By Sarah Gianelli EBS Senior Editor
BIG SKY – As part of ongoing efforts to cultivate a flourishing professional climate in the area, the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce hosted a public forum Feb. 21 with successful entrepreneurs Sam Byrne and David Ulevitch.
As managing partner and co-founder of CrossHarbor Capital Partners, Byrne has overseen the investment of more than $20 billion in real estate and financial assets, but is best known in Big Sky for his company’s acquisition of the Yellowstone Club, where Byrne serves as principal owner.
Ulevitch, 36, and a member of the Yellowstone Club, is senior vice president and general manager for Cisco’s global security business. He joined Cisco during the 2015 acquisition of his company OpenDNS, a cloud-delivered security service.
Nearly 100 community members filled the banquet room at Buck’s T-4 Lodge to listen to the two businessmen reflect on their professional paths and perspectives.
Dr. Kregg Aytes, dean of the Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship at Montana State University, moderated the conversation and opened by asking Byrne and Ulevitch what led them to take the entrepreneurial leap.
Ulevitch explained that he had a job since the eighth grade, so when a college project became a company, he already had a network of former bosses—one of whom was at a successful startup that showed Ulevitch what was possible if your model really catches fire.
The bank Byrne went to work for at age 21 would become the largest bank in U.S. history. When he was 26, single and without kids—and fewer opportunity costs—he wrote a business plan to start an investment company of his own.
Aytes asked the two entrepreneurs if naiveté was an asset.
“I think I always knew I wasn’t going to work for someone the rest of my life,” Byrne said. “But I didn’t expect for it to happen as suddenly as it did. I was quite naïve about what it would take to raise those amounts of capital.”
“When I was younger, I didn’t know enough to know I didn’t know what I was doing,” Ulevitch laughed, adding that he would soon learn that hiring friends was a lot more fun than firing friends.
Byrne divulged that after striking out on his own, still freelance consulting to make ends meet, he had a “single most fortuitous event.” At an international cooking class with his future wife, he made a connection that led to the “huge pool of capital” that enabled him to get his business off the ground.
Leaving “the mothership of one investor”—due to travel demands and his difficulty swallowing aspects of Saudi culture—would be the most pivotal challenge for Byrne’s company, and it would take about a decade to overcome the obstacle of raising capital domestically, with no track record as fiduciary.
What kept him going, asked Aytes.
“I’m a deal guy,” Byrne said. “The harder, the better. I’m always trying to find creative solutions to entrepreneurial problems.”
Byrne and Ulevitch discussed management lessons they learned on the job. For Byrne, it was letting go and trusting in the next generation of the firm. For Ulevitch, it was learning to hold all his employees accountable to the same standards.
While Byrne and Ulevitch often echoed each other’s sentiments, their perspectives also diverged, a reminder that there are many roads to success.
But the two men also exhibited plenty of traits in common—namely having the minds, personalities and drive to be successful entrepreneurs.
“I feel like my whole life has been performing outside of my comfort zone,” Ulevitch said. “Public speaking, firing people, hiring people—all that seemed way beyond my expertise, but nothing … is really that hard, you just have to do it.”
Byrne responded first to a question about successfully achieving work-life balance.
“That’s why I moved here originally,” he said. “But it didn’t work out that way. I fell in love with the skiing and my wife said, ‘OK, as long as you promise you will not get involved in business out here.’ I could not have failed more miserably, [but] I don’t know if I’m capable of that, personality wise.”
Ulevitch followed by saying, “I’m either all-in, dogged, relentless or I couldn’t care any less.”
Both men see Gallatin County as on the cusp of an undeniable business boon.
“It’s definitely coming,” Byrne said. “The biggest constraint is talent. We need more people in the community to recognize [this area] as one of the biggest economic engines in the Rocky Mountains, much less our state. My big passion point is for the community to be able to catch up with what is going on here.”