Colorado Ski Country Tries to Tap Into Entrepreneurial Talent Base
Aspen. Telluride. Breckenridge. They’re some of Colorado’s most illustrious ski resorts and are well known to winter sports enthusiasts and vacationers around the world.
But recently, something new has begun to happen in those mountain resort towns. A small movement that seeks to tap into the communities’ surprising amount of technology expertise is gaining momentum.
Telluride, a town in southwest Colorado, is about to host the second class of its venture accelerator program. Breckenridge, a resort area about 90 minutes west of Denver, will host a Startup Weekend event on Jan. 31, followed by a New Tech Meetup in March. Aspen, which is at least a 3-hour drive from Denver, already had a successful startup weekend last fall, and organizers are planning for an encore in April.
What’s going on in these towns better known for ski bums and million-dollar vacation homes?
According to the organizers of the events, it’s all part of an effort to tap into a deep talent pool that comes to those resorts to play, retire, or even work. It’s also part of a long-term push to diversify the local economies that are largely dependent on the ski and tourism industries.
While Telluride, Aspen, and Breckenridge have their share of ski bums who’ve given it all up just to hit the slopes, they’re also popular spots for the well-to-do. Many successful executives and entrepreneurs flock to the communities during the winters, and some stay or come back after they’ve built their careers, said Jon Fox-Rubin, an organizer of Aspen Startup Weekend.
“Many successful tech people come here to play, some come here to retire, some come here to work, but there hasn’t been a historical tech community that started companies in these communities,” Fox-Rubin said.
“We’re trying to change that,” he said. “It’s time to give it a go and see if the geographical divide can be conquered by bringing people together here and recruiting resources from our communities to help build companies here.”
When active tech entrepreneurs do relocate to Colorado’s resorts, they tend to run their companies from afar or become consultants, said Garrett Fisher, the organizer of Breckenridge Startup Weekend.
They might love the laid-back mountain lifestyle, but it doesn’t mean they’ve left behind their entrepreneurial drive and vision, Fisher said.
“They’re those people who come to Colorado that tend to be more open-minded and adventurous and willing to take risks,” he said.
While they’re busy running their own businesses, they also seem willing to help and offer their services as mentors. Members of that community around Breckenridge were eager to step up and help Startup Weekend, as was the more established business community. Colorado Mountain College and the Northwest Colorado Small Business Development Center are hosting and sponsoring the event, while the list of mentors, judges, and coaches is filled with entrepreneurs.
“I have been floored by the support….We had this thing approved and ready to go in three days,” Fisher said. He was surprised by the pent-up demand and sense that it was time to try to catalyze a startup scene.
“There are people who wanted to do it [start events for entrepreneurs], but no one had stepped up to do it,” he said.
The same willingness to help was on display in Telluride, a resort town about six hours from Denver, said Jesse Johnson, co-founder and CEO of the Telluride Venture Accelerator. His organization graduated its first class in 2013 and originally had about 10 mentors, but that quickly grew to more than 70.
Johnson found that while the group tended to be transplants, they’d developed a love for Telluride and wanted to give back to the community. Some contributed to local nonprofits or civic organizations, but no one had yet reached out to them for their business acumen, until the accelerator came along.
“They’re successful entrepreneurs or investors who decided to make Telluride part of their lives. They were a huge untapped resource,” Johnson said.
Of the three communities, Telluride might be the farthest along in its efforts. Its accelerator graduated its first four companies last year, and the companies collectively have raised about $1 million, Johnson said.
Johnson said the program is modeled after Boulder-based Techstars, and like Techstars it offers its services, seed capital, and perks in exchange for equity. In Telluride’s case, that was $25,000 in exchange for a 4 percent stake in a startup.
The Telluride Venture Accelerator tried to play to its community’s strengths by choosing companies in markets where it had strong mentors, Johnson said. That meant outdoor products, tourism and recreation, and natural and organic foods. It also set up a $2 million seed fund. But even with that, the organizers didn’t feel they would have a sure thing.
“It was a bit of a leap of faith,” Johnson said. “At every turn, we rolled the dice.”
This year, 75 companies applied to be part of the second class, and they were from a much broader area that included international applicants. The six participants have been chosen, and they will move to Telluride in February for the start of the five-month program.
Work on the accelerator only began in 2012, but it’s already getting attention from other mountain resort towns as a way to build startup scenes, Johnson said.
The traction isn’t limited to Telluride. Aspen’s first Startup Weekend was last October, and 10 teams ended up going through the program.
The event drew about 100 people, Fox-Rubin said. About a third or a half were the young tech-savvy types you’d expect, and the rest were successful businessmen and businesswomen who wanted to find out what startups were all about.
That kind of attention could come in handy down the road, as Aspen’s startup community tries to build its infrastructure and make connections with more mentors.
Breckenridge on the other hand is just getting off the ground, Fisher said. It is expecting about 100 people to attend, he said, and he also has big plans for the New Tech Meetup, which will be at the Colorado Mountain College’s Breckenridge Campus.
The meetup will be on Saturday, March 1, and start at 6 p.m.—after the ski lifts close. Fisher is selling the event as something to do after a day on the slopes that’s also a convenient way to avoid the evening traffic jam that clogs the highway back to Denver. He also said attendees can find discount lodging.
Economic necessity and long-term plans
While the goal of the accelerator and startup weekends is to build successful businesses, there is also a conscious desire to diversify the local economies.
Each organizer spoke about their town’s dependence on tourism, which makes them very vulnerable to economic downturns. That was certainly on the minds of the TVA’s backers.
“The venture accelerator really all started with a conversation about ways to diversify the economy,” Johnson said. That’s why its major local backer is the Telluride Foundation, a local nonprofit dedicated to sustaining the community.
Fox-Rubin said towns around Aspen have occasionally fallen prey to the temptation to try and lure large companies to relocate. It hasn’t worked, and Fox-Rubin believes the focus instead should be on nurturing startups that could grow into successful companies.
Fisher hopes that ultimately the communities can collaborate and share resources. He recently outlined his ideas in a white paper for community organizers and economic development officials. After that, he’d like to build closer connections to the Front Range, the geographic area just east of the Rockies where the overwhelming majority of Coloradans live.
But first, Fisher thinks the communities need to get peoples’ attention.
“We’re using [Startup Weekend] to make a splash. New Tech is more intended to let people on the Front Range know we exist,” Fisher said.
“We want everyone to know we’re here, and we’re not just a partying ski town,” he said. “That’s not communicated to the Front Range.”