This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins. Become a Newsletters+ Member to get The Outsider at coloradosun.com/join. (Existing members, click here to learn how to upgrade)
EAGLE — Justin Bradshaw and Mark Roebke knew where they wanted to be: close to the ski hills and trails in a riverside mountain town. They just had to convince investors that Colorado’s West Slope was the perfect place to anchor their global technology company.
The entrepreneurs who founded Rever — the Eagle-based motorcycle navigation and ride-sharing app that is nearing 1 million users in more than 140 countries since its creation in 2015 — are among a growing number of start-up companies seeded by an increasingly receptive cadre of Colorado-loving angel investors who see the Western Slope and its outdoor lifestyle as fertile ground for innovation.
“Our investors in Colorado, they have different mindsets and different outlooks and priorities in life which are more aligned with what we are trying to do,” Bradshaw said. “Yes, we are a VC-backed start-up and we intend to provide our investors returns. But at the same time, we really have to stay core to who our audience is. If we were cooped up in San Francisco or New York City it wouldn’t feel as authentic.”
Bradshaw and Roebke normally can’t attend networking events and regular gatherings that foster entrepreneurship in urban hubs like New York, San Francisco, Austin and Colorado’s Front Range. Next week, they will. The first-ever Techstars Startup Week West Slope launches June 5 with free educational and networking events in Carbondale, the Yampa Valley, the Vail Valley and largely Grand Junction.
The four-day celebration of innovation expands the idea of start-ups beyond tech, with discussions targeting small and large businesses involved in food, beverages, outdoor gear, agriculture and service.
Brad Feld, the venture capitalist behind Boulder’s Foundry Group and cofounder — along with Gov. Jared Polis — of international start-up accelerator Techstars, kicks off the rally in Grand Junction on June 6 with a discussion on how to foster start-up communities beyond the Front Range.
“When I think about the dynamics of Colorado as a state from an economic and entrepreneurial perspective, I think it’s an example for many other states showing how to not only involve major cities but also how to connect start-up communities across the entire state, especially across that urban-rural divide that many states in our country are dealing with,” Feld said.
Feld several years ago began working with the Telluride Venture Fund, Startup Colorado and the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, studying how to spread entrepreneurial activity beyond the busy Front Range business hubs.
Out of that collaborative effort sprang the public and privately-funded Greater Colorado Venture Fund. And simultaneously, start-up businesses began thriving in mountain regions like Montrose, the Vail Valley, the Roaring Fork Valley, Telluride and Steamboat Springs.
Feld considers many of the state’s resort communities “a secret weapon” that other states don’t have. So many people roll through towns like Aspen, Steamboat Springs, Vail and Telluride and many of them have wealth and experience as either investors or entrepreneurs.
Connect those visitors and second homeowners with start-up businesses not just in the town, but the region, and “you can build linkages across Colorado with different resources that will be incredible,” said Feld, who is considered a key connector between ideas and investment in Colorado and Silicon Valley.
“So the evolution over the last couple years is being led by people in those communities rather than led by people outside those communities and you are starting to see these communities working together,” Feld said. “So instead of it being Telluride versus the Roaring Fork Valley versus Grand Junction, they see themselves as a collective with individual personalities working together across the construct. I think the culmination of a lot of that activity stimulates and turns into this idea of a start-up week on the Western Slope.”
Cory Finney is building out the state’s first network of investors seeking to seed businesses in rural counties. The co-founder of the Greater Colorado Venture Fund has about $15 million to invest and so far has invested in nine businesses.
Finney and his partners have identified about 200 businesses across rural Colorado, many of them product-based, with less of an emphasis on software but still technology-reliant. Like the former Silicon Valley tech developer who is applying strategies from starting a tech company to an agricultural business in the San Luis Valley. And the co-founders of Rever.
“We see this as an evolution of the American Dream. It’s not all about the white picket fence and 2.5 kids anymore. It’s more about living where you want and doing what you want,” Finney said. “These are people creating their own opportunity in places they want to be.”
Small business owners have long anchored economies in Colorado’s mountain communities. But those entrepreneurs boot-strapped their success, slowly building revenues or investing money they brought to the mountains. Nowadays, more investors are finding opportunities by seeding rural entrepreneurs, fostering a growing start-up economy across the Western Slope.
“I would argue that the real money in the state is not actually in the Front Range,” Finney said. “It’s in mountain communities. There is probably more wealth in Vail, Aspen and Telluride than there is in Denver. But historically, getting that wealth to engage in the community has been a challenge and getting that wealth to connect with broader Colorado ecosystems has been a challenge as well. But now there is demand. We are seeing more of that money in mountain towns that wants to get involved and engaged in the community.”
Denver was among the first cities to host a start-up week in 2012 and now there are more than 100 start-up events around the globe every year.
Feld says there are lessons for rural Colorado that can be gleaned from the blossoming of start-up businesses in Boulder that spilled into Denver. He calls it The Boulder Thesis, which he outlined in his 2012 book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City.”
First, he said, leaders of the start-up community must be entrepreneurs and there must be a critical mass of entrepreneurs with leadership roles. Second, take a long-term view, at least 20 years ahead, to grow the entrepreneurial community. And finally be inclusive of everyone who wants to engage in the community and make sure there are plenty of events and gatherings to encourage participation.
As for challenges, he’s not too worried about broadband. High-speed internet will come, he said.
His concerns are more about collaboration and getting communities to realize that growing new economies is not about winners or losers, but creating a vibrancy that moves beyond county lines.
“It requires a bit of a mind shift,” he said.
He illustrates this concept with a story. When he visits rural communities in the Midwest, he hears this a lot: “We are really conservative here.” And he asks them about their great-great-grandfathers, who loaded up wagons more than a century ago and moved their families across roadless landscapes of nothing to build homes and cities on empty prairies.
“Sure. Those people were conservative,” he says, tongue in cheek. “This mind shift is realizing that things change and change is not bad. It’s not that you throw away your values. Putting a label on yourself like saying we are conservative or it’s different here or we have problems that nobody else has, is not very good critical thinking. The question is … what can you do today, so that 50 years from now your city is healthy and vibrant, versus saying ‘Oh that’s not us and we are not like that,’ which is not useful.”
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