Galvanize Charges Denver Entrepreneurship

By Jim Sweeney

Who brought the wolf?

There it is, wending its way through the crowd, looking like it just loped down from the Rockies into the heart of entrepreneurial Denver.

As it passes through the café at Galvanize, I reach out to give it a pat, like I would any other canine at any other startup hub, but then I change my mind and draw back my hand.

I’m pretty sure I could pet the dog and nothing bad would happen (and it is a dog, of course, not a wolf, just a large, dark, shaggy German shepherd that would not look out of place on top of a craggy peak, muzzle raised to the full moon), but it somehow seems ill-advised.

I’ve been to a lot of places like Galvanize, incubators and accelerators and co-working spaces, and there is almost always a dog or dogs. Usually they’re friendly mutts snoozing in the corner or mooching their way from desk to desk for leftover Chipotle. Not this dog. This dog is mission-ready alert as it flows through the crowd. No stopping to sniff crotches and I’m confident it would ignore a tennis ball if I tossed one.

Jim Deters brought the wolf.  

“That’s Boss,” he says. “He’s a guard dog. I’m getting a second one, too. Even bigger.”  

Deters is CEO of Galvanize, the 30,000-square-foot tech campus through which Boss moves so confidently. Though Deters, unlike Boss, is approachable and aggressively friendly, dog and master give off the same vibe, an air of hyper-alertness, of senses attuned to what’s next.

And the more time I spend at Galvanize, the more I come to see that Boss is a perfect fit here. Big, powerful and with impressive focus, he’s part of an organization that in 18 months has completely transformed — and come to dominate — Denver’s entrepreneurial scene.

An exhausting man

To report on entrepreneurship is to meet exhausting people. People who are more successful than you; clear-eyed visionaries who spot fabulous opportunities while you’re binge-watching House of Cards; people who not only spot those opportunities, but seize them and shape them to their will; people who work harder in a day than you do in a week and who get up each morning thrilled at the prospect of working even harder. Exhausting.

Deters is one of those guys. Not only is he the owner of a brace of fearsome German shepherds, he is a 38-year-old serial entrepreneur, a multi-millionaire who sold his last tech company for enough money that he could do nothing but snowboard and bike for the rest of his life.

In fact, snowboarding and cycling are why Deters moved to Denver in 1998 after graduating from DePaul University with degrees in Economics and Business Management, with a specialty in entrepreneurship. He started and sold a succession of software companies, the last of which, Ascendant Technology, an international IT software and consulting firm, reached No. 13 on Inc.’s Fastest Growing Companies list.

Deters lived in Denver, but he wasn’t really there. Ascendant was based in Austin and Deters traveled constantly. His biggest impact in the city was helping his wife, Alicia Pokoik Deters, open a restaurant, ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro, in 2010. Typically, the couple went big, landing a top New York City chef, and ChoLon is regarded as one of the top restaurants in the city.

Other than ChoLon customers, Deters didn’t know many people in the city. After the birth of his third child in 20XX, he scaled back his role at Ascendant Technology and sold it a year later. For the first time, he had the opportunity to look around his adopted city. What he saw excited him.

“There’s this urban entrepreneurial renaissance happening right under my nose and I didn’t even know it was happening,” he says.

His notion was to dabble, to do some angel investing, mentor a few companies, join a few boards. Denver had an active and growing startup scene, but it lacked a focus. It was scattered across the city and overshadowed by what was happening in neighboring Boulder. Deters started going to events, and the more people he met, the more meetings he attended, the clearer the potential became. A born networker, he began fitting the puzzle pieces together.

“I didn’t originally set out to do this. I thought I was just going to ride my bike and hang out with my kids and write some angel checks and that was about it,” he says. “And then I’m like, wow, someone needs to make this faster and better. I kept saying, ‘Who’s going to galvanize it?’ Well, I guess I’m going to do it.” 

And he’s incapable of dabbling. Hardcore entrepreneurs, ones like Deter, who have it in their blood, cannot resist building things, any more than they can settle for staying small when there is a chance to go big.

“What I was also realizing was as an individual I could only write so many checks, I could only mentor so many people, so it was how do I build a platform that has impact?”

"The Most Magical Place"

There went the semi-retirement. He teamed up with Lawrence Mandes, another angel investor with a background in finance, and Chris Onan, a venture capitalist. They hit the road, visiting the most successful startup tech hubs in the country, places like 1871 in Chicago, General Assembly in NYC and RocketSpace in San Francisco. They thought about everything they’d learned and every problem they’d encountered.

“If I were to build the most magical place to learn and build a business, what would it look like and what would it involve? It would be inspiring and light and it would have great beer and great coffee and food and it would have great people and a very clean aesthetic,” Deters says. “So I really set out to build my own dream workplace of what I would have wanted had this thing existed when I started my first companies and put it inside one beautiful facility.”

They wanted a new building, but plans got hung up and Deters wouldn’t, couldn’t  wait. Without abandoning those plans, they found an existing structure, the Rocky Mountain Bank Note building in the Golden Triangle neighborhood. A company that printed stock certificates and bank forms, Rocky Mountain opened its doors in 1929, mere months before Black Tuesday plunged the banking industry — and the nation -- into the Great Depression. The company survived the Crash. Later, the building housed Denver’s first charter school.

“What I love about those two entities is the historical significance of technology innovation, education and learning that occurred in the building,” says Galvanize co-founder Mandes. “Fast forward to contemporary times and what are we doing in the building? Technology, innovation, education and learning.”

Galvanize opened its doors in October 2012 when it hosted Denver’s first Startup Week and the city’s entrepreneurs immediately fell in love with the place. It’s not that there weren’t other places in town with coffee and wi-fi; there were. But none offered the complete package Galvanize did, said Erik Mitisek, CEO of the Colorado Technology Association.

“The timing was perfect and the community needed a single space to call home to building technology companies. Galvanize became that place quickly by existing. They did not compete; their product filled a space that did not exist,” he said.

Previous attempts, like the Denver Technological Center, which is south of downtown and dates back to the 1970s, and the Interlocken Advanced Technology Center, halfway between Denver and Boulder, are more like office parks than the urban workspaces today’s entrepreneurs want.

Galvanize has even earned the admiration of entrepreneurs in Boulder, who are not used to sharing the startup spotlight with Denver.

“All of a sudden there was this enormous amount of density right on the edge of downtown Denver in Galvanize’s building. People in Denver started to congregate there, people from outside of Denver and Colorado would congregate there,” said Brad Feld, co-founder of Techstars and the Foundry Group in Boulder.

Google is a fan as well. The search giant named it one of its seven tech hubs less than a year after its opening and recently gave it $1 million as part of a campaign to increase the number of women entrepreneurs.  

Where the beautiful people work

Walk in the front door and Galvanize sucks you right in. You’re not in Galvanize; you’re in Gather, a coffeeshop/café/bar that’s open to one and all, no bouncer at the door checking entrepreneur cred, just come on in and have a seat. It’s become a neighborhood meeting place for entrepreneurs and non-entrepreneurs alike and it hosts several events a week, like 1 Million Cups Denver, various Meetups and others.

“There wasn’t much in the neighborhood in the way of food or drink so we had to do it,” said co-founder Onan. “And what we’ve learned is that, every day, Monday through Friday, that you walk through that café there’s at least one, if not 10 to 15, capital sources in that café/bar at some point during that day. I get community members that come to me and say, hey, man, I raised 100 grand today just because I have a desk at Galvanize. I get those comments all the time.”

My first visit is during a morning meeting of 1 Million Cups Denver, an event at which entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to an informal crowd of fellow entrepreneurs, networkers, investors and the just plain curious. The audience perches on chairs and sprawls on couches, sipping on water and lattes. A guy sharing my small table says he’s a consultant and investor looking for some good ideas to back.

The audience’s questions and suggestions after each pitch are thoughtful and direct, but not mean or dismissive. When one entrepreneur admits to not thinking things through, the crowd nods in sympathy. It’s OK, is the message. Don’t give up. Give it another go and come back again when you’re ready.

Rachel Mimken and Jessica Grabarz linger after 1 Million Cups ends, working on their laptops and making calls from the cafe. Both are marketing consultants and both are solidly in the Millennial demographic that has made Denver its favorite new destination. Neither is a member of Galvanize, but they visit because they like the vibe and the odds of making work connections.

“What happens after 1 Million Cups is you end up talking to people for the next two hours,” says Mimken. “It’s certainly got a lot of energy.”

Leave the café, walk past the ping pong table (which actually gets used and is not just a Signifier of a Cool Workspace) and the conference rooms to where the real work gets done. This is members-only territory, but clear glass double doors offer the visitor a tantalizing glimpse into Entrepreneurland.

The Atrium is full of tables, chairs and couches, open seating. For $299 a month, you get wi-fi and a place to plug in. I head upstairs where, for $449 a month, startups can rent dedicated desks on which they can hang their company logo. The G Suites, glass-fronted private offices, house six to 30 people and are often the last stop before a startup strikes out on its own. Not every member is a startup. California success stories Uber, Pandora and Box have their local offices here. And everyone has access to a small workout room, bike corral and game room.

If I were filming a recruitment film for entrepreneurship, something that would encourage wage slaves to tear the corporate ID lanyards off their necks, kick down their cubicles and cash in their 401(k)s, I would film it here at Galvanize.

Not only is the building beautiful, so are the people. And, to be honest, that’s not always the case. In my experience, co-working spaces tend to be populated by scruffy dudes, sometimes with questionable hygiene. Not at Galvanize. There are nearly as many women as men and, because this is Colorado, the Nation’s Fittest State, the hipsters are not so much skinny as really, really trim.

Not surprisingly, several members run fitness-related companies. It’s even home to a dating service for “mindful” people. The spirit is contagiously positive. Everyone’s brilliant and everyone is going to hit it big.

Unlike many similar spaces, Galvanize accepts only digital tech startups. No Etsy artisans or freelancers. “It’s not about being elite. It’s that we have a specific mission here and that’s why we’re successful,” Deters says.

Galvanize makes a point of being friendly to its 150 members. It doesn’t take equity in its members; it’s fine with monthly leases; and it doesn’t set a time limit on how long a company can stay. A long waiting list means vacancies don’t last.

The entrepreneurs who work here cannot wait to tell me how much they love it.

Eric Hubbell is CEO of a social platform, myhub. “One thing I really like about Galvanize is I can work alongside other founders and other developers from other companies. There’s no sense of competition; it’s more like a shared knowledge economy where everyone’s collaborating, willing to help other people, presenting ideas, sharing materials.”

Matty Walker is co-founder of Artifact Uprising, a firm that moved to Galvanize from another location downtown. “It’s nice to be around people that are struggling with the same things you are and the day to day of the startup business. Seeing that reflected in other people’s businesses makes you feel a little more comfortable in your own shoes.”     

In the back of the building, on the second floor is the feature that really sets Galvanize apart from similar spaces: gSchool. Its six-month coding course is longer and more expensive than many, but maybe that’s why it’s confident enough to promise graduates that they will get a developer job paying at least $60,000 a year within a few months or their $20,000 tuition will be refunded, a bet it has yet to lose.

The school is run by Kirsten Ames Kahn. Like everyone associated with Galvanize, the former Yahoo! executive speaks of her job like it’s a mission: “I’ve been a casual mentor to a lot of kids who come out of college with a $200,000 degree and they have no idea what to do with their lives. And they feel like they don’t have any skills and sometimes I feel like that’s true. So being part of gSchool, where I know I’m giving people the digital skills they’ll need to be successful and knowing that these same people I’m training are people I’ve been trying to hire for 10 years, it’s a done deal.”

Bri Thomas, who gave up a career in marketing to enroll, spends 70 hours a week learning to code. When she graduates she hopes to be hired by a Galvanize company: “I would absolutely stay at Galvanize. It’s a fun place to work. I think all of us are looking for that kind of right team dynamic and Galvanize absolutely has it.”

Entrepreneurial ecosystem    

It’s not always easy to talk to Deters about Galvanize. It’s not that he’s reticent. To the contrary, ask him a question and he’s off, you can almost hear the espresso humming through his veins. It’s just that I keep calling it the wrong thing.

“I don’t mind startup, right?” he says. “But you want your startup to grow up and become an amazing, powerful business. The word ‘incubator’ sort of got a bad name in the ‘90s. When I hear the word ‘incubator’, I think of someone trading space for equity. We don’t do that here. At all. I’m not interested in taking a piece of your business just because you need a spot to work. That, to me, doesn’t feel right.

“And ‘co-working’ became too much of a buzzword for me. This is a campus to me. This is an entire medium for efficiently building companies and empowering entrepreneurs. And a co-working facility isn’t necessarily doing that. Fortunately or unfortunately, it became an industry standard, so we must accept it. I’d rather hear ‘co-working’ than ‘incubator’.”

OK, then.

Sometimes, he refers to Galvanize as an ecosystem, a dynamic, interdependent structure in which each of the four components supports and is, in turn, supported by the others. Here’s how it works:

  • The workspace attracts members who pay rent and provide a critical mass of startup energy. These companies also offer inspiration, mentoring and, potentially, jobs for students graduating from gSchool.
  • The gSchool attracts tuition-paying students. It then graduates developers for Galvanize members and other startups.
  • The café keeps everyone fed and caffeinated. It serves as a community meeting place and an enticement for new members.
  • The micro-cap venture fund makes money that subsidizes rent and tuition. It also invests in some Galvanize members. 

“This is not for the faint of heart to try to pull off, right?” Deters says.

Coming to your city (maybe)

Soon, it’s going to be necessary to make clear to which Galvanize you’re referring. There’s Galvanize Denver No. 1. Galvanize San Francisco opened late last year. Galvanize Boulder is scheduled to be up in May. And Galvanize Denver No. 2, which is being built from the ground up a few miles from No. 1, will open its doors in September. That’s four locations in two years, a pace more often associated with fast food chains than entrepreneurship hubs.

When I ask Deters why he’s moving so fast, he’s puzzled.

“Umm, why not?” he says. “I like to say there’s nothing worse than a small company that moves slow. I think there’s a serious need and demand to make this happen. To me, it’s not fast enough.”

He won’t say what’s next, but hints at New York City, Austin, Boston, Chicago, and then, maybe, Istanbul, Vancouver or London. Wherever it goes, Galvanize will be run by locals who know the city and the people. In some cases, Deters says, Galvanize might partner with local groups, like 1871 in Chicago.

He envisions a nationwide network of Galvanizes, each node interacting with the others, taking advantage of each other’s strengths. “You need a true community that’s got your back, that wants to see you succeed, that’s going to develop relationships for you, that will leverage their network to open up doors for you. And to shape that entire ecosystem was exactly what I wanted to accomplish,” he said.

Whenever he gets on the subject of what Galvanize could become, the big vision, he talks faster and leans in a little more, his smile gets broader and it’s clear that it’s not just the espresso talking, that Jim Deters is having a blast.

“Every day hanging out with hundreds and hundreds of entrepreneurs, helping them achieve their dreams — could you think of anything more fun to do? I couldn’t.”

Galvanize’s staff leads tours twice a week for community leaders, potential members and the simply curious. As they walk through the Atrium on the ground floor, the visitors pass right by Deters and his staff, who camp out at a table since giving up their office to make room for a member.

Deters, newsboy cap pulled low, hunches over his laptop, the only giveaway the wolf curled up at his feet.

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