When the COVID-19 health and economic crisis swept across rural Colorado, it knocked startups and small businesses off their feet. Business owners were caught in the storm, suddenly realizing they’d never imagined a global pandemic or The Great Lockdown. Despite the economy’s largely going dark in March and April, we could still see flashes of light as entrepreneurs solved these new, historic problems.
As businesses hustled in fear, business support organizations sprinted to meet them at the front lines in every way they could. At Startup Colorado, an outreach program within the Silicon Flatirons Center at the University of Colorado Law School, we immediately adapted our tactics to serve entrepreneurs and business support agents across the rural parts of the state.
As an ecosystem-building organization with strong relationships and established trust, we engaged with statewide and regional partners, including the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade and the Colorado Small Business Development Center, to organize weekly crisis resource calls for business owners.
These calls provide up-to-date information for response and recovery, plus advice from regional, state, and national thought leaders and business experts. At one point, Sen. Michael Bennet’s office joined the call to offer encouragement to rural business owners. These regional calls reach an average of 400 business owners and rural community leaders each week.
Before the pandemic, the Startup Colorado team was on the road, facilitating events and networking opportunities in rural communities. As with other grassroots organizations, the shutdown demanded that we rethink our outreach strategy and focus more on digital storytelling. Therefore in addition to the resource calls, we launched the second season of our Startup Colorado podcast to focus on crisis solutions for entrepreneurs, by entrepreneurs. We interviewed business owners throughout the state, highlighting their evolving business strategies, struggles, and successes. From restaurant owners to packraft manufacturers, we featured the gamut of entrepreneurs across the state who were beacons of light in the storm.
Charting ahead into an uncertain and socially distanced world, the Startup Colorado team is diligently expediting development of a new network tool for Colorado’s rural entrepreneurs. This virtual network will connect entrepreneurs to one another beyond communities in an effort to expand regionalization and connection through aligned interests and behaviors. This platform is the result of an in-depth study conducted with the help of statewide ecosystem builders and entrepreneurs alongside support from our intern through CU’s Leeds School of Business. The goal is for this new platform to create density where it doesn’t exist, foster a self-propagating network, and build a more coordinated playing field on behalf of rural entrepreneurs and the communities they call home.
Looking back at these tumultuous months, a pattern reveals itself. Colorado’s rural entrepreneurs refused to be identified as the victims of a crisis. Josh Niernberg, owner of two restaurants in Grand Junction, changed his business strategy overnight in response to the coronavirus situation. The MakerLab in Durango transformed its volunteer makerspace into a personal protective equipment manufacturer overnight. Colorado’s entrepreneurs responded to this crisis by solving each new problem, changing their businesses, and starting new ones.
We proudly continue to serve and look to our entrepreneurs to rebuild more resilient and sustainable rural economies. Small businesses comprise over 64% of new jobs in the United States, and 89% of small businesses have 15 employees or fewer. At Startup Colorado, we believe our rural communities harbor an inherent genius that can only be found from a life lived farther off the beaten path and that in the face of challenge, we are all in good hands with our innovators, creatives, and entrepreneurs. As we take each day as it comes, Startup Colorado will continue to work with entrepreneurs and ecosystem builders throughout the state to help these change makers survive and thrive.
Several dedicated staff at Silicon Flatirons and Colorado Law make Startup Colorado’s impact possible. Special thanks to Brian Lewandowski, Erick Mueller, Sean Quinlan, Amanda Rochette, Jonathan Sibray, Amie Stepanovich, and any others we forgot to mention here.