In this episode, I interview Melissa Ellis of “Get a Grip Climbing Wall” and how she is “Making it work in Montana”.
Melissa grew up in Whitefish, MT and Arizona and settled into her first career as a waitress at the Buffalo Cafe in Whitefish. She then took a leap of faith to become a successful business owner, community leader and entrepreneur. She knows all about Making it Work in Montana! You can find Melissa on Facebook owning “Get a Grip Climbing Wall,” as the Membership Director of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, and she owns a vacation rental in Coram, MT on the way to Glacier National Park.
Check out this video of Melissa’s climbing wall in action! (video shared from the Get a Grip Climbing Wall Facebook page)
Check out more of Melissa’s Business by visting her website here https://www.getagripmt.com/
Welcome to another episode of Making It Work in Montana, where we highlight great people of the state of Montana who
exemplify excellence in business, the outdoors and involvement in the community.
[00:00:20] And I’m really excited. This is one of our first podcasts and I have with me somebody who just honored to have with me, first of all.
[00:00:31] But I have Melissa Ellis and I have known Melissa for, I would say more than a decade prior, 15 years and at least 12.
[00:00:42] But right now, if you run to Melissa in Whitefish, she is one of the faces of Whitefish. If you are a new business and you get involved
with the Chamber of Commerce, Melissa is going to be your first point of contact.
[00:00:57] And you’re she’s the membership coordinator there.
[00:01:00] And then also you will see Melissa with her business, get a grip climbing wall.
[00:01:08] And basically, if you’re any cool event in mostly northwest Montana, you’re probably going to see kids on the climbing wall at the
[00:01:18] And that is Melissa’s business. And then when you’re coming to visit Montana, you might need a place to stay while you’re on
vacation. And again, Melissa is now a proprietor in vacation rentals and all that from where you started. So welcome, Melissa.
[00:01:38] Thank you. Did I say that correctly? Yes. Yes, everything’s awesome. Good job.
[00:01:44] But it wasn’t always like that. No.
[00:01:47] So I recall first meeting you, like I said, maybe, maybe I’ll say like 13, 14 years ago.
[00:01:56] I don’t know how far back, but I have a couple of guys I used to have breakfast all the time at the Buffalo, which in Whitefish. That’s
kind of one of the local places you go to get breakfast and local place to go.
[00:02:09] And you were one of our favorite waitresses who, you know, basically adds a lot of great experience to just having breakfast.
[00:02:17] And next thing you know, we’re here. So tell us real quick about how you even got to that point? And then real quickly, like just like
where you born and how did you end up at the buffalo? And then we’ll kind of walk the journey, but let everybody know like where
[00:02:39] You know, I was born in Phoenix, Arizona, and then mom and dad moved up here to Whitefish when I was six.
[00:02:48] And I I went to middle school here and junior high here and my freshman year of high school here.
[00:02:58] And then I followed my dad over to Oregon, graduated high school, went to college over there. And then I was broke.
[00:03:08] I went, took out $10000 and went and traveled to Europe, came back even more broke and came back to Whitefish, started working
at Mambo’s and the Army Navy.
[00:03:24] And I eventually moved on to the Buffalo Cafe. And, you know, I met this wonderful man working at Army Navy, my husband and his
six year old daughter.
[00:03:40] And when I saw that six year old looking at me, I thought that I really need to get my life to get a quick if I’m going to be a good role
model. And so the Buffalo Cafe, the Metzels provided a phenomenal foundation for me. They were able to work around my school
schedule as I went to FVCC.
[00:04:04] And they provided day shifts. They provided night shifts.
[00:04:08] They were the phenomenal bosses. I would not be the person I am today without their influence.
[00:04:18] And I was waiting tables and an opportunity presented itself for me to purchase a climbing wall after…
[00:04:30] Before we dig into this real quick. So this is making it work. Montana. And that’s perfect because you’re in Montana and now you’re
trying to make it work. Yes. And so that’s awesome, because I think most people are going to be enjoying this podcast, getting a
different version of how people did that. But are at the buffalo before it jump on the next thing I remember when I was there, like
you met a lot of people there. I did. And so maybe see if that didn’t have something to do with how you got into your opportunity.
[00:05:06] Absolutely. So I met a phenomenal lawyer named Diane Carani. She took me under her wing. I also met Jimmy Rucker, who is in
accounting. I met you, who helped me.
[00:05:23] You basically held my hand like a father would as I bought my home. You know, I if it wasn’t for the community oriented or the
community feel of Whitefish, I would not be as successful as I am today.
[00:05:47] Just buying a house and having somebody truly care about you and explain things to you so that you understand them. Same thing
with business. I had absolutely no idea some of the things that I was going to encounter.
[00:06:04] And everybody locally was so excited for me and they really wanted to see me succeed. And they they really pushed me to succeed
and they were very supportive.
[00:06:22] So let’s say you’re waiting tables at the buffalo. You you meet people through serving them food daily and you meet a lawyer and a
mortgage broker and some other people. And I know you’ve met bankers and other business leaders within the community just while
you’re waiting tables.
[00:06:41] And then and then and then to jump on to where you left off, suddenly decided, hey, I’m going to step it up a notch.
[00:06:49] So kind of what what what got you to that point, your daughter. And then isn’t it scary? Like how how did you go to the next level?
[00:06:58] It has always been scary. It’s still scary, I think, as a business owner.
[00:07:04] You know, it’s it’s tough here in Montana.
[00:07:08] And if you don’t have people to help you and teach you, if you don’t have those tools and if you’re not hungry to learn more, you
know, it’s it’s it’s not the same. Just like you you’re always adapting. You’re always trying to go farther and experience more things.
[00:07:28] And, you know, I do that through using Montana West economic development. And I also have gone to FVCC, taken lots of different
business management classes. I’ve also talked to SBA and Dan over there.
[00:07:47] Fvcc is phenomenal. He is incredibly smart. And he he really just wants to make sure that you’re on the right track.
[00:07:59] And I don’t know.
[00:08:02] I think that I think that that is long as you’re hungry and you stay hungry, you can maintain growth.
[00:08:11] So so at one point, though, you you decided I’m going to actually go all in on my new business. Get a grip Climbing wall. So you’re.
Because I remember you chatting about this with us while we were. You’ll be waiting tables and then at some point you actually quit
your job and you’re going to actually rely on the income from this business. Well, that’s the big moment for a lot of people. So
explain a little bit about how that went and how you were able to do it. A lot of people want to start a business. In fact, they show up
to Montana. They start working for other people.
[00:08:47] And they’re not making enough money or they’re not happy. And so they’re going to make the big move.
[00:08:52] And then and then they do.
[00:08:54] And, you know, just like any startup of a business, you know, it doesn’t always work out for a lot of people. So it has worked for you.
So you made that move. What was that like and how did you prepare and and navigate it?
[00:09:10] You know, it was extremely difficult to make that decision. I remember going to Linda at the Buffalo Cafe, the owner, and telling her
that, you know, this is my two months notice. I’m really going to put all my chips in. And it was extremely scary.
[00:09:30] And but she was so encouraging and so is Alex. Alex Metzel they were just awesome.
[00:09:40] And that first year was incredibly difficult. I did go back out at the end of summer and I found a winter job to keep myself afloat in
winter because get a grip climbing wall did eventually become seasonal.
[00:09:57] But it was it was a decision that you really have to just do it.
[00:10:06] You may feel that you don’t have all of the confidence that you need, but it’s something that you really have to find the
encouragement in yourself and just do it.
[00:10:20] Commit and ride it out. And then.
[00:10:25] In the community, the community has always back to me and I’ve been extremely lucky for the customer service that we provide. I
think that’s what really gets people to come back and be so thankful. And I think that if you’re kind to other people, they will
continue coming back and and trust you.
[00:10:47] So one thing I’ve noticed is people that go to start new business, they get bombarded with things they could spend their money on.
[00:10:54] And then you have to have a very in Montana, I think in particular, you mentioned seasonality. Montana, I mean, we’ve got seasons.
[00:11:03] So if you’re doing something that’s mostly a summer business, I mean, you basically have to make the whole year income in half the
year and then you have to be prepared to make it through the other part.
[00:11:14] Was that something you knew going in or did you learn it and figured out how did that go? How did you keep from putting yourself
in a bad situation financially?
[00:11:24] So that’s not something that I thought about when I first started and I learned that after the first year it was not going to be
sustainable in winter. And so what I did was I worked with, again, several people when it came to accounting, trying to figure out
how much I my prices should be. And I go and I look at all of my expenses and the profit that I made.
[00:11:55] And I have continued to grow my business year after year after year.
[00:12:01] But marketing does, it does play a part. You can’t just stand up a giant 30 foot climbing wall and hope that everybody comes. That’s
not how it works.
[00:12:13] So so how how do you get here? So right now, as a just somebody in the community, I see your climbing wall every time I go to an
[00:12:22] How does that happen? Like. Are you going to them or are you, like you said, marketing?
[00:12:28] What’s kind of a way that you’ve been able to get yourself established at all these big events where you’re able to run your business?
[00:12:36] So the first two years, I made thousands and thousands of phone calls trying to convince people that, yes, please let me set up my
30 foot climbing wall. And, yes, I have insurance, then, yes, you can trust me.
[00:12:51] And I called I used the community calendars, Whitefish Chamber, Kalispell Chamber, Columbia Falls Chamber, fVCC And I looked at
all of those calendars and started calling those event coordinators. And eventually I got in and booked my my season.
[00:13:14] And then after a while, I started growing to private parties and marketing that way. Facebook and Instagram are huge and they’re
[00:13:27] And so I would highly recommend if you are not on those social media platforms, you need to be. And then now, after five years, I’m
starting to work towards company or corporate sponsorships because everybody wants the climbing wall at their event. But a lot of
people can’t afford the costs. And so corporate sponsorships are huge.
[00:13:52] And that’s something that they are providing entertainment for, not just the participants. There are people that come and film our
[00:14:02] participants climbing and reaching those new heights and seeing that expression on their face and seeing a family climb together is
just heart warming. And people capture that through photography, through video.
[00:14:20] And they put that on their social media platforms and videos and Parkside credit union made a commercial out of us. And so it was it
took a lot of growth and a lot of trial and error. But your business is constantly growing and adapting.
[00:14:42] And you have to be looking for new ways to grow and you have to be on it and you really have to be out there in the community to
see the options that are available.
[00:14:56] So I hadnt thought of that. So what’s going on now is, is the experience of the climbing wall is going Next level were originally it was,
hey, kids are getting entertained and climbing the climbing wall. That’s the product. And now you’re selling like a life experience and
people are able to see that.
[00:15:17] And so now it’s it’s more attractive, basically, is what you’re describing.
[00:15:21] I think it is. And it is very personal. The people that work for get a grip climbing wall are the most phenomenal people I have ever
[00:15:32] They have a heart of gold. I have a particular representative, Madeleine del Matta. She will climb again and again and again and again
to make sure that if there is a child that really wants to ring the button at the top of the wall and just doesn’t have the muscle to do
it, she will climb and sit there and and even even throw a little leg for you to rest on. But she will get them to their goal and that kind
[00:16:09] It’s more than just a life experience. It is something that it’s just an accomplishment that some people don’t realize they have in
[00:16:21] Awesome. So you’re saying that having the right people on the team is crucial to your success?
[00:16:27] One hundred percent. Get a grip Climbing all would not be what it is today without the people that help run it.
[00:16:35] And then you’re not just get a grip climbing, although this is amazing. And actually just sitting here talking to you about get a grip
Climbing wall. I’m more inspired by what you’ve done there. You’re also the membership services person for the whitefish Chamber
of Commerce. I’m sure these things like you were saying before we went on the air.
[00:16:58] They’re separate and you actually have to let everybody know I’m working for my business and now I’m working for the chamber.
But it also probably they mutually benefit each other. But tell us about being involved in the whitefish Chamber of Commerce and
what that is for your life.
[00:17:17] Because one of the things I notice that your encapsulating is people that are succeeding in Montana. They’re not just running their
business successfully. They’re doing other things. So you’re also doing this. Tell us about what that’s like. Maybe even correct me if I
got the title wrong.
[00:17:36] No, a membership director.
[00:17:38] Ok, so working for whitefish chamber has really been fulfilling.
[00:17:46] I get to work with business owners that are trying to grow their business. And so I get to use my personal experience and encourage
those people to try new things and use different tools.
[00:18:05] And so if I knew about Montana was economic development or SBA, my first year of business, I would have been so much more
ahead of the game.
[00:18:21] And when people come and say, I want to start this business or I have this idea, I can actually get them to the right people.
[00:18:29] And when they come back and say thank you.
[00:18:33] And they tell me that how well their business is doing. I feel like I had a part in that. I got to help them. I was one of their tools to get
them where they’re going.
[00:18:45] And it’s it’s it’s more than just business. It’s very personal. These people are locals.
[00:18:52] And that’s what makes this community so great, is because I get to give back just like the people that took me under their wings. I
get to do that for so many other local businesses.
[00:19:06] One thing I’ve noticed living in Montana is people will come from another part of the country and they’ll try to plug in a business that
has work and another part of the country. And I’ve found that that in and of itself probably will not work in Montana, that you really
have to get connected with all the people.
[00:19:28] If you’re going to and say you’ve been doing this, would you agree that that’s happening? And kind of like what have you seen that
was good and bad about people showing up and trying to start a business in Montana?
[00:19:40] You have to be community oriented. Everybody knows everybody. I think that the more networking you can do, the more you can
put yourself out there. Even if you’re wearing a nametag at an event, you’re still promoting yourself.
[00:19:57] Put it on your coat, put it on the side of your vehicle, make people wonder what that is. And they will either Google it, look you up on
Facebook. And it is it’s a big deal. I’ve had people contact me and say, hey, I’m moving to Whitefish. This is a business. I haven’t
opened it yet. And I say, oh, I was wondering what was going in that in that spot and it’s good to know because they are already
being promoted, I get to already tell people what’s going in there.
[00:20:31] And then people are excited about that business. You have to communicate with your locals and you have to get them really excited
about your business. And that’s what’s going to bring them to the door.
[00:20:44] And I think one thing you have to listen to, right. Like I think sometimes people don’t get the feedback from the local community and
quickly adapt because they might think they know what they’re supposed to be doing.
[00:20:59] And if I think you provide the opportunity to the chamber and other things where people can say, hey, I’m going to do this tell and
they can actually get some feedback before they go live with it. Make a few changes. Have you ever seen that happen or.
[00:21:13] I think that’s constant. That’s constantly happening in a lot of businesses. I have businesses that come in and say, you know what?
It’s November and I can’t. People aren’t coming in the door like like they were in July. And it may be obvious to people that have
been here, that have lived here, that, yes, we do have a short shoulder seasons or shoulder season.
[00:21:37] Sometimes we have two. But at the same time, people that move here and just open up a business, they don’t realize that. And I give
them encouragement. Let them know, yeah, you’ve got to change it up. You’ve got to start a different marketing, maybe lower your
prices, do sales.
[00:21:57] There’s different ways to get them through the door.
[00:21:59] You just have to be creative and be part of the whitefish chamber.
[00:22:06] There are so many events that they put on whether you’re sponsoring and have your banner up, whether you take part. There’s so
much there’s so much that the chamber does to get that shoulder season smaller and smaller. And they’re not just doing it alone.
[00:22:25] You know, the Convention and Visitors Bureau has it or plays a huge part. And again, this community is so small and we all want the
same thing. And you have to be out there and you have to you have to work it.
[00:22:42] Well, awesome.
[00:22:43] Well, so in getting from getting established in Montana and buying a house and starting a business and being involved community as
the chamber membership point of contact member services director and now vacation rental owner did we miss any mentor.
[00:23:05] You mentioned that you had Diane Conradi.
[00:23:09] Yes. Diane Conradi helped you get started and gave you some pointers. I know that with our mortgage company we help to get this
money through your house because you made a purchase and you have some equity and you’re able to use it to things like that.
[00:23:21] But I did not use my house as collateral. Don’t ever do that.
[00:23:26] Good. Yeah. Good. But made good made some good decisions. Talking to people. Is there anybody else to talk to that you’re like.
Yeah. They provided me a key lynchpin of information that helped me get to where you are now. And if we covered them all, that’s
[00:23:42] You know, there’s a few organizations, park side credit union.Their slogan is, We like to say yes. And they did. They made Get a grip
happen. And they continued to support me. Even to this day, Glacier Bank was phenomenal.
[00:24:02] They did such a great job in trying to really push me to continue to go out there and try harder and learn more.
[00:24:12] And then the Metzels.
[00:24:15] You know, they they really did support me when I told them that I want to be a carny. And they you know, they definitely did some
eyebrow raises, but they still supported me. And without the community to help me, it would not it would not have gone through.
[00:24:37] Okay. And then is there anything so now how old are you now? I just turned thirty five last week. You got a business that’s
succeeding. You got a job that’s doing well in addition to your business. And then you have a rental 20 years out.
[00:24:54] You’ve any idea where you’re heading to the beach. But this is Montana. Why would you want to go the beach?
[00:25:02] You know, I I have been contemplating.
[00:25:06] I see so many things that I would love, so many businesses. I would love to start.
[00:25:12] I I think I might be one of those entrepreneurs that starts a business and and sells a business and then starts a business and sells
[00:25:20] I don’t know if I’m quite there yet, but I. you know, last year we went Seasonal and I really enjoyed being a boss for six months and
then being an employee for six months, and I’m doing that again this year. And I really just want to watch my step daughter, my baby
girl. I want to watch her grow up and graduate high school and just be a mom for a little bit and be just listen to her and be an active
[00:25:54] And then when she goes and graduates and whether she goes to college or goes to travel or wherever she goes, I just want to be
that support for her.
[00:26:04] And then I really honestly think that my husband and I are going to travel in winter and then just work our hearts out in summer.
[00:26:13] Awesome. So it’s I think I hear you saying, as you have evolved to fit the way the economy actually supports your business. Yes. And
so it’s more of a Win-Win relationship with your business and the way the Montana economy works. And then I also think I heard
you say that you might get bored and maybe start another business. You just don’t know what it is because you’re not going to just
[00:26:38] No, I can’t be bored now.
[00:26:42] And then anybody who wants to know more can absolutely reach out to you. Right. As long as I’ve known. And you’re like extremely
[00:26:50] Right. Thank you. Yes. I would love to help anybody that needs help. There’s so many people I’ve met on my journey. And if you
have any questions, please come and ask me. I may not have the answers, but I may have somebody that does.
[00:27:07] And, you know, growing your tool belt and using your tools are just the best and successful way to do business.
[00:27:18] Awesome, well, so to recap, Melissa owns Get a grip climbing wall.
[00:27:24] If you type it in to Facebook, you’re probably going to find your page to like it.
[00:27:29] And then Melissa is membership director through the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, Google Whitefish Chamber of Commerce.
You can find her there. And if you need a place to stay when you’re passing through, headed up to Glacier Park, she’s even got a
rental that you can stay in. And I just appreciate. It’s it’s such a cool thing I have.
[00:27:51] So I thought of this idea of making it work in Montana. And I’m basically trying to highlight people who’ve made it work in Montana.
And I’m like, okay, who do I know? And like, you were the first person that came to mind. And so I really appreciate being one of our
[00:28:06] And for those of you who’ve listened to the whole thing, I want your feedback because I’m going to continue to modify it, improve
this podcast to fit the goals of the audience. And also I’m really looking for is if you know, somebody that really exemplifies success
in Montana and business, outdoors or community, they’ll be an excellent mentor for everybody by being on this show. Please
recommend them to me. David Boy, I own Black Diamond Mortgage and Whitefish, Montana. We have a Facebook page for this
podcast called Making It Work in Montana like Melissa. I like to if you have to reach out to me for something, whatever it is that
we’ve been talking about on the show, just reach. I’d love to chat with you. So thanks and have a great week. Thank you.