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Steamboat charts its course with entrepreneurship

A community rallies to create opportunities at home


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One morning in 2012, Carrie Requist – joined by 15 to 20 fellow entrepreneurial citizens – made the case for her company’s success to well-known venture capitalist, Jason Calcanis. This would be a difficult meeting to get for any entrepreneur, so Requist’s opportunity was especially unique given his group was Skyping in from Steamboat Springs. As part of Steamboat’s monthly Ignite meetup, these unlikely connections with the greater startup community would propel Requist and her company, U Grok It onto the main stage at San Francisco’s Launch Festival, and help her land a lead investor a few years later.

One June morning, I joined the Ignite meetup in a small conference room at The Ski Locker, a new coworking space among Steamboat’s tourist-focused ski shops and restaurants, where Requist retells this story. As startup activity booms on Colorado’s Front Range, the community leaders gathered here are hard at work trying to create similar opportunities in their home, “Ski Town USA.”

For decades, tourism has powered Steamboat’s economy.

Yet this has left a large portion of the town’s income exposed to the elements. Opting out of the service and retail jobs available has often meant leaving the Yampa Valley.

The Ignite group gathers regularly to build new avenues of local opportunity as remote workers, entrepreneurs and investors themselves. While it’s easy to point to the obstacles posed by building a business in a small mountain town, the overwhelming attitude is optimism.

True, companies in the Yampa Valley don’t have the same access to capital, talent pools and fellow entrepreneurs as their Front Range counterparts. But that hasn’t stunted their ambition. In fact, Steamboat has birthed a multitude of entrepreneurial successes, including brands you may have heard of like Smartwool and Big Agnes.

Looking at U Grok It, Requist hardly mentions her (her cofounder and husband Tony’s) startup’s atypical hometown. U Grok It grew as many other companies do today. She hired two key employees remotely, from San Francisco and Seattle. To manufacture their hardware product she found an industrial design firm (using Quora) based out of Boise, ID. By the time U Grok It sold, they had more than 250 developers building on their platform and served customers across continents.

Nonetheless, a key factor in Requist’s success was her ability to plug into the greater startup ecosystem — of Colorado and beyond. Following the Skype session, Jason Calcanis received a package of “Ski Town USA” swag, including a signed poster from all the attendees. This clever follow-up primed the various startup legends they would skype for a more pointed followup. As Requist put it, “They had Steamboat on their minds.”

In fact, her follow-up would put U Grok It under one of the tech scene’s most prominent spotlights – pitching at San Francisco’s Launch Festival, which Calcanis founded.

Building off of this momentum, Requist would earned the chance to pitch the prominent Colorado Venture Capital firm, Foundry Group, which laid the foundation for Foundry Group’s angel investing syndicate, FG Angels, to lead U Grok It’s upcoming funding round. (More on how Carrie and Tony’s made this happen, here.) With a respected venture name behind her Steamboat-based company, Requist closed their fundraise round just a week later. Not bad from the Yampa Valley.

Back to that morning in June, I stood in front of a handful of Steamboat entrepreneurs and investors, and asked, “How can we recreate more U Grok Its? And more high-paying jobs in Steamboat?”

The conversation was robust, as mountain-towners are as passionate about their community as they are skiing powder. We pondered some really big, important questions. What does entrepreneurship look like in Steamboat? What can and can’t it do for our town? What are the obstacles in the way?

Requist’s advice for the next mountain-town entrepreneur who would need investors, “Before you start, try to build that local investor club.”

Less than a month later, building off of our conversation, Steamboat is now home to Four Points Funding, an investment and consulting service for local entrepreneurs, as part of the collaborative Steamboat Launch initiative. Founders Shawn Bertini and Chris Montgomery hope to make local investors and resources more accessible than ever before in the Yampa Valley.

Speaking with Bertini, he is ecstatic about the companies he has already found among his neighbors. It turns out, entrepreneurship is already common practice. Today, up and coming Steamboat companies like Click Medical (medical devices) and Hala (stand up paddleboards) continue this tradition. If they’re successful, along with the dozens of passionate citizens we met that June day, soon to be professionals, like Requists kids, may find new opportunities back home in the Yampa 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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