Feeling Boulder


By Jim Sweeney

When ID8 Nation first announced that it was going to explore entrepreneurship in Denver, people said, “You mean Boulder, right? That’s where everything’s happening.”

In fact, there’s plenty happening in Denver and that’s why it’s the focus of this issue, but the assumption is understandable. For more than a decade, discussion of entrepreneurship in Colorado has been limited largely to Boulder, and with good reason.

While Denver, the state’s capital and largest city, had some startup activity, until recently it was widely scattered and relatively low profile. Boulder, by contrast, is a media darling, a compact powerhouse of entrepreneurial energy so celebrated that it draws out-of-state officials anxious to see if they can reproduce the magic back home.

In 2010, Boulder launched high-tech startups at a rate six times greater than the national average, according to a Kauffman Foundation study. That gives Boulder the highest high-tech startup density of any metro area in the United States. (Colorado dominated the study with Fort Collins-Loveland, Denver and Colorado Springs taking the second, sixth and ninth spots, respectively.)

Not coincidentally, Boulder also is home to Techstars, a high-powered tech accelerator, and a leading VC firm, Foundry Group.

So, yes, I decided I had better go to Boulder.

Hippie tech

It’s about 30 miles from downtown Denver to downtown Boulder, just far enough away that Boulder can’t be considered an exurb. Still, there are plenty of commuters who head both ways on U.S. Highway 36, and the daily bus shuttles between the two cities carry a number of entrepreneurs.

Even without its startup success, Boulder would strike envy in the heart of almost any city.

It’s small (pop. 100,000), picturesque (mountains), educated (University of Colorado), young (median age of 28.7 years vs 37.2 years national average), prosperous (per capita income of $37,600 vs $28,000 national average) and a perennial polesitter in Best City and Healthiest City rankings.

Walking through downtown Boulder, I half expected a triathlon to break out. A vegan triathlon, if that could be a thing. Even the moms pushing strollers down the Pearl Street pedestrian mall looked fit enough to sprint to the top of the Flatiron Mountains, which provide a photogenic backdrop to the city.

It snows here, but the brilliant sun melts it quickly, as if to make way for the Lycra-clad cyclists, who seem to outnumber drivers. “Look at this,” one entrepreneur gloated, fingering his light fleece jacket. “This is pretty much what I wear all winter.”

A mountain bike would probably be the Official Vehicle of Boulder, but I spotted a car that could compete for the title: a white Porsche 911 Carrera with a ski rack on top. Inside were a middle-aged blond man and woman dressed in expensive ski clothes.  

The city might have started as a rough-and-tumble mining town, but its vibe now is crunchy, green and progressive. I saw men openly carrying yoga mats and an “herban lounge” advertising chakra elixirs and herbal whipshakes. My waitress at West Flanders Brewing Co. talked me into trying a rosemary-infused IPA — and it was delicious. When I learned that Boulder is the birthplace of natural food giants Wild Oats Markets and Celestial Seasonings, my response was, “of course it is.”

Critics have called Boulder “25 square miles surrounded by reality,” but it is more than just a New Age enclave. The city’s tech prowess has its roots in the 1950s and ‘60s when the federal government opened a number of government research centers, including the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons manufacturing facility. IBM located its tape drive manufacturing division here. Colorado University researchers formed Ball Aerospace. Other large employers include Level 3 Communications, Oracle, Seagate Technology, Amgen, Lockheed Martin and Sandoz.   

Boulder also is home to younger firms such as Rally Software, which went public last year, and SendGrid, which has raised $27 million. However, nothing has boosted the city’s entrepreneurial profile as much as Techstars, the exclusive and high-powered tech accelerator, which has since spread to other cities.  

A symbiotic relationship

Given all of Boulder’s entrepreneurial wonderfulness, Denver could be forgiven if it regarded its neighbor as a rival.

But that’s not the case. Instead, Denver’s startup community views Boulder’s success as inspiration and benefits from the smaller city’s entrepreneurial overflow and examples. I couldn’t find anyone in either city to badmouth the other.

“The Boulder-Denver divide? I don’t think it exists,” said Jim Franklin, who commutes daily from his Boulder home to the Denver offices of his company, SendGrid.  

In his 2012 book, Startup Communities, Brad Feld, co-founder of Techstars and Foundry Group, was dismissive of Denver’s entrepreneurial scene, criticizing it as hierarchical, scattered and risk-averse.

A lot has changed since then, Feld said in a January interview with ID8 Nation. Denver entrepreneurship has gained mass and momentum and begun to coalesce around places like Galvanize, a tech startup center near downtown. In short, Denver is beginning to look more like Boulder.

“There’s this sense of inclusiveness and this engagement in the Denver startup community that I didn’t feel even five years ago,” Feld said. “It’s true for first-time entrepreneurs, experienced entrepreneurs and the concentration of that activity in places like Galvanize allows people to see it.”

Denver owes much of its entrepreneurial growth to Boulder residents who have forged bonds between the two startup communities. People like Robert Reich, a serial entrepreneur and founder of New Tech Colorado, a monthly gathering of tech entrepreneurs.

Reich started the monthly meetups in Boulder three years ago and expanded to Denver when he noticed how many residents of that city drove up for the get-togethers. Now the Denver meetings draw more people than the Boulder ones.

“It’s in the baby stages,” Reich said of Denver’s startup scene. “It’s figuring out what it wants to be and its areas of interest.”

Michael Sitarzewski was another bridge builder. His startup, Epic Playground, launched in Boulder, but opened an office in Denver. In 2010, in response to a need, he founded the Denver Open Coffee Club, a biweekly gathering of tech entrepreneurs.

Sitarzewski, who has since moved to Dallas, said Denver’s startup ecosystem has the potential to become bigger than Boulder’s. “Boulder is really about Boulder and Boulder focuses on things that make Boulder better. Denver is more globally focused.”

Growth spillover    

One of Boulder’s charms is its determination to stay small, deciding not to sprawl beyond borders set in 1959 and not allowing buildings higher than 55 feet.

But that means limited and expensive office space for startups along Pearl Street, the entrepreneurial Main Drag. That can drive companies out of town, often to Denver.

Startup FullContact graduated from Techstars in Boulder, but CEO Bart Lorang opened its office in Denver.

“What happens to Boulder companies is they get bigger than Pearl Street and then they move to East Boulder. And if you’re going to be in East Boulder you might as well be in Denver,” he said.

Indeed, there are numerous examples of startups with offices in both cities. And Boulder companies find that an office in Denver gives them access to a deeper talent pool.

While the links between the two cities are numerous and getting stronger, veterans of both startup scenes say it’s unlikely the two will ever completely merge. But, as FullContact’s Lorang notes, with a typical Boulder vibe, that doesn’t mean everyone shouldn’t live in harmony.

“We’re all Colorado, right? We’re all Front Range, right? We’re all in the same game.”

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