When I tell people I live and work in Montana, sometimes I get puzzled expressions or even jokes. The skiers and fly fisherman understand. But some people ask: Are there phones there?
Yes, there are phones in Montana! Even broadband, and sometimes fiber. We have laptops, airports and universities, too, though they might be scattered between spectacular mountain scenery and two National Parks. When I'm not biking, skiing, or chasing kids, I spend the rest of my of my day like the rest of you: digitally communicating using collaborative tools, email and social media.
This raises some questions, such as -- has technology made telecommuting easier? And can you be productive telecommuting? The connected worker is a hot topic these days. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer last year banned telecommuting, even though she has trouble waking up for meetings. Maybe if she worked at home she would have more time to catch up on sleep.
And the debate took on new life today when a a new law went into effect in the United Kingdom. It gives every employee in the UK the right to work flexibly if they have been on the job for more than six months.
Nope, Not Watching TV
The issue has pitted heavyweights such as serial entrepreneur and Virgin founder Richard Branson and Bloomberg founder and ex-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg against each other. My message to telecommuters: Rise up and get it done. Richard Branson is right. You can work remotely from a tropical island, if you wanted.
The vision of telecommuting from the critics is of some lazy, introverted sloth watching cable TV. It's different for many of us (except when the World Cup is on).
The truth is that some of us just want to get more work done in a shorter amount of time, without being inconvenienced by a long commute, bureaucratic meetings or small talk by the water cooler. The proliferation of high-powered broadband and online communications tools make it that much easier.
I moved my family to Bozeman, which is a tech hub in Southwestern Montana filled with many people like me: Tech refugees from the taxing coasts or big-city metro areas.
We moved from metro New York City, where I lived and worked for a decade. Many of my urban sophisticate friends questioned my judgement. How will you work? Will you have access to a computer? Where do you buy bread? How will I find work. What about the theater?
There's Even Good Food
Here in Bozeman, the bread is fine -- in fact, there daily fresh-baked Ciabatta, if that's your thing. There's a half-dozen fine restaurants and cultural events too. My oldest daughter is a counselor at a nationally recognized theatre camp. I've learned that Middle America is a great place to start a business and raise a family. There is talent, sometimes at half the price you can find it on the coast. There's the quality of life, which gives you more time and perhaps a better frame of mind for working. For the disciplined, telecommuting is way more efficient and practical.
The reality is that when I lived in New York City, the daily grind was so taxing I mostly just wanted to put my kids to bed and go to sleep when I got home. We went to the theatre once or twice a year. And we still do -- when we visit our family on the East Coast. Now, after eliminating the 10 to 15 hours per week I burned on New Jersey Transit, I have more time to work and play. By eliminating major metro stresses like commuting and waiting in lines, you can create another two to three hours per day.
Clearly others are making the same choice. Gallatin County, Montana, for example, is one of the fastest growing counties in the country. The unemployment rate is 6 percent.
Greg Gianforte, the former founder and CEO of marketing automation company Right Now Technologies, liked it so much that he came here to start the company in 1999. Right Now grew like Montana wheat, strong and tall. In 2005 it went public. It grew to more than $250 million in annual revenue. After becoming one of the largest employers in the state of Montana, Right Now was sold to Oracle for $1.8 billion in 2011.
Gianforte is a strong believer in small town entrepreneurship, and he recently organized a meeting of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance at his house overlooking the Bridger Mountains. More than 100 people attended, and I was surprised to meet so many people doing something similar to what I was doing: There were owners of high-tech marketing agencies, startup founders, software developers, and even a security expert who says she was hired by major global banks to find security loopholes in their systems.
This is a growing trend because metro areas are getting more expensive while technology and connectivity is more ubiquitous than ever. The economics of living and working in Small Town USA -- or anywhere in the world, for that matter -- are compelling. Housing and price inflation are killing the coastal dream. Meanwhile, areas off the beaten path are flourishing and offer compelling lifestyle value.
Cloud services, be it Google Drive, Dropbox or Salesforce.com, are easier than ever to access. They make it simple to share documents and collaborate with partners or coworkers in other parts of the world. Communications tools such as Skype and WebEx are now ubiquitous, allowing you to do pretty much what you want in terms of live communication.
Social media: It's both a social tool and a business tool. I've found that social media, especially LinkedIn and Twitter, have become integral to my workday. I can instantly aggregate and track important information in real time, as well as connect with new business partners. You could not do that 10 years ago, from anywhere, whether you were telecommuting or not.
The Allure of Rural
Rich Karlgaard, the publisher of Forbes, has been a champion of the rural entrepreneur, or starting a business in a "Last Best Place" such as Montana. His book "Life 2.0" details stories of Americans moving away from the stress of major metro areas to create new lives in small town America.
There are plenty of opportunities to do this for everybody, and I think we're just getting started. Mega-metro living is overrated and becoming more taxing. Rural Middle America may be hidden gem of entrepreneurship and high tech work, as Rich Karlgaard popularized in his book.
"There is no information gap anymore," Karlgaard has said. "Everyone has broadband."
So unless you are the CEO of a Fortune 500 company -- but even that may not get in the way -- location is pretty much a moot point, right?
So what about those really important meetings? The truth is, most people travel to those anyway. You can build a productive week around trade shows or conferences. I go on the road and book six meetings a day with clients and partners. It gets done -- and this is exactly what most other people are doing, too, so what difference does it make where you live?
Big cities such as London, New York City and San Francisco are great places. But they are expensive and challenging places to live, especially with a family. Every task in the daily grind of family life, such as taking kids to school or events, getting to work or even getting lunch has a substantial overhead tax.
The cloud boom has presented a great boon to remote working in living. Marissa Mayer is wrong. Take the Richard Branson view.