How Boulder Grew Into a Hub for Start-Ups

How Boulder Grew Into a Hub for Start-Ups

After selling his Boston start-up in 1995, Brad Feld, then 29, moved to Colorado with his wife, Amy.

He didn’t have big career plans, other than to invest his own money in promising businesses, and figured Boulder, a college town 30 miles north of Denver, would be a convenient spot for crisscrossing the country. It was not a bad place to live either.

Within a couple of years, Mr. Feld had put down deep roots in his adopted community. Even as he was investing around the country, he increasingly found opportunities close to home. Although the foundation for Boulder’s entrepreneurial success had been laid decades before his arrival, Mr. Feld got to see those efforts bear fruit.

Fast forward to today, and Boulder, with a population of about 99,000, is a hub of start-up activity. Mr. Feld, a co-founder of TechStars, a mentor-driven business accelerator that started in Boulder and is now in four other cities, has gotten used to fielding questions about Boulder’s start-up success. Mr. Feld, the author of “Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City,” spoke with DealBook about the start-up community in Boulder and how small cities can cultivate entrepreneurship.

What brings entrepreneurs to communities like Boulder in the first place?

People want to live where they want to live. You should figure out where you want to be and build a life around it. Different geographies attract different people. It’s also a dynamic that’s changing because of communication. Twenty years ago, you couldn’t be just about anywhere and understand what was happening in the rest of the world. Today you can. So eventually places build on themselves as existing entrepreneurs attract other entrepreneurs.

We all know Boulder has a robust start-up community, but what are some other places?

In the Midwest there is Des Moines, Omaha, Kansas City and Grand Rapids. I think Portland is incredibly interesting. They have a smart counterculture of people. It’s not just small cities. There are a lot of larger cities with a growing core concentration of start-ups; 1871 in Chicago is co-working space in the Merchandise Mart that’s become a hub of activity.

What comes first, the venture capitalists or the entrepreneurs?

The V.C.’s are the feeders, not unlike lawyers or bankers supporting the start-up community. Having V.C.’s in a community does nothing in an absence of start-ups. Really the thing to focus on is generating the start-up activity. The trick is the feeders can’t be the leaders. In a vibrant start-up community, you want a whole bunch of companies that are start-ups. Some will fail and that’s O.K. But the ones that expand will attract capital from outside.

Are outside investors biased against start-ups in places like Boulder?

Early on, we heard that there’s engineering talent but no sales and management. The community grew and that talent came. The concern then in the ’90s is: “If a company doesn’t work, is there another opportunity?” We also used to hear: “We’ll fund you if you move to Silicon Valley.” Very few people will play that game now.


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