Boulder, Colorado is home to one of the most-active startup communities in the country, according to the Kauffman Foundation, and having been a part of its development, I strongly believe that healthy startup communities can grow anywhere in the world.
In Boulder, no one person sat down and said, "Let's create a startup community here." That's not how it happens. It's not something that anyone creates from the top down, but rather something that develops organically, as a network, driven by entrepreneurs.
When I moved to Boulder from Boston in 1995, there were a number of entrepreneurs already working on different companies, living what I now call the "GiveFirst" philosophy, which is about putting time and energy into a system without defining the transaction up front. While at the time we didn't really understand the power of it, looking back over 22 years tells a remarkable story.
GiveFirst is not philanthropic. You expect to get something back when you participate in an ecosystem in this way, but you don't know from whom, when, in what consideration or of what magnitude it's going to be. The idea is that if you get a bunch of people together who are all participating and putting their energy into the system, then lots of good things will start to happen.
The Boulder startup community has thrived as a result of this philosophy. In addition to creating a bunch of successful local companies, it has attracted a number of major tech companies, including Twitter and Google, which are now part of the Boulder startup community. And I like to think this activity and philosophy has helped Denver -- 45 minutes away -- become a stronger and more significant startup community.
If it's going to be replicable, we need to get about the business of building innovation and some startup culture into regions of the country that have been left behind. It's not a good thing for Colorado, nor the rest of the country, if opportunity is only focused in a certain handful of (increasingly expensive) cities.
At a high level, it's pretty simple. The four principles of successful startup community development are:
- The leaders have to be entrepreneurs.
- They have to take a very long-term view.
- They have to be inclusive of anyone who wants to engage.
- They have to have activities and events that continuously engage the community with entrepreneurship.
That's the essence of an approach we are now trying to drive across the state of Colorado, in an effort that could be important more broadly to our country. As innovation has taken hold, it has left far too many people behind. It's time to make sure that from the rural Western Slope of Colorado, to the Rust Belt and small towns in the South, everyone can plug into the energy of the startup grid that powers jobs and growth.
As Steve Case says with his Rise of the Rest initiative, high-growth companies can now start and scale anywhere, not just in a few coastal cities.
Colorado as a case study
Colorado is home to one of the most unique urban-rural divides in the nation.
On the one hand, the urban Front Range corridor is booming, with record-setting population growth and economic success from Colorado Springs to Denver to Boulder to Fort Collins. There are numerous pockets of development outside the Front Range -- essentially the mountain town ski resorts -- that draw millions of visitors every year. These ski towns are healthy and vibrant small towns, usually with tourism as the core driver of their economy.
But, as you get further out from these islands of prosperity, you start to run into the classic urban-rural divide dynamics, with big pockets of high unemployment, isolation, and areas that are being wholly bypassed by the state's recent economic explosion.
To me, this represents an opportunity for Colorado to serve as an example for the rest of the country, to show how innovations can reach beyond key cities and their wealthy suburbs by nurturing startup communities in places in Colorado like Ridgway, Grand Junction, Montrose and Pueblo.
It is also a business lesson for anyone trying to build economic development from a perch in government. My advice: Don't try to imprint innovation over your economy. Participate in, and strengthen, the network.
Building long-distance connections
In Boulder, we have the advantage of density. We're sitting in the middle of a 15-by-5 city block area that's filled with dozens of different startups -- everything from ad tech to robotics to natural foods companies. Being physically proximate makes connectivity on many dimensions much easier.
Our rural communities don't have this advantage, but they can still generate powerful connectivity. You just have to solve for the problem in a different way.
For example, here in Colorado, rural cities are spaced far apart. If you are in Montrose, you're an hour away from Delta and you're an hour away from Crawford. At any given moment, there are several entrepreneurial companies working in one of those towns consisting of a few people. Just by themselves, there isn't enough happening there for those entrepreneurs to reach critical mass and drive a network effect.
But, think about what happens when we get these communities together and create strong, lasting connections between them. That's what creates sustainable growth, and that's when the possibilities really start to open up.
That's what we're trying to accomplish with Startup Colorado, a public-private initiative that is working in partnership with the Colorado Office of Economic Development. It's a five-year project that's committed to building startup communities throughout the rest of Colorado, outside the Front Range, not by showing up and saying, "Here's how you do it," but instead by really spending time in these rural communities, learning about them and helping them create connections with the rest of the state. We'll be focusing on network building, events such as bootcamps, sponsorships, networking and telling the stories of the amazing work being done by entrepreneurs across the state.
If we can extend the benefits of this economic miracle to the rest of our residents in Colorado, it could be a model for the rest of the country.
Related Video: How to Build an Entrepreneurial Community