RightNow Reach

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Before its acquisition by global tech giant Oracle in late 2011, RightNow Technologies employed roughly 500 workers spread out among its Bozeman offices.

At the time, the customer service software company, founded by tech mogul and current U.S. House candidate Greg Gianforte, was the city’s largest private employer and only publicly traded company, generating roughly $185 million in annual revenue.

Following the $1.5 billion sale, many of those 500 employees kept their jobs under the Oracle umbrella. Others, however, chose to strike out on their own.

Since 2011, former RightNow employees have helped form at least 15 startups in and around Bozeman, from a small hat making operation to a nationally recognized software company.

While by no means the first tech company in the Gallatin Valley, business leaders look back on the splintering of RightNow as a pivotal moment for an area that has recently emerged as a national hotbed for tech and entrepreneurship, describing the sale as a “cash bomb” and the “lightning strike that started life from the primordial soup.”

“I would have never arrived in Bozeman if it hadn’t been for RightNow,” said Mike Myer in a phone interview last week.

The seventh person in the door at RightNow, Myer worked as the company’s CTO before leaving shortly after its acquisition to work with New York City-based tech startup Dataminr. In October 2015, Myer formed Quiq — formerly Centricient — a customer service messaging platform that has since grown to employ 28 workers in its downtown Bozeman office.

“Neither one of those would be here if I hadn’t come to Montana,” he said.

A recent report released by the Montana High Tech Business Alliance — for which Gianforte serves as board chair — on the “entrepreneurial ecosystems” of Missoula and Bozeman further emphasized the importance of RightNow as an industry catalyst.

“The acquisition was not the end of the entrepreneurial activities. Former RightNow Technologies employees started at least 15 new companies in the 2010s — not only in related sectors, such as internet, IT service, software and network security, but also in other sectors such as marketing consulting, consumer electronics, and package delivery. Some of these companies now employ dozens to a hundred employees,” the report reads.

“You cannot underestimate the impact of that. Certainly the landscape in Bozeman in terms of high tech is different,” said Christina Henderson, executive director of the High Tech Alliance. “It showed Montana and on a national level what’s possible here. Prior to that sale, people didn’t believe you could scale a global tech company in Montana.”

There certainly had been success stories before RightNow. Chris Nelson founded multinational risk analysis company Zoot Enterprises in 1990. The business, headquartered in Four Corners, employs more than 250 people across several countries.

But RightNow’s large price tag helped grab the tech world’s attention, said Les Craig, program director of the Blackstone LaunchPad, Montana State University’s business incubator.

“What RightNow has done is it has created a very overt sense that it can be done,” Craig said. “Now I’m getting to the point where when I meet someone who's doing something successful in tech in Bozeman, I’m curious about where the RightNow connections is.”

While the sale helped kickstart the local startup scene, there have been drawbacks. Unlike similar examples of company fracturing in places like Silicon Valley, the Oracle purchase did not inject large amounts of capital into the local ecosystem, Craig said.

“The one unfortunate thing, if you look at multiple iterations of successful unicorns in Silicon Valley, the senior leadership pour capital back into the (ecosystem). And that’s the one thing that hasn’t really happened from RightNow, and I’m not sure why,” he said. “We’re still a little undercapitalized, but the good news is we have the confidence.”

But in some ways the sale did act as a shot in the arm for regional capital investment. Having business leaders, like those former RightNow employees, with proven track records of success makes it easier to both attract and distribute funding, said Will Price, founder of local venture capital firm Next Frontier Capital.

“There’s this creative destruction. As companies rise and fall, the alumni go on and take their experiences and spawn other companies,” Price said. “That growth process is vital.”

And the impact of RightNow goes beyond its former employees. Several executives cited the arrival to Bozeman of credit rating and software analytics company FICO as a prime example of the more intangible effects of a large company like RightNow. Both FICO CEO Will Lansing and executive vice president for sales, marketing and services Wayne Huyard previously held positions at RightNow.

It’s easy to forget, however, that a key ingredient in success of the “RightNow effect” is the area itself, Meyer said.

“The RightNow presence has generated a lot of tech interest, but it’s also the fact that we’re located in a place (like this),” he said. “RightNow was the seed that is growing in fertile opportunity.”

Moreover, it’s often the people, rather than the company name, that make the difference between successful growth and deflating stagnation, added Kregg Aytes, dean of MSU’s Jake Jabs College of Business & Entrepreneurship.

“They’re to some degree driven by necessity because they want to stay here. They want to stay here so they find ways to do that,” he said. “Necessity is the mother of invention in this state.”

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Kendall can be reached at lkendall@dailychronicle.com. Kendall is on Twitter at @lewdak

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