Startup Anywhere

These Are the 3 Things That Make or Break a Startup City

For the 'Rise of the Rest' tour, we stopped in Denver. Here is what other cities can learn from Denver about how to rise above the rest.
These Are the 3 Things That Make or Break a Startup City
Image credit: Andy Cross | Getty Images

Entrepreneur is on the road with startup platform Rise of the Rest. Check out Startup Anywhere for stories from the October road trip as well as for insights from thought leaders and community leaders showing there’s an entrepreneurial world outside Silicon Valley.

Today, we toured Denver on a bus to see an entrepreneurial ecosystem that, actually, compared to many places, is doing pretty well. According to the Kauffman Foundation, Denver is one of the top five cities in startup activity, and Colorado ranks fourth out of 50 states. Two decades ago, that wouldn’t have been the case. As we visit cities across the country, we often hear what’s not working --we need more capital, more connectivity, better founders.

While Denver is self-aware that they can do so much more, they're on an encouraging pathway to how a community can do its best. At lunch, Steve Case talked about the “three Ps” of the Web's Third Wave. In reflecting on Denver, I saw three Ps that have made Colorado a great startup community. What can other cities learn from Denver about how the rest can rise?

Related: 4 Ways to Maximize Your Startup's Hometown Advantage

1. People 

Nearly every entrepreneurship leader in the country has read Startup Communities, a book written by legendary Boulder, Colo.-based entrepreneur and venture capitalist Brad Feld. In our pitch event, Brad highlighted what has made Colorado entrepreneurial over the last 10 years -- what he’s called a “doer-ocracy.”

In Colorado, says Feld, the way you get ahead in the entrepreneurial community is to give to other people. They even have a hashtag: #GiveFirst, which means to give without an immediate expectation of return. This mindset is critical to long-term success and isn’t common everywhere. Feld has found that very often, the communities that have been less successful have had the people who want to be involved in entrepreneurship not actually be helpful to entrepreneurs—investing in them, sitting on boards, helping them navigate customer relationships.

Finally, founders need great people to grow, and in Denver, we saw the city investing heavily not just in the founders of the next great company, but employees 2-1,000. Galvanize and Turing are two great examples of best-in-class coding academies that are filling the future jobs of Denver.

Related: Steve Case 'Fear Can Paralyze or Propel Us'

2. Place

We had breakfast at Wynkoop Brewery in downtown Denver, founded 20 years ago by Gov. John Hickenlooper, who was a lifelong entrepreneur before running for office. Hickenlooper promoted a phrase that rivals “doer-ocracy” in its local resonance: “topophilia.” (I promise Denver is more than just idiosyncratic terms!) Topophilia means a love of place. Twenty years ago, downtown Denver was not trendy, but people like Hickenlooper made the city a place where young people wanted to live and work. The city has invested heavily in bike paths, easy access to the outdoors and a million other things that create a high quality of life.

Bryan Leach, founder of Ibotta, arguably Denver’s fastest-growing startup, moved to Denver because it’s where he wanted to raise a family. He told a story today about how in the early days of his company, he would go to Palo Alto to raise money, and investors at the end of the meeting would say, “This has been a great conversation. When are you coming back here next?” His response, “Well, I’m here now. Are you in the deal or not?” Today, Bryan says that he won’t take an investor’s capital unless they get on a plane to see him in Denver -- and with his revenue growth and market share, he’s a massively attractive investment target for anyone, anywhere.

If you’re a Rise of the Rest city, own where you are and make it a great place for the best entrepreneurs to live.  As Steve Case said, “In the 21st century, the capital will follow the people more than the people will follow the capital.”

Related: 4 Ways to Use Your Local Community to Scale Your Business

3. Purpose

In Colorado, entrepreneurs and investors have picked up the idea of "purpose-driven companies," and rallied around a greater meaning than just financial returns. Whether it’s “impact investing,” “conscious capitalism,” or another phrase you prefer, the idea of building great businesses that also yield a more prosperous society is in the DNA of Colorado.

One of the most successful startups in Colorado over the last 20 years is New Belgium Brewing. It’s now a 100 percent employee-owned company that will allow janitors and administrative assistants to retire comfortably. There are also organizations such as the Gary Community Investment Collaborative that are seeking to level the playing field for founders from low-wealth backgrounds, making sure that, in the words of one Colorado leader, the benefits of startups don’t just accrue to “hipsters and college students.” And we’re seeing emerging sectors like education technology—three of the eight teams pitching for $100,000 were in ed-tech.

Ultimately, Denver still has work to do. The city still doesn’t have a massively valuable startup like AOL, Under Armour,or Microsoft that can re-define the community for a generation. And the entrepreneurship community is still fragmented in ways that leaders hope to change. But as we seek to promote the Rise of the Rest, it’s helpful to see examples of a community that can provide instructive thoughts to the rise of others.