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Scott Mathson
Scott Mathson

Posted on • Originally published at on

How Startups Can Be Like SMBs - Big Dipper Ice Cream, Missoula, MT

Since 1995, Big Dipper Ice Cream has consistently been a staple of Missoula, Montana.

Coneboy, their cheerful, Distrokid-eque mascot, is seen on apparel like hats, buttons, and tees, in film festivals and other event’s sponsors lineups, on their ice cream trucks, in grocery store ice cream aisles, and many other locations.

Handcrafted, small-batch ice cream served from their original location, is within walking distance of an evening along a river’s edge in downtown Missoula. People go to Big Dipper for an experience. The entire brand, its products, storefront design, the happy team, upbeat music, involvement in community, and their integrity continue to shape this experience.

This Big Dipper experience is intentional - their brand, the product, the overall vibe is intentional. I am fascinated by and deeply admire small-to-medium sized businesses (SMBs) like Big Dipper who focus on creating experiences around consistency, from product to service to packaging - all consistent. Businesses who exist to wholly serve their friends, family, and their local communities. I am seeing this happening more among SMBs than with large tech organizations.

What if more tech startups started thinking like this?

They’re continually experimenting with new and interesting, locally-inspired flavors, partnering with area chefs, breweries, coffee roasters, and other businesses. Standing in (the always long) line at the flagship Higgins Ave. storefront, your eyes naturally look to the handwritten seasonal and specialties board. Some flavors stick, some flavors don’t, yet most importantly Big Dipper isn’t afraid to experiment.

Big Dipper coneboy truck two hands holding two ice cream cones

Having heard co-owner Charlie Beaton speak at a local, Missoula business event a few years ago, I recall him speaking to the fact that they have never really had 5- or 10-year business plans. Big Dipper has evolved organically, nothing forced. Expansion for them has come in the form of storefront growth, as well as wholesale distribution.

Shortly after this event, they launched a Big Dipper Select line. This evergreen expansion came 21 years into the business and through strategic partnerships they have pursued new opportunities around this like distribution to area stores and restaurants, alongside serving their ice cream to visitors of Montana’s Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks.

The Beatons remain humble, never seeking to be in any spotlight, though folks like Good Morning America, Food and Wine Magazine, and USA Today have all shone a light on their business. Sharing an experience with longtime, loyal customers sitting at a wooden bench outside of their establishments are what continues to bring them joy.

Startups can learn so many brand, marketing, and product lessons from SMBs like Missoula, Montana’s Big Dipper Ice Cream. Stay curious, continue to look outside of your own niche and industries, and be consistent.

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