Entrepreneur of the Year 2015 – Jim Deters
Co-founder and CEO of Denver-based Galvanize LLC embarks on transforming education and the 21st century work force
Some entrepreneurs succeed through a shotgun approach,
firing ideas into the sky and seeing what comes down. Some are serial business builders, taking a shot at one enterprise after the other.
Jim Deters, co-founder and CEO of Denver-based Galvanize LLC and ColoradoBiz magazine’s Entrepreneur of the Year, is strictly a sniper, obsessively seeking his target.
Galvanize is his religion, Deters says, and he isn’t kidding.
The 39-year-old is not one of those businesspeople celebrated for giving his last ounce to the community, or some other spiritual goal. He recently quit the last of his board of director memberships and now says he has nothing to distract him from his two sole preoccupations: family and Galvanize.
Galvanize remains in its pioneering stage, but it embodies Deters’ vision, which is an idea so audacious it takes up all of his time, brainpower and considerable energies.
“The big ‘why’ behind this whole thing when I started was helping to become a multiplier for other entrepreneurs,” he says. “We’ve reinvented education with the three C’s: community, curriculum and capital.”
The idea is to re-make, reform and re-imagine technological education and to marry that study to entrepreneurship and employment, stimulating venture funding for software-development education programs.
Deters explains it better.
“We have built a whole bunch of societal norms and systems and accreditors, credentials, electives – that is all out of date. (Galvanize is) building 21st century education in a modern environment, particularly for digital innovators and entrepreneurs.” That is the “community, curriculum and capital” concept.
“If you look at what we’re doing, we’re making learning and working look like the same thing. But the world I live in, today, this is a world built on, ‘What have you created?’ ‘What have you built?’“
Lest all of this sound a little hifalutin, let us note that Galvanize’s revenue rose tenfold last year, says CFO-COO Chris Onan, and the company expects revenue to quadruple in the next four quarters. (Privately held Galvanize does not disclose dollar figures.)
It all comes back to our Entrepreneur of the Year. ColoradoBiz magazine’s editorial board judged nominees on the impact and the commercial promise of their enterprises, along with factors such as ingenuity, integrity, vision and risks undertaken.
Deters grew up in small-town Illinois where, “I picked up some ambition. I don’t know why or how that happened but from a very young age I was an ambitious person. I wanted to use industry to change the world.”
Snowboarding, cycling and software brought Deters to Denver in 1998. He graduated from DePaul University with B.S. degrees in economics and business management and got out of the Midwest to come to Colorado.
Once here, he launched and then sold a succession of software companies. Two of them produced you@web (“basically WordPress before WordPress,” he says). The company was rolling when Deters sold it, retaining a job in the succession. Then the dot-com bubble ruptured. The parent company stopped capitalizing you@web, and in 2002 Deters wound it down.
Yet, “In many ways it didn’t go wrong at all,” he says now.
When the going turns tough, “You honestly learn a hell of a lot more. Everything becomes a stepping-stone. I believe if you have the ambition the only limiting factors to your success are your ability to learn and grow.
“To me it wasn’t a failure: I learned a ton, so immediately I could step into my new business. When things are really, really bad you learn an insane amount of lessons that no one will teach you reading a book or in a classroom. It makes me a better leader today because I have those scars.”
Deters then started Austin-based Ascendant Technology LLC, an IT consulting firm with operating units in North America, Europe, Brazil and India. By 2011, when Ascendant was acquired by giant Phoenix-based Avnet Inc., the company had revenues of $90 million per year.
While all this was going on, in 2010 Deters, his wife, Alicia Pokoik Deters, and Chef Lon Symensma opened downtown Denver’s ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro. “Try ChoLon, an inventive, Asian-influence bistro in LoDo,” the New York Times advised readers earlier this year.
Once ChoLon opened, the birth of the couple’s third child and lessening involvement with Ascendant gave Deters the impetus to take a good look around Denver. The result was Galvanize.
Galvanize Denver, the physical space, is combination office, coding camp, club, campus, café, bar, boiler room, bullpen, newsroom and entrepreneurial hangout.
The vision is a business model with venture capital on one end and employers (called “partners”) on the other. In the middle, the hub is made out of the student-entrepreneurs (called “members”) and the education they receive through Galvanize college (“gSchool”).
Another part of the business model is the company’s commercial real estate venture, which has been busy.
Late last year the company announced it had leased 27,000 square feet in Boulder’s PearlWest, on the site of the old Daily Camera.
Before that, Galvanize opened its second campus in San Francisco in the SoMa district, with five stories of workspace, five event areas and dedicated classrooms.
Galvanize Denver has classroom space, too, and about 300 company-members in its 30,000-square-foot building on 11th Avenue and Delaware Street in the old Rocky Mountain Banknote Co. building, a landmark built in 1929.
The Galvanize Platte Street Campus opens May 1. Its building, at 1644 Platte St., includes Pivotal Labs and Galvanize, a street-level restaurant and an outdoor patio on the fourth floor. Galvanize has 50,000 square feet of the 80,000-square-foot building.
Educational offerings include a three-month data science program, a six month Web development course, and a year-long accredited master’s program in San Francisco called GalvanizeU in cooperation with University of New Haven. Galvanize also offers a variety of workshops and part-time courses.
One course, “Full Stack,” teaches Web development. Full Stack’s online description gets right to the point: “Become a Web developer. Change your life. Six-month program. Ninety-eight percent Placement Rate. Average Salary of $81,000. Guaranteed placement or tuition back.”
Deters himself is a muscular little guy humming with energy and big blue eyes that pop out when he describes what he’s pulling off.
Deters grew up in Red Bud, Ill., where, “I just happened to be born into a very dysfunctional family. My mother was an amazing woman, but my father not so much. I had a pretty rough early childhood and my mother divorced my alcoholic father and remarried a German Catholic. I converted from Judaism, baptized at age 9.”
When asked about his faith today, “I practice the religion of Galvanize,” he says.
1998–Jim Deters moves to Denver and founds a number of companies, including Portal Interactive Inc., and subsequently CONET’s U.S. division, resulting in the successful launch of the you@web product line, a website and blog-building tool. He sells the company but stays on as CEO until the dot-com bust ends it in 2002.
2003–Deters launches Ascendant Technology, based in Austin, Texas. He sells the company in 2012 for an undisclosed amount. Ascendant has $90 million in annual revenues that year.
2010–Deters, wife Alicia Pokoik Deters and Chef Lon Symensma open ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro in downtown Denver.
2012–Deters, with co-founders Chris Onan and Lawrence Mandes, opens the first Galvanize facility in the historic Rocky Mountain Bank Note Company building. In 2014 they add Galvanize campuses in San Francisco and Boulder.