Walking down Main Street of any small town in the Rocky Mountain West, you’ll find the quaint storefronts, cafés and watering holes you expect. Uber and Lyft are hard to come by. DoorDash is foreign. Nothing “disrupts” small-town life, besides a snowstorm.
Our Main Street businesses and their staff members are still the soul of our small towns.
However, a new breed of founders is augmenting the bricks-and-mortar cornerstones of our communities. They’re less flashy than their Silicon Valley counterparts but just ambitious. From their humble downtown HQs, they serve customers all across the world.
As an investor in rural Colorado startups, I’ve crisscrossed our small towns and met with hundreds of community leaders and founders. I’ve been led through countless unbranded door fronts and up hard-to-find stairways to find founders quietly monetizing global markets.
Amid this small-town business revolution, our small-town life will remain intact. Daily encounters will continue to be as much about knowing dog names as human names.
That said, make no mistake: the Rocky Mountain West is at the forefront of the future of Main Street.
The region’s startup momentum predates COVID. RightNow Technologies and Mercury Payment Systems — headquartered in Bozeman, Montana, and Durango, respectively — quietly reached billion-dollar-plus deals to be acquired by other companies. Back in 2011 and 2014.
These massive “exits,” in the parlance of startups, proved that founders can choose their ideal hometown and pursue unlimited ambitions.
They also planted the seeds for their local ecosystems. Just as the family tree of Seattle’s startup ecosystem often traces back to Microsoft, and Silicon Valley to Sun Microsystems, Bozeman and Durango each now have their own growing family trees. By 2017, the reach of Bozeman’s RightNow mafia was well documented. And trust me: Durango is blossoming in a similar fashion.
However, it does not take a billion-dollar exit to kickstart the local startup ecosystem.
Consider Mark Roebke. With two startup exits from the Eagle Valley, he is a unicorn in his own right.
In November 2020, Roebke and his cofounder Justin Bradshaw sold REVER, an app for motorsports enthusiasts. The Eagle-based startup had 1.7 million members thanks to its rider-focused features.
And Roebke’s first successful startup, Resort Technology Partners, is the technology that powers most major ski resorts’ backends.
Roebke’s secret sauce is something every small town knows: home-field advantage.
While REVER benefitted from Silicon Valley’s storied 500 Startups accelerator (Batch 22), its founding required Western Colorado’s hundreds of miles of open-road, long weekends, and rugged 4×4 passes.
Other communities and founders are honing in on their home field advantages, too. Within two hours of REVER’s Eagle Valley, you can find “Outdoor Business Town USA” (formerly known as “Ski Town USA” or Steamboat Springs), an alliance of local food entrepreneurs in the North Fork Valley, and the Colorado Outdoors campus in Montrose.
Amid these rising local competitive advantages, a cross-community ecosystem exists to ensure enduring regional success, too.
Back in June 2019, West Slope Startup Week minted Western Colorado as one coherent, vibrant startup ecosystem. 300-plus people attended 50-plus events in the event’s first year, followed by 600-plus attendees for 75 online events for the 2020 edition. Organizations like the Telluride Venture Accelerator, Startup Colorado, West Slope Technologists, and Proximity Space, laid the foundation for this region-wide cornerstone event.
And where there are founders, there are funders. Within the last few years, the region’s local risk-capital options have grown by millions. These include Next Frontier Capital, Sage Growth Capital, West Slope Angels, Silicon Couliour Angels, Frontier Angels, Yellowstone Growth Partners, and the Greater Colorado Venture Fund. This doesn’t include countless co-investors from across the country.
But enough community ra-ra and investor chest-boasting. Where are the companies?
Here are recent Rocky Mountain West startup successes and a taste of the future for the region’s small towns:
- Agile Space (Durango, in a literal moonshot, will be providing thrusters for a proposed lunar landing in 2023.
- Blackmore (Bozeman) was acquired by Aurora to integrate its “Doppler-LIDAR” into its self-driving technology.
- Harvest Hosts (Vail) raised $37M to accelerate growth as road-tripping goes mainstream.
- Helix Busines Solutions (Dillon, Montana), founded by a RightNow alum, recently exited to Speridian.
- Mountain Flow Eco-Wax (Carbondale) landed two investments during the Feb. 5, 2020 episode of “Shark Tank.”
- Vertical Harvest (Jackson, Wyoming) is expanding its vertical farms and affordable housing model to Maine, Philadelphia, and Chicago.
Communities across the West are no stranger to change. Whether it’s long lines at the post office, busier trailheads, or just a hard-to-place, unfamiliar downtown vibe, change is making its presence felt once again.
While this can be uncomfortable, we must remember that change has lived here since the beginning. It is simply time we get reacquainted.
In this next chapter, a “Main Street” customer is as likely to be paying via API from another time zone as walking down the street, paying in dollars and cents. They do not compete with the charm of downtown nor threaten their neighboring businesses. Rather, amid a growing wave of inevitabilities, they offer new means to the same small-town life.
Thanks to the vision of our founders and the foresight of our community leaders, the Rocky Mountain West is years ahead in re-embracing change.
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