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.

The Startup Colorado Community Fund As a Sponsor

Startup Colorado Community Fund logo.png

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of accepting a $6,000 grant from the Startup Colorado Community Fund on behalf of House of Genius Boulder.  I thought I'd share what the process was like to help out those of you interested in similarly funding your startup community event or organization.

 The Community Fund is "on a mission to assist entrepreneurs in Colorado leading their startup communities - with resources to amplify community growth and engagement." They're looking to back an organization that:

  • Focuses on driving entrepreneurship and innovation
  • Puts entrepreneurs first
  • Is inclusive
  • Engages the entire entrepreneurial stack
  • Is Colorado-centric
  • Has the intent of becoming sustainable.

The application itself was a simple text form which took 15 minutes or so to complete. After doing so I had the option to invite others to provide a recommendation and/or to show support on Facebook to help build our case.

A few weeks after submitting our application we were informed by email and phone that House of Genius would be awarded one of the two inaugural grants along with 1 Million Cups Denver. I was asked to accept the grant during a Startup Colorado event as part of Denver Startup Week, which was a great opportunity for me to speak about House of Genius in front of 100+ people from the community.

The final details I had to provide as a follow-up were also simple: a short written summary about House of Genius and how it meets the criteria bulleted above, along with the organization's EIN and address. The grant is being routed through the Entrepreneurs Foundation of Colorado and will arrive shortly. It was that easy.

For House of Genius Boulder, the Community Fund grant will go an incredibly long way. The funds will fuel roughly a year's worth of our monthly activity, which brings together twenty or so volunteers from the business community to help three entrepreneurs move forward with what they're working on.

More importantly, it does two less obvious things for us:

  • it frees our team from having to chase sponsor dollars, giving us more time to focus on making Boulder the standard by which other House of Genius cities around the world are measured
  • it has put House of Genius on the radar of the grant committee members, an active and influential group of entrepreneurs, investors, and community leaders here in Colorado and beyond

For any of you leading an event or organization that supports the startup community in Colorado, I highly recommend looking into the Community Fund as a resource. With $200,000 committed to the fund and a rolling application process, you should apply now.

Thank you to the grant committee and David Bennett, my main point of contact with Startup Colorado - the Community Fund is an incredible resource.

If you've got questions about the fund or the application process, I'll do my best to answer them in the comments!

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!