On November 9, 2011 entrepreneurs and enthusiasts packed into the courtroom and classrooms at the University of Colorado Law School for the public launch of Startup Colorado. If the event’s energy is any indication of what is to come, Startup Colorado promises to ignite and empower entrepreneurship across the Front Range. Startup Colorado, an initiative to increase the breadth and depth of the Front Range’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, will provide mentorship, guidance, and experiential opportunities to entrepreneurs and students across Colorado. As evidenced by the tremendous turnout and the launch’s speakers, including Scott Case, co-founder of Priceline.com and CEO of Startup Colorado’s parent organization, Startup America, and Aneesh Chopra, Chief Technology Officer at the White House, this local branch of Startup America has a great foundation on which to expand.
Welcoming the crowd, Dave Mangum, Startup Colorado’s Executive Director, set the tone for the night—celebrating Colorado’s entrepreneurial success and spurring it forward. Next, Scott Case laid out the reasons entrepreneurs should be celebrated and why entrepreneurship should be spurred forward—companies less than five-years-old have created all of the net new jobs in the last thirty years. Case outlined five key elements of startup success: Serial Entrepreneurial Leadership, Connectedness, Corporate Assistance, Talent, and Government Support (Not Leadership). Of these elements, Case said unlocking serial entrepreneurial leadership was especially important. When Case began his address he asked audience members who were in the middle of starting a business to rise—three-fifths of the room stood. In his closing, he conceded that starting a company is not easy, but the entrepreneurs in the audience should remain energetic, “kick ass and takes names!”
Next was a short overview of Startup Colorado by the initiative’s chairs: Brad Feld, Managing Director of Foundry Group; Jan Horsfall, President and CEO of Gelazzi, Inc.; and Phil Weiser, Dean of the University of Colorado Law School and Executive Director of Silicon Flatirons Center. Feld reiterated the importance of entrepreneurs leading entrepreneurs, and the need to engage across the full range of activities, from mentorship to working together. In growing the startup ecosystem of Colorado, Feld suggested stakeholders adopt a twenty-year view that resets every day. Dean Weiser laid out the ambitious goals for Startup Colorado’s First Year: (1) Expand new tech meetups, open coffee clubs, and community office hours in Fort Collins, Denver, and Colorado Springs; (2) Create an entrepreneurial summer camp in Boulder for college students throughout Colorado; (3) Support entrepreneurial education along the Front Range; (4) Evaluate current barriers and best practices in the entrepreneurial communities in the US and around the world; (5) Engage larger companies to help entrepreneurs; and (6) Build a database for information and connections on the Startup Colorado website. Reemphasizing the importance of serial entrepreneurial leadership, Dean Weiser called for a community spirit of giving and a “pay-it-forward” mentality. Horsfall wrapped up the discussion by again pleading for entrepreneurs to reach out and help each other, because “they all have one thing in common—they want to get things done.”
Four young entrepreneurs then took the stage for a panel discussion on why they chose Boulder to start their companies. Alexander White, Co-Founder and CEO of Next Big Sound, Inc., explained that Boulder was the place to be because of its existing mentorship community, specifically the incubator TechStars. Dave Wright, Founder and CEO of Solidfire, thought that Boulder was especially appealing because it offered a great lifestyle with lots of startup energy. This sentiment was echoed by Yoav Lurie, Founder and CEO of Simple Energy, who also added that Boulder is not shrouded in “noise,” the un-helpful clamor of the rat race which exists in other entrepreneurial ecosystems like Silicon Valley and Boston. Despite Boulder’s attractive aspects, some of the entrepreneurs felt there were constraints that came along with area too. Justin Segall, Founder and EVP of Simple Energy, questioned how big Simple Energy could get and how to develop even more talent. Yet both Wright and White disagreed, saying the engineering and science talent is here, and that fundraising from other areas of the country is not inhibited by locating to Colorado. The one area of improvement Wright noted was in the executive and management talent pool. Overall, the entrepreneurs overwhelmingly agreed that Boulder presented productive territory for startups.
The second and final panel of the night allowed two successful entrepreneurs to offer their thoughts on mentorship and entrepreneurship in general. Libby Cook, Founder, President, and Director of Philanthropiece; and Nancy Phillips, Co-Founder, Director, and COO of ViaWest, were thrilled with the leadership that has developed in Boulder’s startup community. Now in a mentorship position, Cook said she tries to inspire confidence in her mentees, keep them on track, and provide networking opportunities and contacts. Cook identified the passion entrepreneurs share as key to successful mentorship because entrepreneurs like entrepreneurs. Phillips said a good mentor has to deliver hard-to-hear feedback and tell it like it is, but conceded that sometimes a little sympathy is in order. Cook agreed and stressed the importance of really engaging and working through problems. As an example of how established companies foster growth Phillips pointed to efforts by ViaWest to give startups access to their cloud computing software and establish an incubator. Building off of the earlier comments about Boulder’s strengths and weakness, about which Cook and Phillips mostly agreed, Phillips said it would be important to develop a strategy to not only grow companies but keep them in Colorado when they become large and successful.
To close, Aneesh Chopra stepped to the podium to deliver a rousing address about how the government can serve entrepreneurs with energy and excitement. Chopra said entrepreneurs have the guts and perseverance to solve the vital issues in healthcare, energy, and education. Offering innovation as the way best way out of the current economic downturn, Chopra laid out a few examples of how the government is trying to help. One example that got a warm welcome from the crowd was the overhaul of fedbiz.gov, the federal website listing business opportunities with the federal government, making it more accessible. Another favorite of the entrepreneurial crowd was an executive order making StartUp Visas more easily available. At the core of the Government’s efforts, Chopra said, is the liberation of data. The government is confident that releasing data on home energy use, text book pricing, and healthcare will lead to innovation by entrepreneurs, who are in the best position to make use of it in meaningful ways. Representing the government position as a humble servant of entrepreneurs, Chopra closed with a bow and a promise to remain “At your service.”
By Nick Venetz, University of Colorado Law, Class of 2014