Getting It Done: Denver’s Unsung Startup Scene Has Some Chops

In Westerns, the hero never brags.

Think of Gary Cooper in High Noon or Charles Bronson in The Magnificent Seven. They didn’t boast; they barely spoke. They just did what needed doing.

And so it is in Denver, a city so self-effacing that it named itself after the governor of the Kansas Territory, a man who never even lived there.

Denver has long been overshadowed by Boulder, its smaller, flashier neighbor, a city internationally known for its startup scene and the home to entrepreneurship rock stars Brad Feld of Foundry Group and David Cohen of Techstars.

Though it has a deep and diversified technology base that dates back to the 1960s, Denver lacks newer high-profile tech firms. In fact, Chipotle might be the best-known company based here. Recent entrepreneurial successes the city can point to, such as Ping Identity and Rally Software, haven’t earned headlines outside the city. Other companies have been acquired or moved.

Despite that, the Mile High City is quietly building one of the most dynamic entrepreneurial scenes in the country, one that is just now getting the attention it deserves. Former Denver Mayor and now Governor John Hickenlooper is putting the entrepreneurial lessons he learned as owner of a brewpub into practice in state government.

Entrepreneurs in Denver seem to enjoy a more collaborative relationship with local and state government than is the case in many cities. That’s not to say entrepreneurs don’t get frustrated with government, just that both sides seem committed to working together.

Jim Deters, CEO of Galvanize and one of the city’s biggest cheerleaders, describes the entrepreneurial soil in Denver as thin compared to that in places like Silicon Valley or Boston. There haven’t been enough IPOs, big exits, spinoffs and serial entrepreneurs, he says, but adds, “They’re on the horizon. They’re very, very close.”

Like San Diego and Seattle, two other successful tech hubs, Denver benefits from the lifestyle it offers. The Rockies beckon in the background and the city, according to the Brookings Institution, has become the favorite destination of Millennials. Denver, like the Old West, is full of people from elsewhere.

“The entrepreneurs who come to Denver want to live richly,” said Erik Mitisek, CEO of the Colorado Technology Association and the man behind Denver Startup Week. “The opportunity to sneak away and grab that jog alongside a roaring river, hike a mountain, go experience 15 inches of fresh snow or go on that raft trip on a quick weekend getaway, those are the things that make the difference.”

The influx of people is good for entrepreneurship, not only because it brings new talent, but because there’s less of an established power structure that might resist innovation or be reluctant to share power. Perhaps as a result, Denver’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is a friendly place.

“Because we have so many people from all over the place, there is an openness to new people in the community,” said Annette Quintana of Istonish. “People embrace them and pull them into the different community organizations and welcome them in such a manner that they feel like they’re not isolated.”

Collaboration among entrepreneurs is the norm everywhere, but Denver seems to take it to the next level.

“I think there’s a level of give, give and give without expectation of return,” said Jim Franklin, CEO of SendGrid. “And I don’t think you find that in other ecosystems. It’s much more of a ‘Well, if I do this for you, will I be on an advisory board, will there be advisory shares?’ And you don’t really hear that (in Denver).”

Refreshingly, there does not seem to be any civic rivalry between Denver and Boulder entrepreneurs. Instead, traffic is increasing in both directions on U.S. 36. Denver is copying what’s appropriate from Boulder and Boulder startups are opening offices in Denver and hiring local talent. The two scenes might never merge (Boulder is just too, well, Boulder for that), but it’s going to be hyphenated more in the future.

In the past two to three years, Denver has found its entrepreneurial mojo and is taking a more confident stance. While it might never be the loudest voice in the room, its success can’t be ignored.


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