You might think of Colorado as a getaway for ski bunnies and outdoorsy types, but Denver, its capital city, has a fast-growing startup scene that's attracting talented engineers and entrepreneurs who might otherwise have settled in Silicon Valley.
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At Denver Startup Week, now in its sixth year, PCMag spoke to local organizers, state officials, and startup CEOs to break down why Denver has become such an attractive destination for creative types with big ideas.
At the top of the list? People can actually afford to live there. The highly educated, homegrown millennial workforce (44 percent have a bachelor's versus the 33 percent national average) has also attracted big tech companies like Google and Twitter to the surrounding area, which join Oracle, Level3, Liberty, Lockheed Martin, and IBM in the Centennial State.
While you'll probably still want that four-wheel drive vehicle for hiking or snowboarding weekends in the mountains, visitors can now get from the airport to downtown via train, hop on a free bus, or call a Lyft. Many young startups are setting up shop in the up-and-coming Arts District [aka RiNo] alongside galleries, hipster eateries, and charmingly decrepit warehouses covered in murals. The recently revamped Union Station also packs amenities like shuffleboard, co-working spaces with outlets, and free Wi-Fi.
Denver's Startup Blueprint
One of those responsible for Denver's transformation is Tami Door, President and CEO of Downtown Denver Partnership. Door founded Denver Startup Week as well as the Commons on Champa co-working space, where she sat down with PCMag.
"We're a magnet for the future workforce of highly educated millennials, [and] it's still quite affordable so you can come here and build a life," said Door. "Tech can be seen across all components of Denver's startups, but the big news is that everyone is cross-pollinating and that will be the driving force behind our economic growth."
Since its launch two years ago, Commons on Champa has welcomed more than 30,000 entrepreneurs.
"We wanted to provide a place, at no cost, just like Denver Startup Week," said Door, "where entrepreneurs could get access to tools, services and communities, to grow their business. Commons on Champa also functions as a place for us to showcase Denver startups to venture capitalists and big businesses, to encourage collaboration with innovators in a central location."
Denver also enjoys a cordial relationship between developers, local government, and the business community, Erik Mitisek, Colorado's chief information officer, told PCMag.
"As an innovation center, where people want to live, balance having access to capital and have a great life, Colorado is uniquely situated," he said. "It's also noticeable that the big tech giants are buying up Colorado-based startups, and centering their innovation here," said Mitisek. "For example, Amazon bought 2lemetry in 2015, Google and Nest bought Revolv, [which is] part of that first generation for IoT connectivity in the home, and Uber bought Boulder Bing, keeping their maps division here."
Need a Job?
We tracked down a few Denver-based CEOs to find out why they came to Colorado. Amy Zupon, CEO of Vertafore, said Denver quickly emerged as a prime location for her insurance technology business when her company grew to 1,300 employees. She pointed to the great startup culture and a young, technology-literate, educated workforce from which to recruit.
"Denver has become a strong component in our recruiting efforts, people want to move here," said Zupon, "There's an authentic connection here, people embrace change and we're having a great time here, I love this city, I'm proud to be part of this technology community."
Rachel Carlson is CEO and co-founder of Guild Education, a scalable education platform offering online programs and degrees designed for working adults. It recently closed a $21 million Series B funding round—the largest in Denver for a female-founded startup.
During her Startup Week keynote, Carlson threw down the gauntlet to Peter Thiel, who encourages bright entrepreneurs to drop out of college and start businesses.
"Ninety-five percent of jobs since 2008 have required a college degree and the largest growth has not come from software roles, but instead for those who manage people and processes like many of Guild's students," Carlson pointed out. Like most CEOs who spoke at Denver Startup Week, she told the crowd, "We're hiring as fast as we can," soliciting smart Denverites to contact her team.
Another noteworthy keynote speech came from Sameer Dholakia, CEO of email marketing company SendGrid. Dholakia urged fellow CEOs at Denver Startup Week to "Be your own chief culture officer" and explained his belief in "servant leadership," where CEOs lead from the bottom.
Dholakia said Denver has a more inclusive culture than the dog-eat-dog atmosphere of Silicon Valley. When he became CEO of SendGrid, Dholakia told PCMag that fellow CEOs and local government officials welcomed him to the city with a walking tour of downtown that made him feel like a part of Denver's tech scene.
"The power of Denver goes back to its culture," confirmed Tami Door. "Everyone here wants to see people succeed."