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.

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!

You're a Genius

Each month my co-organizer Katie O'Block and I invite 20 or so businesspeople from the community to House of Genius. Collectively we help three entrepreneurs move forward with their businesses in some way. If you're hesitant to join us because you're not sure if you can live up to the Genius standard, this post is for you. You belong. You're a Genius.

House of Genius Boulder July 2013. Photo taken by Mike Howard.

The House of Genius secret sauce isn't about scouring the planet for Mensa members, MBAs, and PhDs. It's about curating a local group of people with fairly diverse points of view to share any insight that they've got for the entrepreneurs presenting that night. You're a Genius even if you don't know it.

Many of our participants fit into traditional business functions and industries that you might see listed on LinkedIn: marketing manager for a web development company, attorney at a specialized legal firm, and bookkeeper at a restaurant, for instance. We've also drawn from occupations including opera singer, sommelier, jewelry designer, humor researcher, author, undergraduate, artist, and investor. And yes, we've managed to include Mensa members, MBAs, and PhDs too.

Don't get hung up on whether your credentials are strong enough. We go out of our way to enforce a level of anonymity by asking that people limit introductions to their first names with no mention of their job or past experience. By having people leave their credentials at the door we're able to let every contribution stand on its own merit.

 

Katie and I would love to see you join us for House of Genius Boulder. If you've got any questions please reach out to us directly: bing@houseofgenius.org and katie@houseofgenius.org. Otherwise, provide us with a bit of information and we'll be sure to find a session where your experience will best complement the rest of the group's. Together, we create Genius.

 

Volunteering Your Way into the Startup Community

Three years ago I decided that I wanted to find a career in the startup ecosystem in Boulder. In that time I volunteered my way from being an outsider looking in to being a thriving member of the community. If you're interested in doing the same, I recommend finding ways to donate some of your brainpower and give-a-shit around town.

I consider myself an introvert. I grew up in New England and generally have the attitude that I already have all the friends I need in life. My ancestors in China built thousands of miles of wall to keep people out. It's fair to say that becoming an active community member doesn't come naturally to me.

I fell in love with the Boulder startup ecosystem because it represents the energy, calculated risk taking, creativity, and everything else that I love about entrepreneurship. I knew that if I wanted to take part, I'd have to come out of my shell to match that level of activity. Scary. I started showing up at BDNTIgnite Boulder, and eventually BOCC pretty regularly as a passive attendee. It was a start, but because I'm a wallflower by nature, I hadn't really gotten to know too many people. That changed when I started to volunteer.

I spent a weekend at SnapCamp to work on an initiative to help organizations across the country tap into volunteers within their communities. In working shoulder to shoulder with a handful of people for a weekend, I was able to build long lasting, meaningful relationships that traditional networking rarely delivers on for me. I didn't know it at the time, but volunteering would become the only form of networking that I rely on.

In the meantime I've handed out shirts at TEDxBoulder, written posts for boulder.me, worked the registration desk at Big Boulder, and pitched in with a variety of other small efforts around town. I've also become an organizer for House of Genius, an all volunteer organization that helps entrepreneurs move forward with their companies by harnessing the collective genius of the business community.

Update: Take a look at Startup Communities Are Built By Self-Appointed Leaders by Brad Bernthal for other examples of ways to contribute to the community. Brad is the Entrepreneurship Initiative Director at Silicon Flatirons Center and linchpin to the connection between CU and the rest of the startup community here in Boulder.

Brad Feld, a local community leader, encourages people to give before you get. I've given some and gotten plenty in return. I've been able to call upon people I would otherwise never have access to, based purely on the fact that they've heard I'm a "community guy", to help me with personal, professional, and volunteer pursuits.

There's no need to draft a strategy and tactics to become a member of the community. Look for a couple of things that sound interesting, show up, and pitch in. It's as simple as that. If you're in Boulder, I'd love to cross paths with you.