Boulder Chamber: I Don't Want a Membership, I Want a Relationship

This morning I read and reread "The 21st century chamber of commerce - who needs it?" in the Daily Camera. Until things change, I'm thinking the answer is still "Not the startup community."

I used to work for the Boulder Small Business Development Center (Boulder SBDC) when it was hosted and partially funded by the Boulder Chamber. Having been on the Chamber payroll, I've kept an eye on its progress and wondered how it will stay relevant ever since.

If your read the comments in How Are the Boulder Chamber and Startup Community Relevant to Each Other?, a post a wrote a while back, business owners want "dialog" and "community" but don't feel that chambers provide it.

To my dismay the chamber representatives quoted in this morning's Camera article seem to miss something crucial: social media isn't for marketing, it's for communication. Marketing is one-way: "Look at the event I'm holding - it's relevant to you!" Communication is two-way: "How are the Boulder Chamber and startup community relevant to each other?"

More communication would be a good thing. Being asked to participate would be a great thing. Downtown Boulder, Inc. (DBI), similar in some ways to the Boulder Chamber, asked me to join their board. The Boulder SBDC is bringing me into their pool of quasi-volunteer consultants to help Boulder County businesses grow.

Neither of these organizations marketed to me - they showed me how valuable they are by having me work shoulder-to-shoulder with them on something. They've created a long lasting relationship with me.

Similarly, chambers need to consider that events are often more valuable to the organizer than the attendee. I don't pay to attend Chamber events because the convenience of attending is less important to me than relationships I build by organizing.

I help run Boulder Open Coffee Club and Denver Open Coffee Club. I used to run House of Genius, the Boulder Civic Hackfest, and a bunch of other stuff around town. I do these things because I enjoy surrounding myself with brainpower and give-a-shit and because the exposure is valuable to me. These things trump the convenience that a paid membership provides every time.

John Tayer, the president of the Boulder Chamber, is busting his ass to make his organization more relevant. If you get the chance to talk to him, tell him about your business needs and find a way to get involved. In the meantime, I'll send him the thoughts I've outlined in this post along with any of your comments below. Consider it a small step in building a stronger relationship.

Boulder Startup Community Growth: Messaging Matters

One of the things I admire most about entrepreneurs is that they tend to speak their minds instead of watering things down. When I hear startup folks talking about the growth and maturation of the Boulder startup community their enthusiasm is refreshing and often times contagious. That said, I've noticed that those who are unfamiliar with the startup ecosystem hear those comments very differently than I do. Messaging matters.

I get in trouble with my PR team for saying this. But I have no fucking idea.
— Stewart Butterfield, Slack CEO, on why Slack is succeeding

Messaging doesn't come naturally to most entrepreneurs - their freewheeling disposition is generally what makes them entrepreneurs in the first place. Ready-fire-aim is the prevailing wisdom and spills over into how entrepreneurs communicate. Sometimes there are unintended consequences.

Yesterday I had lunch with my friend Tim O'Shea at Downtown Boulder, Inc.'s (DBI) 2015 Annual Awards Luncheon and had a chance to talk to him about reactions to the event's keynote. Jim Deters (Galvanize) spoke about their plans to expand Galvanize Boulder's footprint into the PearlWest development (formerly the Daily Camera building), additional cities that Galvanize will establish itself in, and how fortunate Boulder is to have the type of startup growth that it is experiencing.

Looking around the room I saw a few people rolling their eyes. In a crowd dominated by businesspeople from retail, food and beverage, and real estate, tech companies are not well understood. Some Boulderites are already concerned that growth in the tech sector will increase traffic, prolong Boulder's lack of diversity, and raise the cost of living with companies like Google building large offices in our otherwise quaint little city. Deter's comment that other cities are dying to have the kind of growth that we have here seemed to evoke the most negative reactions. Unfortunately his enthusiasm for startup success was instead interpreted as a "growth at all costs" mentality.

I believe in being direct in communication, but with Nicole Glaros (Techstars), Rajat Bhargava (JumpCloud), and Jason Mendelson (Foundry Group) feeling compelled to write pieces like A Necessary Education on Boulder's Startup Community and Brad Feld's (Techstars, Foundry Group) post on The Endless Struggle That Boulder Has With Itself, it seems to me that public perception matters. If we're not careful startups will be considered part of the problem, not part of the solution.

As I pitch in to help the startup community and the general Boulder community get to know each other better I'll do my best to express that startup people care about the impact of their businesses as much as anybody. After all, we've all chosen to be here because we love Boulder, just like everybody else.

Upping My DBI Game in 2015

I joined the board for Downtown Boulder, Inc. (DBI) last year and spent most of it learning the ropes as a new member. I've started off 2015 as a more active member with the goals of 1) showing the startup community and DBI their value to each other, and 2) making DBI's public policy recommendations a better reflection of the downtown business community as a whole.

You'll notice that DBI breaks out its value to members into business advocacy and community.

Community is something that the Boulder startup community already does well, with individuals and companies self organizing to create great events including Boulder Startup Week, New Tech MeetupBoulder Open Coffee Club (BOCC), and House of Genius, all of which now serve as models for events in cities outside of Colorado and the United States. These are just a few of many examples of the community's ability to get things done.

Meanwhile, DBI and its sister organization the Downtown Boulder Improvement District quietly work to make downtown itself one of Boulder businesses' best recruiting tools by running family events like the Munchkin Masquerade, sponsoring the Boulder International Film Festival, and attracting the variety of retailers and restauranteurs that make the area so vibrant. It's no accident that so many people want to be downtown.

Startup folks get a ton accomplished with almost no infrastructure and formal organization. When it comes to business advocacy, however, the community's lack of structure makes it difficult to get the attention of politicians, advocacy groups, and others influencing important decisions. These decisions affect the traffic, parking, affordable housing, ability to recruit top talent, and cost of living in Boulder - issues that are important to many of us. DBI has experience with advocacy around these issues (several DBI board members were part of the herculean effort that created the Pearl Street walking mall, for instance) and wants to hear more technology voices.

Many of these issues are being thrust into the city's spotlight with the impending arrival of Google's 330,000 square foot office at 30th and Pearl. It's clear that startups and technology businesses are not well understood by Boulder City Council members and the broader community, prompting Nicole Glaros (Techstars), Rajat Bhargava (JumpCloud), and Jason Mendelson (Foundry Group) to write A Necessary Education on Boulder's Startup Community. Brad Feld (Techstars, Foundry Group) followed up with a post of his own, The Endless Struggle That Boulder Has With Itself.

The education process needs to continue - I hope to play a small part in that with DBI. This morning I took part in a BOCC discussion about the affect Google will have on our housing prices. Rachel Scott (Quick Left), is joining me on the DBI board to add another point of view to our conversations. Sean Maher (DBI) and I are meeting with Brad Feld (Techstars, Foundry Group) later this week to get his perspective on ways that we can continue to make Boulder a thriving destination for entrepreneurs and their families. Efforts are underway.

I'd love to hear your point of view as well.

 

How Are the Boulder Chamber and the Startup Community Relevant to Each Other?

Having had a tour of duty with the Boulder Chamber and being active in the startup community these days, I'm still looking for answers.  I could use your help.

The Boulder Chamber has a 100+ year history of anchoring the entrepreneurial community. It does a tremendous amount to support entrepreneurs at a high level as an advocate and influencer of economic policy as well as at a granular level by offering free consulting to small business owners, among many, many other activities. That said, it's odd to me that the Chamber and the startup community overlap so infrequently.

In thinking through how we're relevant to each other, keep in mind how different the Boulder Chamber and the startup community are. The Boulder Chamber has both the constraints and resources that the startup community does not: a budget, headquarters, influence over economic policy, and full time employees. Clearly we execute in very different ways, but our interests are the same: to see entrepreneurs thrive in Boulder.

Consider recruiting, one of the startup community's biggest pain points. With downtown Boulder itself as one of our best tools for recruiting out-of-state talent, there are plenty of ways that the Boulder Chamber can help.

To their credit John Tayer, President & CEO of the Boulder Chamber, and Sean Maher, Executive Director of Downtown Boulder, Incorporated (an organization largely responsible for how vibrant and amazing downtown Boulder is), have already found ways to collaborate with Boulder Startup Week, one of the startup community's most notable events. Together they've successfully convinced out-of-state developers and designers to move to the area, deepening our talent pool.

A recent chat with Tim O'Shea and Rich Maloy, two of BSW's organizers, reminded the three of us of how much more we could be doing with established organizations like the Chamber and DBI. Advocacy was one of the first things that popped to mind. I'm sure there are many others.

John and Sean have also reached out to me to learn more about my involvement with Boulder Open Coffee Club and House of Genius and their place in the ecosystem. More importantly, they've shown up to participate in both events. Because the startup community rewards those who participate, I'd love to have the startup community reciprocate.

Perhaps you'll consider coming to Esprit Entrepreneur today and tomorrow to help the Chamber celebrate entrepreneurship in Boulder. Companies including Rally Software, SparkFun, SendGrid, Return Path, and Quick Left (disclosure: I work there) will be among the companies represented.

Help me out here - what other ways can we welcome folks like John and Sean to learn more about what we're doing, and conversely, for us to learn more about what they're doing? I'd love to get a conversation going in the comments below!