Brad Feld, Blackstone, & ViaWest: Denver Tech Leaders Talk Community
Along with the parties, networking, and workshops, Denver Startup Week is an opportunity to take a look at the city as a startup community, evaluate what it needs, and generate ideas about what should be done going forward.
That was the topic Thursday, when influential leaders in the Colorado tech industry sat down to talk about the work it takes to create a startup ecosystem.
Here are some highlights from their presentation.
Just Do It: Denver Startup Week is a sprawling festival that encompasses more than 100 events and is on track to draw several thousand people. While it has high-profile sponsors like Chase Bank, it began three years ago as a volunteer effort.
It’s an example of people taking action without knowing if they’d have the support of established companies, according to Brad Feld, managing director of the Foundry Group, a venture capital firm located up the road in Boulder.
While Feld is most closely associated with Boulder, where he’s worked for nearly 20 years, he also is a vocal supporter of Denver and Colorado in general. He’s a co-chair of Startup Colorado, and he also wrote an influential book, Startup Communities.
All of that has made Feld a leading voice and prominent expert on startup ecosystems, but his most important point Thursday was that such communities don’t need people like him. They need “doers,” especially entrepreneurs and startup employees who are willing to volunteer their time to build the community.
“You just have to be doers,” Feld said. “The idea that you have to ask permission, that you have to get approval, that you have to build consensus, doesn’t apply….You just do.”
Those doers don’t need to have a track record of success, experience, or large networks in their community or industry. They just have to have to provide energy and time.
Feld stressed that while volunteers should not expect immediate or even long-term returns, such work often is rewarded, and the motive doesn’t have to be self-sacrifice.
“You should do it for your own self-interest. It’s not about altruism. It’s about doing something that helps you with whatever your goals are in the context of how that contributes to the community,” he said.
Little things matter: ViaWest, a data center and managed services provider, is one of Colorado’s biggest tech success stories, although it’s largely off the national radar. The company was founded in 1999 and operates 27 data centers, with most in the Western U.S.
ViaWest this summer was purchased by Canadian telecom company Shaw Communications for $1.2 billion in cash and assumed debt.
ViaWest will remain in Denver as a standalone subsidiary of Shaw, ViaWest co-founder and CEO Nancy Phillips said. She thinks that’s a great thing for her company, because the city’s tech leaders played a key role helping ViaWest get started and grow.
“If we had not started the company in Denver, CO, we would not have been as successful,” Phillips said. “It’s in our blood, our DNA, to do things, to not talk about it but to take the initiative and do something.”
The help ViaWest received was largely behind the scenes and consisted of small things, like advice and help making connections. But it all added up over time.
“That’s what startup communities are about. It’s not about writing the million-dollar check, it’s about the little things along the way that each of you can do to contribute,” Phillips said. “And now we can write million-dollar checks.”
“Those little things may not seem like a big deal to you, but they can have a tremendous downstream effect on the community,” she said.
BEN and Startup Colorado: The breakfast event gave the leaders of two influential organizations a chance to provide updates about their efforts.
Startup Colorado launched in 2011 as the local part of an Obama Administration initiative known as Startup America. The purpose of both programs is to help provide entrepreneurs with resources and encourage startups to grow.
“The goal is to multiply connections among entrepreneurs and mentors. It’s meant to be a platform that’s pretty lightweight to help facilitate connections,” said Phil Weiser, Startup Colorado’s co-chair and dean of the University of Colorado Law School.
The most visible manifestation of that might be the startup weeks that are sprouting up around Colorado. In addition to Denver’s, there are similar events in Boulder (where the idea originated in 2010), Fort Collins, and Colorado Springs. Colorado Springs’ event begins Friday and runs through next week.
It should be noted that while those events can receive some help from Startup Colorado, they are planned and organized by local volunteers. Startup Colorado also supports the Startup Summer internship program that pairs college students with Colorado tech companies.
The Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network is a new organization launched this year in Colorado by Blackstone, a global financial firm. Unlike other organizations, BEN Colorado is not focused on helping startups and fledgling entrepreneurs. Executive director JB Holston said its purpose is to help companies that have graduated from the startup phase to their “scale up” phase as they face a different set of challenges, like planning strategic acquisitions or plotting an IPO.
Part of that involves mentorship from high-level executives. Holston said about 120 mentors have signed up, and about 130 companies have contacted BEN looking for assistance. Of those, 18 have established a relationship with the network.
Needs Improvement: While Denver Startup Week is a celebration of startups and community building, it also provides a chance for reflection about what the area is missing. While topics like access to capital often come up, Holston made some other observations about local challenges.
One issue: telling the stories of Colorado companies, and not just the larger story about the state. People in Boulder and now Denver have been quite vocal advocates for their hometowns and efforts to develop ecosystems, but the leaders of Colorado companies seem less apt to speak out, Holston said.
“We should tell these great stories more, and more loudly,” he said.
He hypothesized that Colorado’s culture might have an effect. The state’s laid back, somewhat self-effacing attitude means it lacks “the chutzpah” of Silicon Valley or the East Coast, he said, and people in the state should change that.
Colorado also has a pressing talent issue, but it might not be where you’d expect. Holston seems to think Colorado is doing okay with entrepreneurial and engineering talent, but the state has a shortage of experienced middle- and senior-level managers who have helped companies navigate their rapid growth phases.
It’s mostly a problem for tech companies that have grown out of their startup phase, Holston said. Colorado companies still have to import many executives, and it’s not always an easy sell.
Finally, there is the issue of geographic and industry silos that keep entrepreneurs, managers, and executives from connecting and sharing advice with each other. One of BEN Colorado’s major goals is to lower those walls, Holston said.