral,” she said. “I was completely sold out. Thoughts of attending college have faded. Today she runs the business from New York for international customers. Her Wilson distribution center is going to be moved. “We’re growing and we have a lot of very happy customers all over,” she said, including in English-speaking countries Canada, Australia, and the U.K.
Jackson’s unique environment
Silicon’s co-founder Millet met her collaborators at a future-looking forum sponsored by the Charture Institute, a nonprofit economic think-tank run by Jackson business consultant Jonathan Schechter. About two weeks ago at 9:30 p.m. on a Sunday, Schechter landed at the Jackson Hole airport after a flight from New York City where he had been on vacation. At the Jackson airport, he noticed two gentlemen in casual business attire who had been on both legs of his flight from the East Coast. This would have been unremarkable during ski or summer season. But in late April when they sat down at a table across from him at a downtown pub an hour after landing, Schechter couldn’t help but introduce himself and ask.
They were engineers arriving for a meeting with a Jackson tech firm. This was happening during mud season, when hotels are normally empty, air fares are cheaper and some tourist-related businesses shut their doors. The visitors were part of a new dynamic in the valley that doesn’t rely on outdoor guides or coal-tax revenues.
Tech companies and innovation frequently don’t spring from communities that resemble recirculating eddies, however; they require infusion and diversity from the outside, UW’s Godby said. The places that have such enabling traits tend to be large themselves, or accessible satellites to larger populations.
“Jackson itself is a satellite community,” Godby said, “a satellite to the entire world. They’re coming to see what Jackson has. Jackson is an island to itself, but it still has a large population because of the flow-through.”
“I think it’s absolutely natural and necessary to have groups like [Silicon Couloir],” he said, groups that spin a local web. But efforts must be tailored.
“Jackson couldn’t be more different from Gillette, Cheyenne, Laramie, Casper,” he said. “There can’t be a single strategy for the entire state. This is one of the problems in Wyoming — we tend to generalize.
“What we have to do is come up with a way of creating opportunities for economic development that allow communities to build [on] their local strengths,” Godby said. “In a particular place, identify what is it your community has that gives it a comparative advantage over other communities.”
There’s no handbook. Yellowberry’s Grassell sought a set of instructions, but found that creating an original business required answering unique questions. “There’s not one way of doing it,” she said.
Despite the advantage she had in Jackson Hole’s crucible of filmmaking friends and world-class business mentors, “I think this could have happened anywhere,” Grassell said. What her idea needed was nurturing and an environment where she could talk to and brainstorm with others. “It absolutely could have happened in Pinedale,” she said, the community where she grew up before moving to Jackson in eighth grade.
If Yellowberry wasn’t necessarily a product of Jackson, it and other dreamers’ products are not only customer worthy, they pivot on some additional quality that’s sometimes intangible.
Yellowberry’s tween bras for developing women occupy a niche but come with a message of empowerment. Yellowberry seeks to promote a purposeful confidence among girls, a sensibility that springs from a deep well. Grassell lost a younger sister, Caroline, when Caroline was age five. “It wasn’t until years after she died that I really understood her most meaningful mantras,” Grassel wrote about some of her sister’s simple sayings. “They are now the backbones of my company Yellowberry.”
Making a tween bra was one thing, selling it another. “It was really the power of the story,” Grassell said.
In Tofte’s case, his plan is to shoot for big markets in the West, where “the consumer is well-versed in the beer culture.” Although he has a local following, that’s not where his attention is focused. “We just go straight to Seattle, Portland, Denver, Los Angeles,” he said.
In Fuziak’s case, he believes his flip-out is a soft introduction to a new technology. Camera glasses that don’t flip out, ones that may be recording without others knowing, may freak people out. It’s what he calls the “creep factor,” something Omni-Wearable resolves. “When the camera flips forward, it turns on the certainty factor,” he said, “the non-creeper factor.”
Silicon spreads its message
”We’ve been asked to tell the Silicon Couloir story to other mountain towns and we’ve done that and will continue to do so,” Millet said. Along the way, Silicon has to address growth, a touchy subject in sensitive environmental areas like Jackson Hole. “It’s the question we need to ask ourselves as a community,” said Scott Fitzgerald, Silicon’s executive director. “I don’t feel our community has solidified that vision — how much growth we want and where that growth goes.”
An entrepreneurial environment doesn’t have to sprawl or add, Millet suggested.
Jackson promotes tourism, as everybody knows. That supports the new hotel in town, and high-priced apartments and homes. “A hotel, with real estate [resident suites] has a big footprint as well as a lot of low-wage workers,” she said.
Instead of Jackson spending millions of dollars on a tourism ad campaign, Millet asked, what if the community and environment allowed the hotel to become an urban residence, where people lived, made substantial income in upscale jobs, and spread their wealth?
In such a scene residents would go to an office that had “six guys in a room with a phone and computer,” she said. ”All of them can be making $100,000 — the footprint in our community can be fairly low but the community impact can be fairly high.” Such a change is “not really about growth,” she said, “it’s a shift.”
Silicon is trying to find the metrics to measure such potential shifts. What portion of the workforce is in service, what portion is in other, potentially more fulfilling jobs, group members want to know.
Dreaming, scheming ski bums and others might be careful what they wish for. Grassell thought, she’d “hire some people,” after getting Yellowberry running, then go to Middlebury College, where she had been accepted. “That’s not how life works,” she said.
Tofte, too, is consumed. He was not a fixture on Teton Pass this winter with the powder skiers and snowboarders. “I only got in like 20 days this year,” he said. “I pretty much missed the entire winter.”
Jackson isn’t really part of Wyoming. It’s too forward-thinking.