Boulder and Denver, a Mile High Sibling Rivalry
Welcome to Colorado.
We’re glad to have you, but there’s a… thing you should know about. From the outside, the startup environment in Colorado just seems like one big funky but remarkably effective family of startup goodness. But, like any family, we have our internecine feuds. We are speaking, of course, about the whole Denver vs. Boulder thing.
If you ask a lot of people, they’ll tell you there’s nothing there, no rivalry at all. Those people either share a PR person’s loose affiliation with reality, or they are from Fort Collins, or Colorado Springs, or even Golden, and will try to tell you that it’s all really the same. It’s not.
Here’s the thing about the rivalry: It’s real, but it’s actually not all bad. In a weird way it’s kind of productive. It’s like the feud that went on between Tesla and Edison. It’s awkward but ultimately results in progress.
So, first the perceptions:
Denver’s view of Boulder: A quirky suburb that’s fun to visit for a day or for a restaurant and provides an endless stream of only-in-Boulder stories. (The latest is a dead elk that was family to some and “meat” to a couple cops straight out of a mashup of Fargo and Dumb and Dumber.)
Denver’s view of Boulder’s startups: They have weird names, weirder business models, and the “scene” is more like Glee than a business environment.
Boulder’s view of Denver: A big, boring city that doesn’t really have anything to do with Boulder. It’s as much a part of Boulder as, say Seattle or Chicago. It does have an airport, but with an Express Toll transponder in your Land Rover, you never even have to see Denver to get to the DIA garage. If you ask a Boulder VC or VC-funded CEO what the D in DIA is, it will take them a minute.
Boulder’s view of Denver’s startups: Fixated on “revenue” and something called “EBITDA,” and they don’t care at all about changing the world. Many of the startups don’t even have T-shirts.
Line of Demarcation
There’s a hill outside Boulder that is the defining line. Somehow that hill allows reality to remain out of reach of Boulder. Ask some Boulder residents to meet you for lunch in Louisville—which is literally one freeway stop away—they’ll look at you like you are asking to meet in Madagascar, and they will proclaim that they’ve Never Once Stopped There.
Denver startup leaders know that Boulder startups have funny names, but would be shocked to learn that Boulder startup Sketchup was bought by Google and its Boulder building has the largest number of Google engineers between California and the East Coast.
Boulder tech leaders also love to trumpet Boulder’s success, as they should. (Here’s one and here’s another and here’s another just from the last couple weeks in the Wall St. Journal. Not one of those mentions Denver.)
Denver startup leaders aren’t much better, having just launched a new site called Built In Denver. It would have killed them to call it Built in Colorado?
Now, it’s all pretty friendly, really.
And there are some who are trying to smooth the path. Jim Franklin, CEO of SendGrid and Bart Lorang, CEO of FullContact, both could have decided to set up shop anywhere, but both of them chose Denver for their offices even though both live in Boulder. I live in Denver, but our BlogMutt HQ is in Boulder so I come up most days. So does Luke Beatty, the new managing director of TechStars, who told me he finds this whole rivalry “totally obnoxious.”
The current round of construction on the Turnpike certainly doesn’t help. It looks like an actual DMZ right now.
The good thing about the rivalry
Boulder has run a couple of Startup Weeks now. They are terrific events with hundreds of folks participating in a nice variety of events. A few people will meet a few new people, but in general the crowd is remarkably similar to the line you’ll see at the Chipotle on Pearl Street on any given weekday.
Denver decided that it needed to up the game, so it started its own Startup Week. They decided to involve the Powers That Be in Denver. Those powers, it turns out, are essentially one person, Tami Door, CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership. With her involvement, a bunch of others came on board and suddenly the kick-off luncheon had the mayor (who is, you know, a mayor with actual power) and a fantastic speaker held in a world-class performing arts center and was attended by about a thousand people. The week overall had more than 3,500 people participate. The only day you get 3,500 Boulderites together for one event is April 20th.
The Denver organizers wanted it to be better than Boulder’s event. They succeeded to such a degree that they ended up making Denver Startup Week the biggest and best Startup Week event in the country.
That’s why this tension can be a good thing.
So again, welcome. Now you know the lay of the land.