So You Want to Be a Tech Hub?

The successful startup community in Boulder, Colo., has some wisdom to share

A successful tech community requires available talent, sufficient capital and an attractive lifestyle. But there are other, less tangible qualities that go into building a technology hub. One of the most recent success stories—hailed everywhere from The New York Times to Fox News as one of the country’s most favorable places for startups—is Boulder, Colo. The city held its Startup Week in May, and some of the ideas discussed not only tell the unique story of Boulder’s progress but offer insight that can help evolving hubs such as Las Vegas accelerate their progress.

There’s no overnight successes. Boulder’s breakthrough didn’t just happen in the last few months, or years. It’s been a slow, generational build.

Tech entrepreneur Niel Robertson (the CEO of Trada, an advertising crowdsourcing company) and venture capitalist Seth Levine (managing director of the Foundry Group) trace the lineage of today’s dynamic to earlier generations, dating to IBM Boulder’s late-1960s forays into storage systems. That blue chip was followed by a second wave of storage-tech companies (Seagate, Western Digital, et al), which gave way to a software-development movement followed by the first Internet startup groups. That history, they say, provided three generations of connections, mentorship and entrepreneurship.

Establish a town-and-gown relationship. While the relationship between Boulder and the University of Colorado has yet to fully flourish, the foundational work is firmly in place. The university is home to the respected Deming Center for Entrepreneurship, which is on all the right lists—U.S. News & World Report, Fortune, etc. But the startup spirit bleeds into other campus quarters. CU’s Law School offers an entrepreneurial law certificate via its Entrepreneurial Law Clinic. The Entrepreneurship Center for Music at CU-Boulder has as its mission “turning talent into opportunity.” The journalism department has several offerings focusing on entrepreneurialism, creating a brand and new media. And there’s the CU New Venture Challenge, the university’s Silicon Flatirons and, the presumably non-scholarship, non-uniform-wearing CU team club, Startup CU.

Be somewhere special … or make yourself special. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the University of Colorado is separated from the critical mass of downtown Boulder only by a creek and a 10-minute walk. With an almost preternatural beauty, Boulder is an easy sell. Most players in the city’s startup community work, and often live, near the Pearl Street District at the city’s core near the foot of the looming mountains. That in turn creates the sort of entrepreneurial density that’s cemented Boulder’s reputation as one of the best places in the country to start a business. Interactions with others in the startup field—from executive to couch surfer with a dream—are almost inescapable in the district, which stretches from the shopping core to encompass about 20 blocks.

“We’ve got almost 40,000 people who live within walking distance of the Pearl Street Mall. You need to have that residential component because a lot of these tech entrepreneurs walk to work or ride their bikes. Also, you walk 10 minutes west of the mall and you’re at a trailhead,” says Sean Maher, the executive director of the Downtown Boulder Business Improvement District. “That scenic beauty of Colorado literally outside your office door? You can’t duplicate that in a lot of places.”

Provide coffee and snacks. Another piece of Boulder’s success is the hyperactive coffee and cuisine culture. It likely comes as no surprise that coffee shops play host to all manner of digital dreamers. But a gastronome haven is in the making, as well. It’s a byproduct of those dreamers who have paid their dues—they like to eat and drink well as do their clients. Bon Appetit has named it “America’s Foodiest City,” and the cultural bellwether 5280 magazine gave the nod to the city for having five of the Denver metro area’s 20 finest restaurants. And one of downtown’s finest eateries, Frasca Food and Wine, was just recognized as a James Beard Award finalist. The dining district is also compact—there’s no need for cabs or cars to visit almost 120 eateries.

Build community. Defining community is a fool’s errand, but if pressed, wizened ones in this clique point to a sense of cooperation.

“Creating a strong sense of community is sort of like creating a viral video; you can’t just sit down and say, ‘OK, now we’re going to create a viral video,’” Robertson says. “I think there’s a transition that communities make at some point in time from one where everybody picks up an oar and is rowing for the greater good—it’s very transparent, it’s very collaborative, and I think we’re right in the heart of that in Boulder right now.”

The venture capitalist Levine echoes that notion; when his phone rings and a favor, a question, a suggestion is posed, there’s an expectation of “yes” by the dialer. This give-before-you-get notion holds that soon enough, the caller will be on the other side of the call, offering that same “yes.”

In Boulder, communities within communities nurture one another. The mega-successful TechStars seed-funding firm is based in Boulder; some 92 percent of companies completing its program are successful, and those fledglings average $1 million in venture capital funding. The organization is a mentorship and startup accelerator program and is complemented by smaller-scale incubators such as the Boulder Innovation Center and “idea farms” such as Ignite Boulder. And flexible, co-working salons with names such as Scrib and the Hub are popping up like spring flowers.

Play politics. Because of its open-space protections and tight zoning ordinances, Boulder is long on beauty and short on office space. Creative sorts have always been good at work-arounds, but enlisting the City Council as an ally can be a direct route toward problem solving. With the influx of startups, downtown real estate was feeling the pinch.

Maher, the business district executive, worked with city leaders to overturn an ordinance requiring all downtown construction be 50 percent residential. That worked 12 years ago when the ordinance was enacted to reinvigorate the dynamic of downtown with high-end condominiums and the live/work/play ethos; it hasn’t worked in the more recent past. The rule was overturned, and the result is a thriving second-story business environment.

Keep the faith. After a weekend reconnaissance visit, Camilla Calhoun moved from a startup company in Raleigh, N.C.—there was no there there, she says—to jump into the bustle of Boulder. In the year and a half since her move, she’s immersed herself in the entrepreneurial startup culture. It takes a certain passion, a particular mindset, she says. “Be delusionally optimistic. You just have to believe that it’s going to happen, and you’re all in. After a year, you have to still be passionate if not more so than the day you decided to do it.”

The Boss and the Robot Ball

Boulder-based Orbotix —a 2010 TechStars graduate—relied on the old Boy Scout motto, “Be Prepared,” in getting its product in the hands of President Barack Obama. When the firm’s founders became aware of the president’s late-April visit to the University of Colorado, they plotted to get Sphero, essentially a robotic ball controlled by smartphone, into his hands. Late-night planning and some near-stalking later, Obama, exiting a well-known campus dive, spent some time with Orbotix’s Ross Ingram and Sphero itself. Buzz was generated—along with a YouTube video with more than 120,000 views.