Colorado’s Apex Meeting: Startups Celebrate, Old Guard Shows Life

Leaders of Colorado tech companies are gathering today in Denver for the Colorado Technology Association’s Apex Conference. The crowd at Apex is mostly the part of Colorado’s tech industry that wears ties instead of t-shirts (yes, actual ties), but startups will take the spotlight later today for the Apex Challenge.

The challenge is a $20,000, winner-take-all pitch contest. Ten startups will square off, including a few that have already won tens of thousands of dollars at other pitch contests and one recent Techstars grad. The audience and a panel featuring VCs will pick the winner. There’s more on the event in this story.

I’ll have coverage of the Apex Challenge later this afternoon, and check back for another story about ESRI founder and CEO Jack Dangermond, who was the conference’s keynote speaker. ESRI makes ArcGIS, the industry-standard platform for geographic information systems, and is the sixth-largest privately held software company in the world, with annual revenue of more than $900 million.

Dangermond achieved that despite not really intending to start an industry-defining tech company. His background is landscape architecture, and in the 1970s he was tired of using the primitive pen-and-paper tools the industry relied on.

Dangermond talked what entrepreneurs should strive for, how he built his company, and what’s next for his industry as companies like Google and small startups have jumped in.

That’s still to come, but here are a few observations from the event.

And the winners are… The CTA gave out the annual Apex awards last night at a posh awards dinner. Top honors went to Ping Identity, which was named tech company of the year.

It is easy to see why. Ping Identity raised a $44 million Series F round this summer, and it’s on the shortlist of Colorado tech companies that could have an IPO in the next year or two.

I caught up with CEO Andre Durand this morning. He confirmed two things. Unsurprisingly, the Ping Identity team kicked back with champagne last night. Also, everyone is happy to have a breather after the big push to close that huge round.

“It’s a lot nicer to be on the other side of it,” Durand said.

Zayo Group co-founder and CEO Dan Caruso took home the lifetime achievement award. Caruso wrote about Zayo’s history in this guest post, but the short version is that in just a few years Zayo has become one of the leading telecom providers in the country by building and acquiring large metropolitan and dark fiber networks. Caruso also was part of the team that helped start Level 3 (NYSE: LVLT), which has become one of the world’s largest Tier 1 telecom providers.

SendGrid CEO Jim Franklin was honored as technology community connector of the year; Cloud Elements won startup of the year; and iTriage CEO Peter Hudson was named technology entrepreneur of the year. This Denver Business Journal article has more on the other winners.

Old school represents? With all the buzz about Colorado’s recent wave of startups, it’s easy to forget there’s a class of companies that did groundbreaking work in the 1990s and 2000s but have since been eclipsed by rivals and are trying to launch comebacks.

You’d have to include Photobucket and Quark on the list. Both were at Apex.

Photobucket CEO Tom Munro was a panelist this morning, talking about how to make enterprise companies more like startups. He suggested his company, one of the first photo-sharing sites, forgot that lesson during its ill-fated marriage with News Corp.

News Corp. (NASDAQ: NWS) bought Photobucket in 2007 for $300 million. Rupert Murdoch’s company sold it off in late 2009 for a reported $60 million.

Photobucket has lost ground to companies like Instagram, but it’s still around in Denver, and Munro said it is working hard to regain its edge.

“It really was an interesting exercise to make Photobucket innovative again,” he said. Virtually everything about how the company operates was put on the table.

Photobucket has had some success in recent years. It struck a deal with Twitter in 2011 to become Twitter’s native photo-sharing feature. It was a major validation for Photobucket, but in 2012 Twitter switched to a system it developed internally. Last year, Photobucket extensively reworked its software and is trying to regain its momentum.

Meanwhile, Quark, a startup founded in 1981, might be Colorado’s most cautionary tale of creative—or Creative Suite—destruction.

Quark was founded in Denver and made desktop publishing software. In the 1990s, QuarkXpress dominated the market for desktop publishing and revolutionized the graphic design industry.

Then its archrival Adobe released its “Quark Killers”: InDesign and the Creative Suite package that includes Photoshop and Illustrator. Quark has spent much of the past decade trying to recover.

Quark still is kicking and remains headquartered in Denver. The company doesn’t have a booth or speaker here, but at least one employee was walking around the convention.

Quark will launch QuarkXPress 10 in the next few days. The launch hasn’t gotten much press, but it appears the product is targeted to enterprise customers and has expanded beyond the desktop publishing market.

Meanwhile, graphic designers the world over dread Adobe’s frequent updates to the next version of CS, but they all use it.

A New Apex. The Colorado Technology Association rebranded its major annual event as the Apex Conference earlier this year, dropping the DEMOgala name it previously used. That follows last year’s decision to host the awards dinner and the conference on back-to-back days.

DEMOgala reliably assembled a good roster of speakers and interesting panels, which was nice for journalists and people who wanted to hear what’s going on. But the trade show needed some improvement.

There was a deliberate effort to improve that, CTA head Erik Mitisek said. It feels like it worked, with Apex featuring more (and more interesting) companies.

“We really wanted to evolve into a ‘state-of-the-state conference’ and showcase both enterprise and emerging companies,” Mitisek said. “We also focused on trying to thoughtfully blend the communities and build a floor that’s really relevant to our core themes.”

The companies also look like they are putting in more effort and money, and their displays are more polished and sophisticated. They are also more creative—this year’s booths include mini-golf, arcade games, and that carnival game where you test your strength using a sledgehammer.

Then again, the new venue could be the biggest difference. In recent years the conference was held in the cramped underground ballrooms of a different hotel. Everything at the Hyatt, this year’s venue, is above ground, and there’s natural light.

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