A Class Of Entrepreneurs That We Need

A few months ago TechStars ran a program for military veterans called TechStars Patriot Boot Camp. It was powerful and well received. Since then I’ve had a few emails exchanges about the lack of veterans, especially entrepreneurs who are veterans, in Boulder. Several negative perceptions and biases arose and as the conversation continued, Taylor McLemore and Dave Cass asked if they could put a guest blog about the issue and their perspective up on this blog. I agreed and thought what they wrote up was important. It follows.

What if I told you there is a valuable group of entrepreneurs that know Boulder to be a great place for startups BUT a place that is not welcoming to them…WHAT?…”our Boulder. No way!”

This past summer, I worked with David Cohen, Tom Chickoore and the great people at TechStars to develop and organize a startup boot camp for Veterans.  The program was a great success, however, a theme arose that startled me. Multiple Veterans told me: “I know Boulder is a great place for startups, but I hear it is not that welcoming to Veterans.”

After hearing this, Dave Cass (a Veteran and Boulder entrepreneur) and I surveyed a number of Veterans about this perception. Not all Veterans feel this way, but many do. Much of the perception comes from the political lean of Boulder. But some of it actually comes from individual experience who recounted negative experiences while wearing a uniform in Boulder.

I don’t expect Boulder to change, but the startup community should act to change this perception—Veterans should feel welcome.

Veterans are kick ass entrepreneurs. There are many examples of successful Veteran entrepreneurs, but very few in Boulder. I am a firm believer that Veterans have a skillset well suited for startups. They are problem solvers and master risk managers. They understand that failure is not an option. They understand leadership and commitment. For almost every startup, hiring a Veteran will add to the collective diversity of perspective and experience.

What I think we should do:

Spread The Word: Ask a veteran for their perspective and ideas on how we can do a better job of including this community. Talk about hiring Veterans with your co-founders and employees. Dave Cass and I are starting an online community as a means for Veterans and supporters to share their entrepreneurial stories, advice and wisdom.  Stay tuned for details!

Take Action: If you are a founder, ask “How can we actively involve the Veteran community to find the right candidates for these jobs?” If you are an investor or mentor; seek out veteran founded companies.

Veterans, Come Check Out Boulder: Consider this your formal invitation! Start your company here.

If we can make Boulder a haven for military Veteran entrepreneurs, we will be a stronger community.

That said, Veterans will need to have an open mind about Boulder. Perhaps, It is best they hear from one of their own.

-Taylor McLemore / Founder of Prediculous (@T2theMac)

Sun Tzu wisely stated that “victorious warriors win first and then go to war”.  It’s true; in the military we love intelligence. We never start a mission without first studying the players, threats, and opportunities. This reminds me of the importance of geographic choice when starting a company. There are a few communities in America that serve as model examples of a thriving startup ecosystem; Boulder is at the top of the list thanks to leaders like Brad Feld.

If a startup ecosystem is a community of players that work in balance to increase the likelihood of success, isn’t that the same symbiotic relationship displayed by military on the battlefield? And yet I see almost no military veteran first-time entrepreneurs here. Yes, our town is far left but our military community could just as easily be criticized for being politically one-dimensional and avoiding great startup communities due to political perceptions reduces our own potential and opportunity.

We left our comfort zone when we joined the military and my challenge to veterans is to do it again. If you start your company in Boulder, you will learn immensely from a new perspective and the startup community will be support you.  We also have a great opportunity to serve as a positive ambassador for the military in a community that largely doesn’t understand us. Personally, I find it honor to represent the armed forces in Boulder and I enjoy the challenge that it brings.

So if the intelligence brief is telling us that Boulder could increase your odds of startup success, then more veterans should be starting companies here right?  If we respond no, then we are ignoring intelligence–something we would never do in the military. If you’re a veteran and considering a startup community: Come to Boulder to attend a startup event and see for yourself what we have to offer. You may never want to leave.

-Dave Cass, Founder of Uvize (@uvize)

  • “Much of the perception comes from the political lean of Boulder. But some of it actually comes from individual experience who recounted negative experiences while wearing a uniform in Boulder.”

    This is a tough nut to crack.

    I think this is an example of groupthink dynamic – members of a group reacting negatively to the ‘outsider’. If you aren’t 20-something, male, white + wearing shorts in Boulder, it’s easy to feel like an outsider. Throw [the perception of] politics into that mix + the outcome, imo, is even more predictable.

    Anecdotal: I stood outside the Fox last Sat before the concert + just watched / listened as people walked by. There were minorities, but the ratio was – by a quick approximation – perhaps 1:5. The ratio of women to men was more even, perhaps 1:2 or 1:3.

    No one *overtly behaved* in any particular way that stood out, but the groupings were obvious. People want to go where they feel welcome + this both reinforces and perpetuates the perceptions.

  • The book Startup Nation makes a powerful case why military experience — decision-making under conditions of uncertainty, having to improvise with what you have in the field, learning to work as a team — has powerful transfer into entrepreneurship. The obvious underutilized resource in Colorado is the Air Force Academy. That said, there is a group of leading entrepreneurs in the area with Air Force ties, including Orbotix CEO Paul Berberian.

    • Steve Stewart

      I echo Brad’s comments. My experience is hiring vets into large companies. I love thier ability to execute with 60% of the information. And a ‘get it done’ attitude. My current company, CA Technologies, has a Marine vet leading sales and we are all learning from his very Marine inspired style! I hope our Boulder community is more than neutral in supporting vets.

  • Perhaps the HBR has this pegged in terms of humans’ propensity for choosing the NEXT big thing, over the big thing?

    In that case, it would just be a simple change in mindset, saying how these veterans are working on the next big thing, versus promoting the thing they’ve already done (though I would think people would be interested in that, I’ve taken a “just go with it” stance on human nature).

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  • I’d like to take this one step further: most places in this country are not friendly to veteran entrepreneurs. Yep, the truth really f’n hurts.

    As a NYC veteran entrepreneur, there are only a handfull of organizations and people that make themselves available to veterans in the start-up community and I can’t thank them enough for giving back to a community that is often overlooked and/or treated with fear.

    I blame a lot of people, the government, other veterans and the press for this inaccurate portrayal of post military life. Taylor and Dave make a point that often falls on deaf ears: vets know risk, adversity and execution – you’d be crazy not to hire them in your organizations.

    However, I have a sinking feeling that despite having these hard-to-find characteristics in entrepreneurial candidates, veterans are treated as damaged goods or worse: objects that people just don’t want to get to know because of an irrational fear that we are all broken inside and therefore are afraid to see what makes us tick.

    Thank you again to Taylor (shout out to #patriotbc!) and Dave. BTW – I rant a bit more about this on my own blog: ironsighting [dot] com.

    • This was really unexpected to me. I got quite a ration returning to Ann Arbor, MI after a stint in the Air Force (1974), but I thought that kind of stuff was decades in the past. I’m sorry that today’s veterans are still having to put up with that kind of thing.

  • Doug Gibbs

    The “political lean” in Boulder to towards the money. Actually it has some very conservative and non liberal folks. This is the town where “Soldier of Fortune” magazine gets published. I say all this having lived around Boulder and worked there for 20+ years.
    Once you get off the hill, away from the students, it is a pretty regular suburban town. It is upper middle class to be sure. Bring your check book, the rents are shocking, and home prices are too.
    If Boulder is a bother (the traffic can be ugly, and did I mention the students), come north 20 minutes to Longmont. There is a thriving tech industry, big companies in disk drives, and instrumentation. Lots of smaller companies that are doing well and growing.
    If you prefer, go to Broomfield, Lafayette, Louisville or south, also thriving, lots of start-ups and nice for families.
    You can drive 20 minutes to see Brad or get coffee at Atlas Purveyors on Tuesday morning. That is less time in the car than you spend to go around the block in San Jose.
    Don’t forget, there are also craft brewers here in Longmont. Good ones, really good ones. (Tasty Weasel anyone?)
    My point is, being in Boulder, on Perl St. is nice. If you are not going to start your company because you can’t make it into Boulder, you were not going to start anything anyway.

  • Here in San Diego we are working hard to spur veteran entrepreneurship. We have the largest number of post 9/11 veterans in the country here, and have a growing start-up community. I’m a local entrepreneur who is working with a number of tech incubators to seed entrepreneurship among veterans — check out http://www.veteranworks.org. I’d love to connect with anyone in Boulder who wants to compare notes on some of the specific challenges facing the veteran community.

  • I thank you, David Cohen, Tom Chikoore, and Taylor McLemore for believing in us and organizing TechStars Patriot Boot Camp. But I will be controversial and state that we need to point the finger at ourselves, and not at others, especially the Boulder community and other startup ecosystems.

    Sure the surrounding environments maybe aren’t ideal. But as Ironsighting states, the situation isn’t ideal across some parts of the US, much less in the UK where I’m based. And the situation extends to other business communities as well, not just startups. Before my startup career I had successfully transitioned from military to private industry, but I had to network like hell to do so. Most private companies just don’t know how to judge and value us, because the very experience that we have is incredibly hard to describe on a resume.

    What I suggest is that we prove our worth to the startup community, wherever we may be. Let’s prove to non vets that we can hustle. Let’s prove that we can execute, iterate, and pivot. And let’s prove that we can take the lessons we’ve learned in the military and apply them successfully to startups. We know we can – so let’s do less talking and more doing.

    I think all we ask is that investors, mentors, and entrepreneurs give us a fair shake, like the awesome TechStars community has done. But let’s not forget the mission – we’re here to make awesome game-changing startups. If we can focus on building and being successful, we will naturally gain community support, whether it be in Boulder or anywhere else.

    • Richard Lau

      Excellent comment Tak. Adding to what Tak said, I think it is also important for successful vetrepreneurs to realize that there are a growing number of aspiring veteran entrepreneurs in the community that they can help mentor. Consider it a CALL TO ARMS for accomplished vetrepreneurs to reach out and help a veteran entrepreneur/program. There are organizations such as VetsinTech on the west coast and Military and Veterans Entrepreneurs on the east coast that you can volunteer your time to or better yet, go out and create one!

    • Tak – Great comment. As you know well, surrounding environments are almost never ideal. The great entrepreneurs break through whatever barrier is put in front of them. We just need to be careful not to create artificial barriers, or to tear them down where they exist. This post has the Boulder startup community talking, and that’s a good thing.

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  • I’m in the military, I’ve founded a startup, and I like Boulder–that being said, I’ve taken an unconventional route. The skillsets are complementary and many of the attitudes are hugely different in the two respective communities. I don’t know what the best bridge is but it is an important question that I am thrilled to see being asked by big players in the space.

  • Thanks for taking this topic head on, although I must admit that I personally have not seen the negative sentiment. After almost 8 years in the Marine Corps we chose the Boulder-Denver area over everywhere else in the country because of two factors: the presence of a thriving start-up community and the warm welcome we received. We didn’t think twice about the politics because we had one positive experience after another. If there is one thing we, as a community, can do to encourage veterans to move here it would be simply that… welcome them. Take time to grab a coffee, hear them out, provide an introduction if it makes sense, or provide advice if it doesn’t. Several people did that for me two years ago and it had a lasting impact by creating a Boulder evangelist who will pay it forward for years to come.

  • Important topic Brad.

    You know about this but wanted to bring it to other’s attention:


  • I’ve seen, as a tech founder and a 3x military brat, there is a huge opportunity to be more welcoming to military veterans in most tech communities. There are a ton of successful Veteran entrepreneurs and leaders in the tech community but not a lot of recognition of who they are, how they got there, and how to get in touch.

    I started InclineHQ.com in NYC to help military veterans transition into the growing technology industry. We provide veterans with the hard-skills to get hired as developers and product managers. Hiring companies can invest in great talent and see first hand what a military veteran brings to the table vs. his civilian counterpart.

    We hope to change the misconceptions about military veterans in the tech community and beyond. If you know a vet who is interested in getting involved in technology, mentoring a student or sharing their military-to-civilian transition, get in touch! It sounds like we may need to bring an Incline class to Bounder soon too.

    @inclinehq | @br_ttany:disqus

  • Just out of curiosity, what percentage of the veterans in the Patriot Boot Camp were officers?

  • Todd Cochrane

    Being a veteran who is beyond start up stage at this point, I wish I could find more veterans to bring on the team purely from the work ethic perspective. It is very easy to switch skilled veterans from a mission mentality to a business mentality, and I find most are more adaptive to change and can fill multiple rolls. Failure is not an option is the perspective of most veterans.

  • JLM


    Everything I ever needed to know to succeed in business I learned as a platoon leader in the early 1970s. Everything.

    Having been a company commander was akin to being a Chinese feudal war lord.

    The issue with Veterans is not that they are a “class of people” but rather that they possess skills developed and honed under demanding circumstances while in leadership positions.

    It is the skill set of Veterans that is attractive and powerful.

    Jumping out of a perfectly good airplane or enduring Ranger school are not experiences which are part of most folks’ work a day mode.

    A smart entrepreneur would find and cultivate this skill set. Companies like Bradley-Morris which specialize in placing military school grads are an excellent source of talent.

    • I immediately thought of you when I read this blog and scrolled down hunting for your comment 🙂 great one btw

  • Amen Bo! I had the opposite reaction as most of the comments here – I think Boulder is not against vets – it’s neutral. In fact Boulder, IMO, is open to all people – we welcome everyone equally. But we are a small community with limited opportunities – so if your skill set doesn’t match a job opening – it doesn’t matter if you are a vet or not – you won’t get the job. If you are a vet – as I am – I go out of my way to meet with other vets – and my 7 or so Boulder vet friends do the same. But we can’t classify all vets as equals – just like you can’t classify all MIT grads or Armenians as equals. The person needs to take the initiative to move here and make it work. Bo is an awesome example – he worked the network hard to find the opportunity. So did Jim Booth, our COO at Orbotix. Boulder filters on talent not background. What we need is not Boulder to change but for people everywhere to realize the value of military experience. Don’t dismiss the time served on the resume – meet the person and see if their skills fit your need. If you are a vet and want to move your company here – evaluate the community from your business need perspective – not if there are a lot of vets in town. For those of you who aren’t vets – I think all we want is recognition that our time in was time well spent and additive to our professional growth.

  • Veterans definitely should be given every opportunity to get exposed to startups. Another group which I believe makes an excellent candidate are basic science researchers. In fact I might write a blog about why this group is suitable for the startup world – there are too many similarities between the two work environments.

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