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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)
For starters, Amy and I are fine. The fires are not threatening our house (yet). But all we talked about at dinner last night at Ruby Tuesday was fire.
Colorado is having a horrible fire season. We are only at the end of June and have four massive wildfires going on in the state, including the High Park Fire in Fort Collins and the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs. Yesterday afternoon as the Flagstaff Fire began in Boulder, I heard from a friend that she’d lost her house in the High Park Fire. Everything – totally burned to the ground. They were on a trip so they literally have nothing other than the clothes they had with them.
We live in an age where forest fires have hashtags #FlagstaffFire
— Joe Moore (@joem) June 27, 2012
Amy and I are in Keystone so we are 90 miles away from Boulder. We shifted into obsessive monitoring of Twitter hashtag mode around 5pm and eventually wandered downstairs and watched the 5:30 news to see live video of the fire. During this time dozens of emails came in from friends around the country asking if we were ok and offering to help, since Eldorado Canyon (where our home is) was mentioned as one of the risk areas. As of this morning we still seem safe but today will tell the story.
My brother Daniel is in more danger. His house is in Table Mesa and one ridge separates his house and the fire. He lives down the road from NCAR which I expect the country will be hearing about a lot today as the fire is adjacent to the NCAR land and building. I have a hard time believing that the fire could consume NCAR and get over the ridge, but who knows. Either way, Daniel and his family decamped to our condo in Boulder last night so they are safe, but I’m thinking of them constantly.
Amy and I have had to evacuate for fires twice. The first was one that was started on our land in Eldorado Canyon. There is a trail that borders our land and often people come off the trail to sit on a giant rock on our land. That giant rock used to have a bunch of trees near it. One morning, in 1999, when I was sitting at Cooley’s office with Mike Platt working on the deal that would become BodyShop.com, I got a frantic call from Amy that said simply “come home right now – our land is on fire.” She had woken up to smoke about a quarter of a mile away from our house. As the sun came up, the fire began to blaze. Ultimately 10 acres burned, we (and all of our neighbors) had to evacuate for the day (with 10 minutes notice), and we went through the mental process of “ok – if our house burns to the ground, all our stuff will be gone.” It was ultimately determined that a human – probably someone smoking a cigarette or a joint on the rock – started the fire the night before. For two days, we had 50 amazing firepeople living around our house protecting it as the fire got within 200 yards of our house. Amazing amazing people.
The second fire was the Walker Ranch Fire of 2000. This was a much larger fire – ultimately consuming thousands of acres – and resulted in a three day evacuation for us. It stalled one ridge away from Eldorado Canyon – if it had gotten over the last ridge it would have been a disaster. This time it started the weekend of my brother’s wedding so I spend his entire wedding completely distracted by the slurry bombers flying overhead. This one was much more stressful as it stretched out for days and days.
Last year the Four Mile Canyon fire threatened Boulder and was devastating to many people in the Boulder foothills. This was my partners first taste of real “scary fire shit” as both Ryan and Jason’s houses were on the edge of the evac zone. Since they both live in downtown Boulder, that’s terrifying to consider – if the fire ended up in the residential areas in downtown Boulder, that would have been really bad.
Basically, fire completely scares the shit out of me. I’ve read about 30 books on it and find it fascinating. scary, intense, amazing, and complicated. The anxiety that it provokes in me, and many others, is incredible. I’ve now had several friends who have lost all the physical things they had in a fire – they all have similar stories of complete and total disbelief followed by a powerful rebuilding phase.
As the sun comes up in Keystone this morning, it’s another beautiful day in Colorado. You wouldn’t know that 90 miles away an entire city faces a very threatening fire. This is a big planet, and days like this remind me how fragile it all is.
Here’s hoping the awesome firefighters in Boulder get things under control today. I’m sending good karma to all of my Boulder friends. And for everyone who reached out, thank you – you guys are awesome.
Since I moved to Boulder in 1995, I’ve watched and participated in the evolution of an amazing startup community which I believe currently has the highest entrepreneurial density in the United States. On top of the the hundreds of open tech company positions, Boulder has an incredible quality of life which I believe makes it the best small city in the United States to live in.
May 16th-20th will be packed with several dozen meetups, events, parties, and outdoors activities. It’s a great way to learn a few things, socialize, job-hunt, and discover the magic of Boulder.
Boulder Startup Week is open to all, and full of (mostly) free events. Come visit and, if money is tight, see if you can convince the organizers to fly you out for free.
I’ve talked a lot on this blog about the great things about the Boulder entrepreneurial ecosystem. Over the past five years it’s been awesome to see things really blossom. But there are always problems of some sort. And we have a few here in Boulder which – in the spirit of helping understand how entrepreneur ecosystems work over time – are worth pointing out and talking about.
The most visible problem her is that Boulder’s booming businesses are running out of room. Downtown Boulder is not large – maybe 10 blocks by 5 blocks – and very few of the buildings are more than three stories tall. Once you get outside the downtown Boulder core, you get some larger buildings and some office parks, but you are no longer in the core of downtown. If you get in your car and drive to the next towns over, such as Broomfield and Westminster, there is plenty of office space and some larger buildings.
But many companies that start in downtown Boulder want to stay in downtown Boulder. The companies build their culture around being downtown, benefit from the extremely high entrepreneurial density of Boulder, and the dynamics of being in a downtown core rather than in a suburban office park.
Ironically, the Boulder politicians have always seemed to have a bias against “business in Boulder.” I’ve heard about it for the 16 years I’ve been here and experience it periodically. The zoning here is extremely restrictive and the decisions around zoning seem arbitrary. The division between retail, tourism, business, and residential seems in continual conflict. A few real estate developers own and control much of the existing office buildings in town and as a result end up having a zero sum approach to leasing space – specifically they jack rents up as high as possible when the market is tight, only to have them collapse when the market loosens up.
As I’ve watched local Boulder companies grow to be in the 100 to 300 employee range, I’ve watched them struggle with office space. If the trajectory of several of the local companies continues, this struggle will get more severe over the next 24 months. Inevitably, several of the larger companies will have to move outside of Boulder, even though they don’t want to. When this happens, our real estate owner friends will once again have a lot of empty space on their hands which will fill up more slowly with smaller firms as they grow into what’s available.
I’m not sure if this is a solvable problem given all of the different constituents involved. The contraints on Boulder’s growth have many advantages and are part of what makes Boulder as great as it is. But it’s also a weakness – one that is front and center right now as a number of companies who look like they could be long term, self-sustaining anchors of the Boulder entrepreneurial community have to figure out where to house 300 people going on 1,000.
On a daily basis I get an email from someone, either in Boulder, or considering a move to Boulder, who asks how they can best get involved in the Boulder entrepreneurial community. My response is simple – get involved, show up, and participate. I then list a set of regular activities that exist, with my favorites being:
- Boulder Open Coffee Club
- Boulder New Tech Meetup
- Silicon Flatirons Events
- Boulder Beta
- Ignite Boulder
One of the awesome things about the Boulder entrepreneurial community is that it operates on a “give before you get” approach – it’s super easy to engage as the existing entrepreneurs are happy to give help and support with no specific expectations. But you have to “give” to become involved – don’t just show up once and hope magic will happen. Keep coming back. Volunteer to help out, with no expectations of compensation. Build a reputation for what you can do. Then magic will happen.
For job seekers, I point them at the Foundry Group Jobs page and the TechStars Jobs page as well as encourage them to email me a resume that I’ll send to a CEO list I co-manage, which consists of about 100 local entrepreneurial CEOs (if you are a CEO and want to be on the list, just email me.)
It’s all remarkably low infrastructure and overhead, but very high velocity. When I reflect on what makes it work, its the “give before you get” mentality of the entrepreneurial community, which I’m proud to be a part of.
Oh – and if you run a Boulder entrepreneurial event that’s not included in the list, or have suggestions about what you’d like to see, feel free to leave info about it in the comments.