Going your own way
After the bursting of the Internet bubble, widespread corporate downsizing, and the exporting of jobs overseas, it is no surprise that many Americans are looking in the same place for job security: the mirror. Entrepreneurialism is on the rise throughout the nation, as workers shed their dependence on a steady paycheck in favor of a business of their own.
The surge is being seen in some perhaps unlikely places, such as Idaho. This sparsely populated western state is waging a campaign to attract the entrepreneurial spirit from both inside and outside its borders. With a total population of just 1.4 million, Idaho added 18,900 jobs from 2002 to 2004, placing it in the top 10 states for job growth per capita. Small businesses are fueling that growth, and the state was recently named sixth in the nation for the creation of new companies per capita by the Center for Economic Development.
"I think Idaho offers a compelling combination of quality of life and business opportunities," says Jefferson Jewell, who started a software consulting firm called Blackfin in Boise in 2000. The company, with 23 employees, doubled in size last year and expects to double again this year, mostly through software engineering positions with starting salaries ranging from $35,000 up to $70,000.
There is plenty of regional talent to be tapped, although Blackfin also recruits from out of state. Buoyed by the presence of Micron Technology and a division of Hewlett-Packard in the Boise area, the science and technology industry is the state's largest sector, providing 70 percent of its exports.
But dig a little deeper into the fabric of Idaho's economy and you'll find entrepreneurs in a wide range of industries. The headquarters of supermarket chain Albertson's outside Boise has spawned a niche industry of food brokers and distributors. The Idaho National Laboratory in southeastern Idaho employs more than 8,000 scientists and engineers and acts as a magnet for other Idaho small businesses.
Easy access. And still others are creating a niche of their own. Lisa Marie, 41, is catering to the health-conscious consumer with a company she launched in 2003. Based in the town of Eagle, SunnRooibos is a natural, caffeine-free tea made from a plant imported from South Africa. Marie was turned on to the beneficial drink while establishing an effort to promote nutrition for seniors. She credits her fellow Idahoans for much of her success. The tea is sold in select stores, including Albertson's, and distributed to institutions in the region, such as Micron. Marie says doing business in a small state means easier access to the right people. "If you've done good things in the past, people remember that," she says.
As for quality of life, the abundance of ski slopes and biking trails beckons outdoors types, while a late sunset allows for postwork play. A low crime rate, good schools, and a laid-back lifestyle add to the appeal. Jason Crawforth, founder of Treetop Tech, a software and consulting firm and Idaho's fastest-growing company, says he is able to retain employees at a much higher rate than his Silicon Valley competitors. "It's not a hard grind here," he says, adding that he has lost only four employees since his company started in 1997. It employs 110.
The good living does come at a price. Recruiting out-of-staters can be tough when applicants learn their salary would be cut significantly--a difficult hurdle to overcome even when the cost of living is considered. Idaho's average annual income is about 25 percent lower than the national average ($28,163 vs. $36,764).
But Idaho has its share of entrepreneurial successes. Overlooking the entire city of Boise is a mansion that belonged to french fry king J.R. Simplot, now 96, who dropped out of school at 14 to start a potato business. His company provides the spuds for McDonald's and others, and his fortune is worth $2.5 billion. Says James Hogge, director of the Idaho Small Business Development Center, "J.R. Simplot set an example we have to follow." -Megan Barnett
This story appears in the March 21, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.