By Isa Jones
By Mary Willson
By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By early 2009, the three were ready to shut down the operation. Like most of the obscure bands the website was tracking, the Next Big Sound seemed destined to fade away. But then, on a whim, they applied to TechStars, a startup boot camp in Boulder with the motto "The geeks shall inherit the Earth."
Out of hundreds of applications, the Next Big Sound was chosen for one of TechStars' handful of slots. So the three packed up their belongings and headed to Colorado, ready for one last gig before they'd have to break up the band.
Their first night in Boulder, Andrew Hyde, a 25-year-old who'd founded three startups and organized the popular geeky speaker series Ignite Boulder, had White, Rayani and Hoffman over for dinner and drove them to the top of Flagstaff Mountain. Looking out over Boulder, they knew they were going to be part of something special.
"As soon as we rolled into town, something felt different here," says White. In Chicago, he and his co-founders had struggled to find like-minded entrepreneurs and mentors, people who could give them advice on how to find customers, scale their product and, most important, make money. The city was just too big, the business community too entrenched. It seemed like the right place to be if you wanted to be part of a large, established tech company, but not if you wanted to strike out on your own.
Boulder was different. Places like the Cup, the Kitchen and Bitter Bar are usually brimming with engineers and entrepreneurs like Hyde (who has since sold his latest startup, discarded all but fifteen of his possessions and is now traveling the world for a year). There are startup-oriented coffee-shop meetings, happy-hour parties, even poker games — and hundreds of people attend the monthly Boulder New Tech Meetup, one of the largest regular tech gatherings in the world. The University of Colorado at Boulder has launched its own entrepreneurship initiative, a program it calls Silicon Flatirons. At one point, Hyde and his friends attempted to count all the serious startups based in the city of 100,000 full-time residents. They lost count at 250.
That number includes a few high-profile successes. Socialthing, a social media service, was picked up by AOL. Kerpoof, a multimedia platform for children, was acquired by the Walt Disney Company. And MX Logic, an e-mail and web-security company, was bought by McAfee Inc. for $140 million.
Cities around the world are eager to create vibrant tech hubs like this — but in Boulder, it developed almost by accident. Most in the startup community trace the beginning to when Brad Feld, a successful tech investor, relocated to the town on a whim. "I moved to Boulder randomly in 1995," Feld writes in an e-mail. "We only knew one person when we moved here — he moved away a few months later." But Feld wasn't lonely for long. He co-founded the Foundry Group, now Boulder's biggest tech venture-capital firm and a powerhouse nationwide, and helped organize an entrepreneurial community that spawned such early tech successes as WebRoot, an Internet security firm, and Raindance, a teleconference company. While other startup scenes were marked by competition and secrecy, Feld and his Boulder colleagues launched blogs and podcasts where they offered public musings on venture capitalism and technology.
"Brad managed to become a lightning rod for conversations about startups and did that with a national reach, but with a focal point in Boulder," says Tom Higley, a serial tech entrepreneur based in the town. "That's been huge." He credits the arrival on the scene of David Cohen as the other key ingredient.
Cohen, the founder of several software and web technology companies, soon teamed up with Feld to launch TechStars, a new kind of tech accelerator. "I loved angel investing but thought the process sucked. I'd meet somebody in a coffee shop, write a check and cross my fingers and hope for the best," remembers Cohen. "Second, I didn't think the Boulder ecosystem had enough interesting stuff going on, and I wanted to help change that over time so that I could do more investing locally."
So along with selecting ten companies a year, bringing them to Boulder and providing them with up to $18,000 in seed funding, TechStars would offer something even more valuable: support from some of the brightest minds around.
While TechStars doesn't charge for its services, it requires a 6 percent equity stake in each venture that goes through the program. So far, that's proved to be a profitable arrangement. On average, seven out of the ten companies that have taken part each of the past four years have gone on to become profitable or score outside funding, and TechStars has spawned divisions in Seattle, Boston and New York. Some of the ventures that weren't accepted into the Boulder boot camp moved to town anyway, in hopes that the magic would rub off.
White likens what's happening in Boulder to the music scene in Brooklyn, which has become renowned for producing such hitmakers as TV on the Radio, MGMT and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. "It's the combination of lifestyle and liveability, and the right type of people all trying to do the same thing," he says. "Just like Brooklyn has become the best place to get a band off the ground, Boulder's become one of the best places to run a startup."