Day 1: Lessons from Boulder Colorado
After arriving in the USA and meeting at our hotel in Denver for a mission briefing ahead of a group dinner to bond and connect with the cohort, our first official day of the inaugural Startup Community Leaders Mission was spent in Boulder Colorado.
Boulder is a small city of 103,166 (2013), making it smaller than Cairns (147,993), Townsville (180,333), Ipswich (190,000), and Toowoomba (114,622), but bigger than Mackay (84,455), Bundaberg (70,588), and Longreach (3,173), which are all locations represented by the community leaders on the trip.
It lies at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, some 40km northwest of Denver in Colorado. Boulder is home to the main campus of the University of Colorado, the state’s largest university, and frequently receives high rankings in health, well-being, quality of life, education and art.
For those reasons, it draws many parallels to parts of Australia, particularly Queensland, where people tend to migrate for reasons of lifestyle and quality of life factors, but often landing in regional hubs rather than the capital city (the majority of Queensland’s population lives outside of its capital city Brisbane).
But what sets Boulder apart is the fact that by 2010 the city had six times more high-tech startups per capita than the nation’s average, and twice as many per capita as runner-up San Jose-Sunnyvale (in Silicon Valley), according to an August 2013 study by the Kauffman Foundation.
Boulder is a startup incubator as a town. As a result of the tech boom here, we were told it enjoys a 2% rate of unemployment, and a 96% house occupancy rate (both of those stats also have a downside for high-growth startups looking to secure talent).
It is also the birthplace and home to TechStars, has an active venture capital community, and is where Brad Feld calls home. Indeed the playbook on how to build startup communities (funnily enough, titled Startup Communities) was written by Brad Feld and based on Boulder as a study case, dubbed the “Boulder Thesis“.
For these reasons, Boulder was the perfect city for us to launch the Startup Community Leaders Mission for 2017.
“The history of Boulder, the start-up haven, is a fascinating story of a community that built itself from scratch through a combination of individual effort, shared sacrifice, and counterintuitive choices (not to mention a near-constant urge to skip out of the office and get outdoors).” – Burt Helm, Inc.com
Lessons from Boulder
The most striking takeaway from Boulder is the real, genuine sense of community. The TechStars mantra of “give first” and “founders first” are not just catch phrases, nor are they limited to TechStars, but rather they appear to be a universal aspect of the local culture.
In Australia, I have found that some of the accelerators, incubators and co-working spaces are often reluctant to meet and share insights into their inner workings with their counterparts at “competing” organisations. In Australia, there often appears to be an underlying fear of IP theft that could diminish their share of the pie, which holds people back from sharing their insights.
But in Boulder, from our time with the team at the Boomtown Accelerator, to the student-focussed Spark Boulder, to the organised educational machine that is Galvanize, and of course TechStars, the leaders of each of these organisations articulated frequently working with their counter-parts at the other organisations to deliver events and programs, and deliver value to founders.
They openly referred to their roles as “actors in the ecosystem” – referring to the fact that they each knew their specific role – where they fit in the landscape compared to others – and they clearly worked in collaboration, actively recommending founders who entered their doors to the other organisations if there was a better fit.
Indeed almost all of our introductions and meetings in Boulder came from someone at TechStars organising them for us.
David Cohen, co-founder of TechStars, had wrapped up a full day of mentoring with the latest TechStars cohort, to meet and spend time with our group at the end of a long day. Originally told by his PA that David could “maybe spare 30 minutes” with our group as he would be keen to get home to see his family on his first night back home, he ended up spending 90 minutes with us – before we had to cut the meeting short – with some golden nuggets of inspiration and insights (but more on that in future posts).
Recently returned from a visit to Australia, David shared his reflections on his visit, and mentioned the rivalry that he witnessed between the startup scenes in the capital cities in Australia. Meanwhile he was surprised to learn of our startup successes – like 99designs out of Melbourne – which go largely un-promoted. The key takeaway was that we need to spend more time talking about our successes, rather than fighting for a share of the pie.
Every interaction I have ever had with TechStars – from the first demo day I attended in Seattle in 2013, to my work as a Startup Weekend facilitator, to the global and regional summits in Las Vegas and KL, and to interactions with Brad Feld through those and other investor education events – I have always felt like I had found my tribe. For me, the time spent at TechStars in Boulder was a massive re-injection of my startup mojo – a confirmation of my “why” – and a reminder to always be of service to others.
Leaving Boulder, my overall sentiment was that we can build awesome startup communities in regional centres back home, but we need to change our dialogue and focus on developing our sense of community. To do so, we have to develop the “intellectual honesty” (their phrase) to recognise our individual roles in the broader ecosystem, while also killing the tall-poppy syndrome, and getting much better at story telling.
What we missed
We only had one day in Boulder, but next mission we will also be sure to visit:
- Mergelane – an accelerator for women-led companies
- Canopy Boulder – an accelerator for the cannibis industry
- Unreasonable Institute – an accelerator for high-impact founders
More insights from Boulder
Here are some more reflections on our time in Boulder from other mission participants:
- Baden U’ren – The Tall Poppy Syndrome is Dead
- Troy Haines – Boulder reflections
- Mic Black and Jarryd Townson: Boulder
About the mission
The first Startup Community Leaders Mission took place from 29 January – 5 February 2017, with 18 participants taking part, including 13 from regional Queensland, 2 from Brisbane, 1 from Byron Bay, and 2 from Perth.
The objective of this mission was to explore different models and programs used overseas for providing support to startups, while building global awareness, discovering international best practices, learning about the latest trends, and building strong global connections, all to better support the startups in our local Australian startup communities.
The mission was supported and sponsored by Advance Queensland, which is a Queensland Government initiative to support startups and innovation. Under this funding, ten regional Queensland participants were selected to receive sponsored (funded) places on the mission (excluding their return international flights and personal spending money).