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Property owners now have an effective weapon against the mountain pine beetles that have infested or killed an estimated 3.1 million acres of trees in the Rocky Mountains, leaving behind a rust-red landscape that was once green and teeming with life.
TigerTree Inc., a forestry land management company, annually sprays more than 70,000 trees to prevent further spread of the deadly beetle invaders. The company's co-founder and chief operating officer, Jeff Smith, says the spraying is 99 percent effective. But he says such success would never have happened without the assistance of the University of Wyoming's business incubator, the Wyoming Technology Business Center (WTBC).
A department under the UW Office of Research and Economic Development, the WTBC is a statewide business development program that is developing a technology business incubator and an outreach program focused on early-stage, high-growth companies. The 30,000-square-foot facility, which opened in 2006, offers laboratory, office and shared-conference room space for client companies as well as a state-of-the-art data center.
TigerTree didn't start out as a major pesticide applicator in the war against pine beetles. Smith recalls that, in 2007, he and another UW student, Nick Norris, talked about how they could help property owners avoid potentially disastrous results from forest fires. The two Evanston High School graduates had both worked as part-time firefighters for the U.S. Forest Service, and had a lot of experience and understanding of how to help alleviate possible damage cause by wildfires.
At that time, they heard about the UW College of Business 10k Entrepreneurship Competition (now called the John P. Ellbogen $30K Entrepreneurship Competition) that encourages students to act on their ideas and talents to form businesses. Smith and Norris developed a business plan for a forest management service company that provided wildfire hazard mitigation services to property owners. They won the 10K competition's $12,500 first prize, plus a one-year, rent-free stay in the WTBC.
They spent the money on used equipment - a truck, trailer, tractor and chipper. Guided by WTBC adviser Jon Benson, they began soliciting clients who sought their help in wildfire prevention. The mountain pine beetle epidemic was taking hold, and it didn't take long for Smith and Norris to recognize the potential offered by a business that could combat the beetle infestations.
"People were more interested in saving their trees than cutting them down," Smith says. "We started spraying trees for beetles; that work now provides about 76 percent of our income."
Norris has since left TigerTree, and Emily Parsons is now the chief executive officer.
With assistance from the WTBC, the business began to take off. A WTBC business advisory committee offered them several marketing and advertising suggestions to attract customers. For example, the company obtained information provided by county assessor GIS data to identify cabin and residential property owners in infested areas that needed to be sprayed. They used direct mail to reach these potential customers.
In 2009, the business advisory committee was replaced by one-on-one counseling offered to all of the incubator's client companies. TigerTree and the other WTBC tenants receive professional business counseling and executive coaching services designed to help them grow larger and faster than they would otherwise, and to increase the ability of the entrepreneurs to manage and grow their own businesses.
Such assistance has been essential to TigerTree's growth. Smith says the bi-weekly meetings with counselor Christine Langley have focused on sales strategies and sales training for employees. She also has guided the business as it expands to offer more services year-around, rather than only during the spraying season from late March to early July.
This WTBC advice is paying off. Smith says the business grew by 33 percent last year. There are now 20 employees on the payroll, which will expand to more than 40 during the summer months. Customers range from small cabin owners to large ranches. In-town business services are now offered, and there are more than 800 customers in Cheyenne alone, for services that include insect and disease diagnosis and care, tree fertilization, tree trimming and other arboreal services.