Boulder Startup Founder Seeks to Build Stronger Ecosystem in Dallas
Michael Sitarzewski wants to bring a little bit of Denver to Dallas.
After seven years in the Mile High City, the founder and CEO of Epic Playground recently returned to Dallas, where he has become the entrepreneur-in-residence at the Dallas Entrepreneur Center.
“In Denver, a lot of my time outside of my company was spent building the community,” he says. “That’s what they have at heart here at the DEC, the mission of this place.”
One of the biggest lessons Sitarzewski says he learned from his time in Denver was how important an entrepreneurial ecosystem is for startups to succeed.
“In looking at Dallas ecosystem, you see where some of the holes are. It’s also opportunity,” he says.
While Dallas is known for many startups that went on to become giant corporations—Southwest Airlines, Mary Kay Cosmetics—those businesses aren’t directly involved in building up today’s entrepreneurs, something Sitarzewski wants to change.
In 2009, he founded what would become Epic Playground. Its product, MediaGauge, builds audience engagement and analysis tools for online media. Epic Playground still spent time in Texas, though, at TechStars Cloud in San Antonio last year.
Sitarzewski started the Denver Open Coffee Club, an informal gathering of entrepreneurs that meets every other Tuesday, after he noticed that many in the Denver community would travel to Boulder for the coffee club held there.
Sitarzewski has started a similar event in Dallas, and hopes to work with others in North Texas who want to boost the profile of local startups. A recent tech cocktail event drew 300 people with only a month’s notice.
“We’re trying everything to see what sticks,” he says. “The people are there. They want to support us.”
Sitarzewski and I spoke recently about entrepreneurship in North Texas, its opportunities and challenges, and his hopes to start a Dallas Startup Week. An edited version of our conversation follows:
Xconomy: What do you consider the biggest challenge in creating a robust startup ecosystem in North Texas?
Michael Sitarzewski: We have a lot of great people doing things that they believe are helping the community. The problem is that they are not necessarily working together.
Size plays a big role. Among the challenges is that you have rush hour, which is hectic and crazy. And the events are all at rush hour. In Boulder and Denver, we have rush hour, but compared to North Texas, it’s pretty minimal. Boulder is a town of 90,000 people; Denver has 2.1 million. It’s a drastic jump from the entire state of Colorado, which has 5.1 million people, to [the Dallas-Fort Worth region], which has 6.8 million by itself.
Dallas is a huge, huge city. Getting people from down here in Uptown Dallas to acknowledge and interact with the audience up north is the biggest challenge. So, we’ve recognized that there are different pieces of the community.
X: What can Dallas learn from Denver?
MS: Look at the success of Boulder Startup Week and Denver Startup Week. In Denver, at the 16th Street Mall downtown, there were Denver Startup Week banners on every light post. I would be ecstatic to see something like that in Dallas down Main Street early next year for Dallas Startup Week.
If you can get the community of the city involved in promoting the entire ecosystem here, you can have a great impact on the city. Think about exposure. (Dallas suburb) Frisco has stuff of its own going on, but it’s a branding opportunity. The Dallas Cowboys haven’t been in Dallas since the ’60s. We can build a brand around the Dallas ecosystem, and as long as each city is represented in the ecosystem, everyone benefits. We could feature Richardson startups in Dallas Startup Week. Frisco’s great for consumer web; Uptown is great for mobile. If we highlight each of those strengths in each city, I think they would be happily on board.
I led #BigDOCC—the Big Denver Open Coffee Club—my version of the Boulder Open Coffee Club, and ran that for three years. You have this cross-pollination. We are starting that here, a north and south #BigDOCC. (This time the D is for Dallas.) We’ll have two of each of the events and bring them to the communities where they are.
X: You’re also starting a Dallas version of #BigDNT. What is that?
MS: Four hundred and fifty people go to this every Tuesday. Six startups get six minutes to pitch. Five minutes for Q and A, and no investors in the room—just peers, people who use technology, giving them feedback on their business model and ideas. It’s a different stress. It’s not about tens of millions of dollars in the room. It’s about, ‘will my idea actually work?’ Denver does one; Dallas could use that model for both north and south so that we cover both sides in the metro area. I also met a guy in Fort Worth moving back to town, and he wants to try to do something similar in that part of the region. We get all three of those going, there’s going to be great opportunity.
In Denver, we have the Denver Founders Network,sort of “entrepreneurs unplugged.” We bring in founders to talk to (startups), ask them questions. It may be that their experiences can help startups innovate on their own. Startup Grind, run by Lee Blaylock, is doing some of that. I’d be happy to help him with that.
X: Should there be more of a connection between the bigger businesses and entrepreneurs?
MS: Sure, smaller companies become great companies. Look at Adobe, Microsoft, Facebook; they play a big part in startup companies. [Dallas area companies] Travelocity, Match.com, and Hotels.com? I haven’t seen them very present in the startup community here. That would definitely help. American Airlines, Frito Lay, it would be great to see some of their employees in the events rather than just sponsoring them.
X: There are a lot of academic institutions in North Texas: Southern Methodist University, the University of Texas at Dallas, Texas Christian University, Texas Christian University, the University of North Texas. Should they be part of creating this entrepreneurial ecosystem?
MS: One of the things they do is put cheap labor in the market. When you’re building an early-stage company, bringing in talented developers for university student salaries is a big benefit for the entire community. When you’re at a startup, you can’t afford people out in the market. When you’re looking at ecosystems, you really want to see a hub and spoke. But education institutions see themselves in the middle, as the hub. The community has to be at the center of it. The schools are just a part of the ecosystem—an important part. I haven’t seen that work together well here. We need to gather students from all of these colleges and universities and do an event together. They are not being tapped. We need to turn up the burners.