Scaling the Peak: Denver Out to Follow Boulder’s Entrepreneurial Ascent

3/28/13Follow @MichaelXBD

When Bart Lorang decided to build his startup in Denver just over a year and a half ago, the city wasn’t exactly a lonely place.

Denver has a lively downtown, cool neighborhoods, and a diverse and energetic population. Lorang is the co-founder and CEO of FullContact, which is developing a cloud-based system for managing online contacts. Although he lived in Boulder, Lorang had worked in Denver’s tech industry for 10 years, and he knew Colorado’s capital and largest city was world class.

But something was missing. Young, driven people were everywhere, but they weren’t talking much and swapping ideas. The city’s top CEOs, innovative engineers, and rising entrepreneurs didn’t bump into each other on the street. Even with several large tech companies and startups that had grown into established companies, the vibe was a bit corporate.

There was nothing wrong with Denver. It was just missing some things Lorang had come to love from his experience in Boulder, a thriving city of 100,000 nestled against the Front Range, about 30 miles northwest of Denver.

The contrasts were on Lorang’s mind in 2011 because FullContact had just graduated from Boulder’s famed TechStars startup accelerator program and was looking for a permanent home. Every summer, TechStars becomes the nerve center of about a dozen fledgling startups. Many have stayed in Boulder, but a few have relocated to Denver.

Outside TechStars, Boulder’s small downtown pulsates with entrepreneurial energy. Leaders of growing tech companies, serial entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and “hackers and hustlers” that haven’t made it—yet—fill coffee shops, restaurants, and bars.

By the summer of 2011, Boulder had established a reputation as a city on the rise, with profiles in The New York Times and magazines and on cable news channels.

It was tough to leave, and FullContact’s founders had a real debate, Lorang said. An unintended consequence was it gave Lorang, who lives in Boulder, a new way to look at the two cities.

“I see the differences every single day,” Lorang said.

What Lorang saw made him want to work with Denver’s entrepreneurs and tech executives to recreate the Boulder model with a Denver twist. Together, they joined forces with local leaders to organize events and meetings where they could share ideas and get to know each other. Now, the community is beginning to coalesce, often with help from friends in Boulder.

Making contact

FullContact is a company trying to solve the problem that bedevils anyone trying to connect with people on the Internet—how the $%@# do they keep all their e-mail, LinkedIn, and other contacts organized. The firm is trying to build a cloud-based system that works across platforms to compile contact info and keep it up to date.

FullContact has raised almost $9 million in venture capital and now employs about 27 people in Denver’s lower downtown, or “LoDo,” neighborhood. LoDo is probably best known for its nightlife. In Lorang’s view, people don’t seem to connect during the day, especially the way they do in Boulder.

“On Pearl Street [downtown Boulder’s pedestrian mall], it’s really hard not to bump into people, like CEOs, vice presidents, and engineers,” Lorang said.

Pearl Street has passionate advocates who could move their companies almost anywhere else. Niel Robertson, founder and CEO of online advertising management company Trada, is one of them.

Robertson believes the closeness of everyone in Boulder is one of the city’s greatest assets. Trada is the anchor tenant of one of the largest buildings on Pearl Street and shares space with a handful of new startups. … Next Page »

Michael Davidson is the editor of Xconomy Boulder/Denver. He covers startups, venture capital, clean tech, energy, aerospace, telecoms, and whatever else happens above 5,280 feet. Contact him at mdavidson@xconomy.com. Follow @MichaelXBD

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