Denver's Startup Ecosystem is Bolstered by Community

Lessons learned from the 2019 Denver Startup Week

With consistent and considerable GDP grow since 2009, Denver is quickly establishing itself as a hub for entrepreneurs to grow businesses out of ideas and dreams. But why is this?

According to a new study from Clever Real Estate, Denver — as well as Aurora and Lakewood — was ranked the No. 12 most affordable city to launch a startup in the U.S. The report tracked startup density (25.3%), startup growth (25.98%), self-employed workers (4.8%), startup employees (6.25%), education (37.14% with bachelor’s or higher) and cost of living (106.3%).

On the heels of Denver Startup Week (DSW) — which had a record 20,000 attendees at the five-day event — it’s worth evaluating outside of these numbers just why the city is becoming a bustling metro for entrepreneurs.

During DSW, I attended panels and discussions spanning the many industries where startups are blossoming including technology, art, the outdoors, government, aerospace and much more. What I heard most consistently was that the community surrounding entrepreneurs is what makes Denver unique against other booming metros like San Francisco, Seattle and New York.

“Denver has a vibrant, growing economy,” says Elizabeth Salomon, the CFO of Xactly, a sales performance software firm. “And that is evidenced by the people coming through the door.”

Across industries, there were two factors building Denver’ unique startup economy: businesses here commit to doing better for society and consumers are holding businesses accountable to that and Coloradans (and Denverites) are committed to helping each other.

Brought Together by Accountability

“When we come together we build a better city,” says Rep. Leslie Herod (HD-8). “A lot of our businesses have a baseline for social justice and want to have visibility in the community, a lot want to give back.”

Rep. Herod calls this an “underlying social contract” where Colorado consumers hold businesses accountable, and this affects their bottom line.

And she’s right, Colorado has the highest concentration of B-Corps in the U.S.

Part of this social contract is holding Denver entrepreneurs accountable to build more diverse and inclusive businesses. In almost every single event I attended, this topic was discussed, if not the center of discussions. While there are still improvements to be made, a lot is already being done.

“Colorado is a resourceful place and we aren’t afraid of issues,” says Erica Brown, head of talent and change management at Transamerica. “Just the fact that we bring people together and are talking about them, will make the difference for us.”

For women in the workforce, many companies here are working to improve their hiring and HR processes, others such as Rockies Venture Club (RVC) and Dope Mom Life CEO Dianne Myles are working to democratize access to capital. RVC’s portfolio is comprised of 50% women-led businesses and it is now working to increase its number of women investors. Myles is the grant manager at AJL Charitable Foundation, which is providing grants to under-served entrepreneurs.

JPMorgan Chase, one of the event’s sponsors, invested $630,000 in three Colorado nonprofit organizations that are supporting Denver’s underserved entrepreneurs and small business community. These were The Commons on Champa, DreamSpring and Mi Casa Resource Center.

Brought Together by Values

“Colorado doesn’t want to be Silicon Valley,” says Natty Zola, partner at Matchstick Ventures and managing director at Techstars, in a panel that brought together the top venture capital (VC) firms from across the country.

From an outside perspective, these VCs (many of which were from Silicon Valley) highlighted that the scrappiness of Denver and Colorado companies will bring success to the entire ecosystem.

“Having a strong set of cultural values that drives everyone forward is important as Denver grows its landscape,” says Parsa Saljoughian, partner at IVP. “What Denver has is a strong community and a willingness to help — keep this, because that drives the industry forward.”

When the panel was asked to describe Colorado’s startup ecosystem in one word the answers included: “throwback,” as in nostalgic for the budding and bootstrapping days of Silicon Valley; “community,” highlighting that having a startup event for eight years is very unique; “proud,” as Coloradans’ ego is held in its high values”; and “mission-driven” (in both the intent for customers and for employees).

One theme for the week, and the reason this panel was a packed event, was access to capital. Time-and-time again, panel-after-panel what i heard was to build relationships, find mentors, ask for help, build awareness and this network will help build stronger businesses and attract the capital as a result. This includes building relationships with VCs, investors, lawyers, other founders and experts across markets.

“Be excellent to one another — as companies become successful, helping to foster community is going to create a more dynamic ecosystem” says Ted Wang, investment partner at Cowboy Ventures. “Be conscious about how you can be of service to other people. You’re already seeing the benefit of the work in the past years [in Denver].”

Categories: Company Perspectives