By Brandon Walker EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – New Canaan, Connecticut native Carolyn Cole was captivated by Big Sky at just 12 years old. Visiting the Elkhorn Ranch for a family vacation at the time, she developed a budding desire to eventually relocate to the small Montana community.
“It felt like home when I was here when I was a kid,” she said.
In 2018, Cole’s dream became a reality. Wielding bachelor’s degrees in both mass communications and studio art from the University of Denver, and a master’s degree in social science from Columbia University, she returned to the mountainous terrain that she’d admired since her childhood.
Upon first arriving, Cole held positions with the Yellowstone Club, Big Sky Vacation Rentals and Lone Mountain Ranch before becoming a realtor at Engel & Volkers—a position she still maintains. While performing her daily tasks as a realtor, Cole realized the drastic need for a transportation service in Big Sky. Seeing the opportunity, she quickly sprung to action, founding Lone Peak Concierge in December of 2019 and purchasing the first vehicle in her fleet with a loan from her friend.
“I’ve started other businesses before and when I just feel the need, I just do it,” she said. “I’m a little spontaneous in that way.”
Cole says she witnessed overwhelming success when she first started, including late night and early morning trips to and from the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport. After only two weeks of operation she needed a second vehicle and driver to keep up with demand. Big Sky locals Adam Harman and Kaley Burns stepped in to assist Cole to meet the growing demand. Harman became the second driver for Lone Peak Concierge and Burns drove on an as-needed basis.
Then the calendar turned to March 18, a day that is etched into Cole’s memory—it was the first day since founding her business that she did not field a single request for transportation. The following weeks and months presented Cole with a challenge that she met by adapting her business model, including a name change: Lone Peak ADVENTURE Concierge.
Cole recently spoke with EBS to discuss her new approach and how she worked to keep her business alive and relevant throughout the pandemic.
Explore Big Sky: You founded your business last December and you said business was booming to start with. Can you describe why you believe you were successful right out of the gate?
Carolyn Cole: “I was successful right out of the gate because there was no competition, period. Nobody would explain to visitors coming to vacation in Big Sky ahead of time that there was no Uber, because everybody assumes there’s Uber everywhere. And since we didn’t have anybody driving door to door and people found out about me, I would get the calls. I was the only one doing it, period. It was a shocker that it’s 2020 and somebody else hadn’t started.”
EBS: March 18 was the first day ever that you didn’t receive a single request for transportation. What was going through your mind as a business owner in the transportation industry as cancellations started to rack up due to COVID-19?
C.C.: “I was in a place where I was like, ‘What am I going to do?’ When I came to Big Sky I literally started from scratch in every way, so I didn’t come with like a nest egg or anything. So, I had to really get my act together and figure out a way to pivot and I applied for the PPP loan. [It was] not that much money but all of that assistance helped get me through the time and allowed me to think about what I was going to do next to survive.”
EBS: You adjusted your business model to remain relevant as a result of the pandemic. Can you walk me through your brainstorming and idea process as you pivoted your business strategies?
C.C.: “Obviously driving people—providing door to door transportation, transportation to the airport, any transportation—is a here and now service, like a restaurant. You have to be here to use the service. … I was listening to a lot of travel like conferences, listening to people and what they’re talking about doing and one of the ideas someone had was we could start talking about helping people get back into traveling somehow. And from that, I thought well, what I could do, because nobody else is doing this, is do custom vacation planning. I’m not working for any company, so I don’t have any reason to point somebody in any direction. I don’t take commissions, so that’s what I’m doing now.”
EBS: What do you believe is the largest factor in becoming a successful business owner in Big Sky?
C.C.: “I think you really need to have an entrepreneurial spirit, which I believe people are born with. I think we all share the desire to be outside, to explore. If someone was not like that, they’re a very indoor [oriented] person, I don’t think that would necessarily be helpful. Sharing experiences with people that are vacationing here, on the slopes or wherever it is, really does help build a relationship that then turns into someone really relying on you or turning to you for whatever service you’re providing or recommendations and things like that. So, flexibility and friendliness I think comes naturally here. … Big Sky draws that type of person and I think that type of person will be successful in business here.”
EBS: Aside from the pandemic, what has been your greatest operational challenge as a Big Sky business owner in the nearly 10 months since you opened?
C.C.: “The biggest struggle, which I still have, is I’m literally doing everything. … I build my own website, I do my own marketing, social media, I reach out to the clubs and the hotel and the rental companies, so I feel like I’m always struggling and the bottom line is providing service and getting paid for something. But in the meantime I feel like there’s always something to do and I think everybody that has their own business feels that way. So, it’s hard for me when I know I’ve got something to do to then say, ‘I’m not going to do that today. I’m going to go mountain biking.’ So that’s been my struggle.”
EBS: For anyone contemplating starting their own business currently, what advice would offer them?
C.C.: “To find a mentor, or at least someone who you can talk to, to bounce ideas off, period. … I turn to people all the time and get their thoughts and I couldn’t just do it by myself. It’s just tremendously valuable to have feedback from as many different types of people as possible.”
EBS: What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?
C.C.: “If you consider starting a business, make sure you’re providing a solution to a problem that exists.”