The Hidden Journey
How Rachael Qualls and Venture360 Lead Portfolio Management Software
Do you love tech, but also love having the freedom to leave tech behind in favor of the mountains, woods, and lakes every now and then? So do the people of Denver and Boulder. Instead of striving to recreate Silicon Valley, the Denver and Boulder communities have done the opposite, opting instead to embrace what’s culturally unique about themselves. In doing so, they’ve created one of the most exciting tech hubs outside of the coasts.
We camped out for a month in Denver and Boulder to get a ground-floor view of what makes their tech communities thrive. Here’s what we learned.
[ News Outlets & Forums ] [ Business & Startup Organizations ] [Investors ]
[ Coworking Spaces ] [ Accelerators & Incubators ] [ Communities & Events ]
[ Schools & Bootcamps ] [ Service Providers ] [ Corporate Innovation]
News outlets play a vital role in every tech ecosystem. These three outlets each look at the Denver and Boulder startup communities through a different lens. In doing so, they reveal what makes each so unique as tech hubs. For entrepreneur and investor John Ramey (who had great success in Silicon Valley with ventures such as iSocket), that includes how active and dynamic the tech communities are.
“If you’re an employee, you can pick the type of company you want to work at,” Ramey says. “If you’re an investor, you have a wider range of types of companies that you can invest in.
Built In Colorado: This online hub showcases all that’s happening in the Colorado tech startup ecosystem. It’s particularly great for job seekers thanks to a deep job board, inside looks at many local startups, and a salary tool.
ColoradoBiz: Short for Colorado Business Magazine, this monthly publication and website covers the state economy with special focus on business, finance, and technology. Its Lists section publishes annual reports on the state’s top companies.
Denver Business Journal: Similar to ColoradoBiz, but focused on just Denver. The result is a deep look at what’s happening in the city, so much so that some content is subscriber-only.
Tech professionals rely on these outlets to see who they should connect with, and what events and organizations can make those connections happen. “There [are] great organizations here
that really help facilitate collaboration between enterprise and startup in the Denver-Boulder area,” says Joe Thurman, CEO and executive talent consultant at Jobber Group. “We have Colorado Technology Association, we have Built In Colorado. We have Denver Startup Week, which is huge.”
The #GiveFirst tech culture of Denver and Boulder encourages collaboration through virtually every part of the local ecosystem. “I’ve been a part of the Colorado Technology Association for 10 years, and I really focus on growing my network in that group,” says UB Ciminieri, chief strategic connections officer at Jobber Group. “I love technology, and I love what it can enable. I love connecting people in different ways and figuring out how both parties can benefit.”
Colorado Technology Association: Since 1994, the leaders at Colorado Technology Association have sought to cement the state’s reputation as the most important tech hub between the coasts. They do this through facilitating strategic partnerships, developing projects that help fill STEM talent gaps, and hosting the annual APEX Awards.
Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade: The OEDIT has one mission: to show companies from startups to Fortune 500 companies why they should do business in Colorado. It’s not shy about it, either, as evidenced by its web address (choosecolorado.com) and ambitious programming. “Innovation drives economic growth, and the Advanced Industries program‘s funding helps to enhance and advance Colorado’s key industries,” says Katie Woslager, advanced industry senior manager at OEDIT.
Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network: Blackstone, also known as BEN, focuses on helping the state’s scale-up companies realize their high growth potential. The organization chiefly accomplishes this through community building, creating a network where entrepreneurs can connect with one another.
The list builds from there with organizations such as the Downtown Denver Partnership, who organizes Denver Startup Week. “From a tech perspective, whether it’s the Colorado Technology Association or high private/public hybrids like the Blackstone Entrepreneurship Network, we’ve just gotten a tremendous amount of support,” says Danny Martinez, president of Blinker. “It’s a vibrant area.”
Coworking spaces connect entrepreneurs with so much more than a place to work, and Galvanize is a great example of that. “Galvanize was founded here in Colorado about six years ago. We expanded to Boulder, our second campus, and then a few years later, we expanded yet again in the state of Colorado,” says Emilie Kintner, general manager. “[The] Denver and Boulder campuses, they’re not very far apart, about 30 miles, and there are a lot people who travel back and forth, but there are some interesting niches and market factors that play into each.”
Chad Johnson, co-founder of Thrive Workplace, has seen a similar proliferation. “I feel like the Denver tech community has grown the coworking sector in the past 10 years,” he says. “When we first started back in 2012, there were about four co-working sites. To this date, there are 40+ coworking sites in Denver. There are more resources now to help these entrepreneurs and small businesses, more collaboration, and more networking opportunities.”
Galvanize: All tech hubs struggle to some degree with filling talent needs. Enter Galvanize, which strives to create as frictionless a pipeline as possible from tech education to tech jobs. The organization welcomes all, and is especially fond of helping underrepresented groups learn skills for breaking into tech. And with campuses in Austin, Seattle, New York, and San Francisco, Galvanize’s community helps connect talent and entrepreneurs in different tech hubs.
Commons on Champa: As an entrepreneurship hub, Commons on Champa’s resources start with a free coworking space. From there, initiatives such as Women on the Rise, a nine-week accelerator program, and OED at The Commons (daily advisory hours tailored to small businesses) give entrepreneurs well-rounded support.
Thrive Workplace: True to its roots as a family-owned business, Thrive Workplace champions relationship building to support the local tech community. Amenities geared toward corporations help realize that vision, creating a membership base that mixes startup founders with professionals from Fortune 500 companies.
These coworking spaces are great places to see how collaborative the tech environment here is. “The Front Range of Colorado has the perfect mix of new technology, deep science, and thoughtful entrepreneurs,” says Scott Brown, managing director UpRamp “Our edge is our willingness to say ‘yes’. On the Front Range, you can grab a coffee or beer with just about anyone and bounce ideas off them, share insights, and embrace happenstance.”
How did Denver and Boulder grow their tech communities so quickly? One reason: putting robust accelerators and incubators in place. “When I moved here in 2000, there was almost no tech ecosystem,” says Nicole Glaros, partner at Techstars. “There were a handful of people doing stuff but really, they didn’t collaborate and communicate very well, and since then, that’s obviously changed a lot. I think that’s actually one of the magic things that we’ve been able to accomplish.”
Erin Stadler, managing partner of Boomtown, agrees. “Most ecosystems break down as they grow, but our culture has created a system where those that were supported before continue to come back and support the next generation, creating a cultural flywheel that strengthens our foundation as one of the best ecosystems to build a company,” she says.
Techstars: What started in 2006 from an email between two Boulder tech leaders has grown into a global organization that supports entrepreneurs in the more than 150 countries. Techstars nurtures startups with a deep well of resources, including accelerator programs, venture funds, and a mentor network of more than 10,000 participants.
Uncharted: “None of us know who might change the course of history.” Uncharted has one of the most transparent and refreshing approaches to accelerating startups as you’ll find. It publishes lives impacted as a key metric in its investments, and 53% percent of its ventures have at least one woman co-founder.
MergeLane: Heard of a funderator? That’s probably the best description of MergeLane, who combines practices from its venture fund with short, intensive accelerator programming. Its investment thesis emphasizes funding women-led Seed to Series A companies, too.
The emphasis on growing female leadership, as well as diversity and inclusion in general, is celebrated by many in the state’s tech ecosystem. “Tech companies can do a lot to be more inclusive, not only to women, but to just a larger swath of the population. One of the ways they can do that is really being mindful of physical space,” says Virginia Santy, co-founder of Women In Kind. “Things like ping pong tables and happy hours and a keg in the kitchen are really cool. What are you communicating? What kind of culture are you trying to foster there? Who is that culture for? Really being mindful of those things that we often take for granted and we just see them as fun and everyone’s going to love them, really, what are you building? Then once you think about that physical space, it does breed a consideration of larger culture.”
Though Denver and Boulder have more access to capital than many other non-coastal tech hubs, each city still has it struggles, from funding niche industries to late-stage companies.
“Denver [and] Boulder’s vibrant angel community is actively involved in mentorship and collaboration,” says Clay Gordon, managing partner of Stout Street Capital. “Partnerships between accelerators and funds have increased due to the quality of companies in the Denver-Boulder ecosystem. Upcoming seed stage funds, such as Stout Street Capital, provide capital for growth to Series A and Series B. However, lack of later stage capital is hurting companies and forcing them to move to the coasts. That hurts the ecosystem.”
It’s also worth noting that while most industries can find early stage funding, some can’t. “Colorado’s growth in the science and technology ecosystem has outstripped our local capital capacity,” says Mike Freeman, CEO of Innosphere Fund. “Seed stage funding is particularly hard right now.”
Stout Street Capital: Stout Street operates from a compelling investment thesis. Its four-step methodology emphasizes deep data and market analysis, which enables the firm to streamline its due diligence and maintain a high volume of deal flow. Portfolio companies enjoy a “semi-active” relationship with Stout Street that prioritizes collaboration and building strategic relationships. The firm focuses mainly on Seed to Series A investments in the Rocky Mountains, but also invests through the middle of the country.
Foundry Group: One of the best-known investment firms not just in Colorado, but also the nation. And for good reason: Foundry Group’s commitment to celebrating local culture and investing in homegrown companies created a blueprint that many other cities now follow. Brad Feld, founding partner, wrote the book “Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City,” which is required reading for anyone in a non-coastal tech hub. Some of Foundry Group’s team also helped found Techstars.
Rockies Venture Club: The RVC, like Foundry Group, takes a big interest in engaging with the tech local community. The RVC throws more than 100 events per year, ranging from pitch nights to angel investor forums. It also offers application links straight to its portfolio companies to connect them with talent.
“The reason I really try to convince entrepreneurs that this is the place to raise early-stage capital is that this is an environment that can grow with you from seed all the way to exit,” says Dave Harris, director of operations at Rockies Venture Club. “What I mean by that is not just that we can be writing checks and providing capital, but these are investors and advisors and even fellow entrepreneurs in the community that are willing to collaborate with you and willing to help you. You don’t see that in the Valley. In the Valley, an early-stage entrepreneur is often a number. We have a different mindset here and it’s really because we have this give-first mentality baked into our ecosystem.”
Name something that intersects with tech—digital media, cryptocurrency, diversity and inclusion—and you’ll likely find a group of professionals united by it.
“Denver is really an exceptional place,” says Lizelle Van Vuuren, founder and CEO of Women Who Startup. “I have my beef with it because I have high expectations of our wonderful city, but at the end of the day, I think we are generating more and more opportunity for people to do extraordinary things and experiment in extraordinary ways, whether you are a small business, a technology startup, a leader in an organization, want to run for office, want a sit on the board. We have to get the hurdles out of the way for women, people of color, the LGBTQ community to come and play in these sandboxes. We have to. No excuses. The time is now.”
Joshua Churlik, CEO and co-founder of Well Data Labs and co-founder of Denver Founders, also sees the community at a the time is now moment. “Now that the community knows itself, now that it’s functioning, now that it’s big and spinning and has traction, how do you keep it together rather than it flying apart? One of the ways we try to do that at Denver Founders is twice a year we throw a big community party and we invite all the other groups, any group that’s around the startup ecosystem to call it their holiday party or their summer party and to bring their people to that party. We buy all the food and beer. We call it a Startup Mashup. We do that in the summer and the winter and it’s our effort at trying to keep the community glued by making it really easy for it to come together.”
Women Who Startup: Women Who Startup doesn’t just want to empower the female entrepreneurs and innovators of Denver and Boulder to ‘keep climbing’, it’s building a digital platform to connect and educate founders around the world. Monthly events (online and on the ground) and a steady of stream of content (videos, podcasts, blogs) keep the community involved and growing. WWS also holds two annual events in Denver: the Women Who Startup Rally and the Summit.
Denver Founders: The organization’s mission is in its name. One of the longest-running tech meetups in the state, Denver Founders brings together local tech founders, from those who just launched their first company to those who have successfully exited, at the Soda Pop Garage. Among its most noteworthy programs is Mentorathon, which pairs successful tech leaders with new innovators.
10.10.10: Ten prospective CEOs (who have already founded at least one company) spend 10 days together innovating on 10 “wicked problems.” Why? As 10.10.10 sees it, many entrepreneurs, even after founding successful companies, still have plenty of untapped passion and ability. The 10.10.10 program, therefore, is designed less around product-maket fit and more around founder-opportunity fit.
“We talk about 10.10.10 as living on the left side of the bow tie,” says Tom Higley, founder and CEO. “The knot in the bow tie describes that moment in time when a new venture is created. To the right of that knot in the bow tie you see accelerators, and after that, you see Series A, B, and C financing. In the far right is the liquidity event. For 10.10.10, there’s a left side of the bow tie, and that’s identifying the problems that actually could be opportunities and identifying the entrepreneurs who are ready to pursue them.”
Denver and Boulder’s schools do much more than fill the demand for tech talent. They also disrupt traditional notions of what higher education. Gary Dolsen, co-founder and CEO of Deep Ocean insights, explains. “Galvanize is a local company, but they are also generating a lot of people with technical skills in a boot camp setting,” he says. “Rather than go for a college degree, people are going through a six-month certification and they come out ready to work in small companies. It’s really helping release some of the gating factor of trying to find good talent locally.”
Beyond education, these institutions, whether collegiate or vocational, have also stepped into roles as community builders. “The communities work collaboratively,” says John Dardick, co-founder of FaktorZ (formerly The Digital Garage). “Whether it’s Fort Collins and the association with CSU, or in Boulder with CU, or University of Denver, I think all of these communities are collaborating to create a much larger ecosystem than any one city could do independently of the others.”
The service provider network throughout Denver and Boulder gives it a competitive advantage of many other tech hubs. A big reason? Everyone it seems, whether they’re in tech or not, feels passionate about celebrating the Front Range’s #GiveFirst culture. “You’re not going to get New York hours out of someone moving to Boulder because they’re moving for the lifestyle,” says Verity Noble, co-founder and fun manager of Simple Startup. “I think having a work-life balance in Boulder, Denver is a real asset to most companies because you get more interesting people.”
Jobber Group: All companies need help recruiting the best talent, but startups need it even more. That’s talent consultancy Jobber Group steps in. Applying tools such as AI, cognitive mapping and SEO, Jobber Group helps companies automate their search and hiring lifecycles. That saves time and money, two resources tech companies can’t afford to waste.
303 Software: Since tech is both an industry and a function, it creates a paradox that a tech company can be bad at tech. A MarTech startup might be great with digital ad services, but at a loss for how to optimize its own website. 303 Software fills this gap. It deploys developers averaging seven years of experience to help companies with everything from mobile app development to product quality assurance.
Simple Startup: Founders come from all walks of life, and those who don’t have finance in their backgrounds risk working with a huge blind spot. Simple Startup walks entrepreneurs through every part of finance process, including building a healthy business model, creating a sound financial model, and using those as strategic tools to raise capital.
Because there’s so much shared enthusiasm for the local culture, many service providers see their responsibility as solving problems for the community at large as much as for individual clients. “How can we make sure that our cost of living doesn’t outpace the salaries that the companies are willing to pay?” asks Joe Thurman, CEO of Jobber Group. “We have to solve those challenges. It has to be a collaborative process for how we solve that so that we can scale and grow as necessary but not too fast, not too slow, so the pace of scale is our biggest challenge.”
Damon Delgado, chief solutions officer at 303 Software, also grapples with such issues. “One thing that we have trouble is finding talent within Denver,” he says. “People don’t necessarily need to be here to work together. It’s just such an integrated place. It’s become like a global city in many, many ways.”
In many ways, the frequent interaction between corporations and startups in Denver, Boulder, and elsewhere in the state isn’t surprising. “[Colorado’s] spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation is contagious,” says Sameer Dholakia, CEO of SendGrid. “There is a generous spirit deeply ingrained in Colorado’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
Banks Benitez, CEO of Uncharted, seconds that. “A lot of the companies that apply to our programs, if we are working with them in conjunction with a corporate sponsor, then they’re really excited to tap into the executives of the larger company and learn how they’ve scaled that business,” he says. “Likewise, executives of these larger companies are looking to engage their employees in innovative new projects that are within the industry that they operate. There’s a real interest in a symbiosis between corporations and startups where there’s value for both of them. We see a number of places where corporations are trying to be more entrepreneurial, entrepreneurs are trying to tap into the larger infrastructure of corporations. It’s pretty cool to see that it’s happening and there’s value there.”
CableLabs: The innovation experts at CableLabs live to do one thing: transform industries across the globe. Their motto: “Invent the future.” To do so, they’ve built a dynamic operation that supports startups through multinational corporations. That’s complemented by an international connecting universities, suppliers, and CableLabs’ own research and innovation facility called Kyrio.
Google: It’s not a coincidence Google has substantial operations in Denver and Boulder given the surging tech growth. Google looks committed to the roots it has put down, too. Just a few years ago, it invested $63 million in a Boulder affordable housing project.
SendGrid: An alum of Techstars, SendGrid now delivers billions of emails for companies around the world. The company was founded by three engineers frustrated by their own emails not being delivered. Because of that, SendGrid has a keen interest in helping other rising companies solve the frustrations holding back their growth.
“SendGrid has one of the best startup product programs out there,” says Rich Maloy, partner at SpringTime Ventures. “They really have a fantastic team that gets out [in the community,] and you can’t help but trip over a SendGrid person at any startup event.” Like SendGrid, many established companies proactively engage with the startup community. “That collaboration is really intentional here,” says Joe Thurman, CEO of Jobber Group. “We have CIOs, CEOs, COOs from large enterprise organizations that are willing to take meetings, willing to sit on panels with people who run 10-, 20-person companies. That collaboration is both by design and just woven into the fabric of Colorado.”
Take the Tech Census survey to show where each city’s best growth opportunities are.