It’s Startup Week. Good timing for Lee Haider, whose young company is itching to get going and, having hit 22 just yesterday, is very nearly a startup himself.
The UCCS marketing student, along with three fellow undergrads, has been developing a mobile app that enables complete strangers to find each other, sort themselves according to interest, and form groups on the spot, such as at a restaurant to share a meal. They call the app Trof, which Haider said is planned for release in late autumn.
For the next four days, he and his Trofmates will join hundreds of entrepreneurs crisscrossing Colorado Springs to learn from masters, test their big but young ideas against the realities of business, and generally soak up startup culture, taking inspiration from the tribe.
The Colorado Springs nonprofit that organizes Startup Week in affiliation with the Boulder-based “seed accelerator” Techstars, has planned 53 events across 19 venues, and, in its sixth year, has ambitions to attract 600 or more people, twice the number of last year. The Springs event has taken its place among a wider season of local startup weeks across Colorado that begins in February in Fort Collins, continues in May in Boulder, and finishes next week in Denver.
Small business has always been near the heart of economic-development strategy here, but there was a day, when Colorado Springs aspired to be known as Silicon Mountain, that the work required, well, moving mountains. New semiconductor factories didn’t just drop out of the sky. In comparison, Startup Week embraces the small, in faith that, properly nurtured, it can produce big results.
“I want people to be filled with hope and inspiration about what they can do themselves,” Startup Week Executive Director Natasha Main said in the final hours of the countdown to today’s kickoff. By the end of the week, she said, she hopes participants look back and say “wow, that was great, we have a really amazing emerging and startup culture here in Colorado Springs.”
The Trof crew sampled some of last year’s Startup Week, Haider said, and this year is ready to go deeper. They’re about to be pushed out of the nest that is the UCCS Garage, a student startup incubator, and will be looking for that first seed investment in the coming months. When it comes to raising capital, “we know as much as what we’ve read and have been told by others,” he said, “but we don’t know 100% what goes on behind those closed doors, and definitely one thing we want to take away from this week is learning more about that fundraising by people who actually went out and raised a first round for a startup.”
Here’s just a small taste of the week:
• Monday. A panel on starting a sports-related company, to piggyback on Colorado Springs’ natural assets and association with the U.S. Olympic Committee.
• Tuesday. The nuts and bolts of coping with increasing demand for your product. Separately Tuesday, Gov. Jared Polis, a Techstars co-founder, is scheduled to open a session entitled “What is Collective Impact?”
• Wednesday. “The Top 5 Intellectual-Property-Related Reasons Why Your Business Could Fail, and What You Can Do Right Now to Fix Them.”
• Thursday. A four-person panel on startup financing modes: angel, venture, grants, and lending.
The 53 sessions fall into seven loosely themed tracks: startup foundations; growth; keynote addresses; adventure (a nod to Colorado Springs and sports); collective impact; and creative industry. The seventh track, which organizers are calling a “hackathon,” is not about coding. It’s a three-day brainstorm on ways to cope with population growth in Colorado Springs, capped by a pitch session to Springs residents. The city, through its Open Data initiative, will supply participants with the raw materials from which they will build their proposals.
True to the nature of its subject, Startup Week has tinkered with its own startup formula. In 2017, the sprawling, everything-everywhere programming of previous years was concentrated into daylong seminars at a single location, an approach that Main said diminished the event’s visibility. Last year, the scattered programming returned, with an increased focus on the later stages of the startup life cycle.
The formula will continue to evolve, Main said. That shouldn’t be much of a problem; overall conditions are generally favorable to entrepreneurs.
Since 2010, Colorado has been in or around the top five destinations for venture capital investment, according to the accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers. For the first three years of the decade, Colorado Springs didn’t share in that bounty, but since 2013 venture money has begun to find its way here. Since that point — and aside from the blockbuster $172 million that private equity investor KKR put into Cherwell Software in 2018 — venture funds have poured about $73 million into a handful of Springs companies, according to PWC.
Most startups are a long way from qualifying for venture investment, but if you’re going to run your new business from your kitchen table, that table probably is better off being in Colorado Springs than, say, anywhere in North Dakota, where PWC says venture investing statewide has amounted to $41 million since 2013. Venture funding is a divining rod, a pointer toward markets where the creativity, the skills and the culture for successful entrepreneurship, at all stages, are to be found.
And early-stage entrepreneurship, it turns out, has become a culture unto its own. One of the more meta bits of programming this week is a Tuesday panel that promises advice about “the reality of the startup lifestyle.” Another session looks in the mirror to reckon with the “startup ecosystem,” which the organizers declare to be “a thing.”
“Ecosystem builders are becoming an actual role people are hired to do,” the program notes say. “But, what does ecosystem building mean?”
For Haider, it means a crazy week ahead. “We’ll all be bouncing around. We’re all still in college. We gotta work around our class schedules.”
Jeff Thomas was a reporter and editor at The Gazette from 1988-2011. Currently he’s an editor for a nonprofit that supports Christians around the world who live under threat. Reach him via DM at @JTattheG, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.