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A Hometown Hero Emerges From a Telluride Experiment

Western Rise, a uniquely Colorado business story


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Five years ago, Will Watters was a fly-fishing guide, while his now-wife Kelly, was a ski instructor, spending their post-college era in Vail. The lifestyle was unbeatable, but as the story goes in mountain towns, the opportunities weren’t.

“There was no next step; no solution to making a long-term sustainable lifestyle,” says Will Watters.

Fast-forward to the day after their engagement – the duo met with a product designer in Breckenridge for their new apparel company. They thought it was ridiculous they had different clothing for hiking, fishing, biking and everyday wear. The Watters set out to create clothing that could keep up with the lifestyle they desired and share it with the world. Kelly Watters committed to the brand full-time, while her fiance worked for his dad’s textile business and helped with their new product line after-hours.

Western Rise was born.

Shortly into their new venture, they discovered the Telluride Venture Accelerator and set up a call with Program Director, Ashley Nager. Within 24 hours, they submitted their application. The mountain town accelerator was exactly what they were looking for and a relationship with the idyllic box-canyon town was born.

Telluride Venture Accelerator (TVA) formed in 2012 as an initiative of the Telluride Foundation to create a more diversified and sustainable local economy. It was the first economic experiment of its kind, using an accelerator model to engage the impressive list of people who call Telluride home (whether for a few weeks or year-round). Often excluded in tourist towns, TVA leveraged the storied careers of its ‘second-home’ population, providing them a hands-on way to support the local community in the process.  

Each year, the six-month intensive program brings five to six companies to Telluride to build their businesses.

Thanks to TVA, Western Rise added executives from the likes of Mountain Khakis and Toad and Co. to its board of advisors and received priceless guidance on how to build a direct-to-consumer brand.  

As Will Watters points out, small communities have long been enticing companies to relocate, typically through tax incentives. Rather than competing with outdoor brand meccas like Ogden, Utah –home to Salomon, Black Diamond and countless more – Telluride uses TVA to reveal the local entrepreneurial support network that Western Rise and others like it are looking for.  

Two years into their journey, the Watters have proven that a direct-to-consumer outdoor brand can thrive in Telluride and beyond. Sourcing fabrics from all over the world, the apparel is manufactured in Portugal, shipped to an e-commerce friendly warehouse in Kentucky, and finally sold at WesternRise.com. Their apparel has been featured in Outside Magazine, Backpacker Magazine, and nearly every other outdoor media outlet thanks to cutting-edge fabrics and manic attention-to-detail/  Using apparel as their medium, the Watters are on a mission to share their seamless work-life-play vision.

Back in the office, Will Watters hovers over fabric he analyzes through a microscope while his wife dives in and out of spreadsheets and calls, keeping their largely remote team working together. As soon as the day’s work is done, they can be found rigorously “product-testing” amongst their infamous backdoor scenery. Their passion for their new hometown and the recreational opportunities that come are extensions of the brand. In turn, as sales grow, so do the Watters’ chance at providing similar opportunities to their fellow community members.  

The Watters pursuit for work-life-play opportunities in Telluride has become an emblem for TVA. Using its world-class programming and mentorship network, the Telluride 

Foundation hopes TVA will convince more founders like Will and Kelly Watters to relocate to the town of less than 3,000 people.

Most will not.

Brands like Western Rise and LifeDojo (now located in San Francisco) give TVA credibility as a startup accelerator. Unlike most startup programs, TVA’s success is measured in local opportunities created, and the question remains if the current accelerator is the most effective model.

Embracing their history as a small-town economic laboratory, the TVA team plans to test a new model this fall. Instead of recruiting companies from across the world for six months of programming, they will host a two-week bootcamp for startups already located or looking to relocate to Western Colorado. Led by Ashley and her husband Marc Nager (formerly of Startup Week and Startup Weekend), TVA is on the hunt for new ways to build a sustainable, diversified local economy. If successful, this bootcamp could match, or even unseat, the existing accelerator model, bringing the Watters a few more founding neighbors and a lot more career opportunities in the San Miguel Valley.

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Jamie Finney

Jamie Finney is a cofounder at Kokopelli Capital, an early-stage venture capital fund for startups across the Rocky Mountain region. Building off his experience meeting Colorado's small-town entrepreneurs and community leaders, Finney is an author and editor-in-chief at Venture Town Hall, a publication devoted to small-town entrepreneurship. Previous he ran Startup Summer, sourcing interns to more than 50 Colorado startups and providing an education for the nationally recruited interns. Often a champion for student entrepreneurship, he cofounded TEDxCU and was a director at Spark Boulder, Colorado's first student coworking space.

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