Colorado Springs entrepreneur and investor Jan Horsfall is co-chair of a new, statewide effort to connect entrepreneurs to the capital and technological resources they need to make their dreams a reality.
The group, Startup Colorado (startupcolorado.org), made its launch a few weeks ago.
Horsfall is the former vice president of Internet search firm Lycos and has founded technology startups.
He recently founded Gelazzi, a gelato restaurant chain that has plans to open in several U.S. cities.
He spoke with the Business Journal recently about Startup Colorado. Below is a portion of the interview. Read more at csbj.com.
How did Startup Colorado get its start? Who approached you about co-chairing the endeavor?
My connection was Brad Feld, who is a managing partner at a venture capital group — Foundry Group — in Boulder. Phil Weiser, the Dean of the Law School at CU, is the other co-chair. Both of these guys are doers and true entrepreneurs at heart. Brad’s been an entrepreneur for 30 years and understands the barriers which can overwhelm entrepreneurs as they’re building on their ideas. Brad had been at Startup America’s original session in D.C. at which they put out the opportunity for states to do their own versions. I think a light bulb went off in his head — and also in the head of one of his partners at Foundry, Jason Mendelson. Essentially, it wasn’t so much about copying Startup America for either of these guys, but more about creating something very real which could crank up the overall entrepreneurial support structure and overall entrepreneurial network up and down the Front Range and Colorado in general. We have amazing assets when the overall ‘corridor’ of the Front Range is considered, but they’re buried too often under a lack of communication, city nepotism and government entities which impede ideas like this by eventually co-opting the process and holding it hostage via the annual funding support ritual. These guys wanted to create something independent of those barriers, something that really was energized by the entrepreneurs themselves. I frankly believe that the reason it’s going to work is because we’re putting this in our own hands and nobody else’s. To some extent for me that’s borne out of a mistrust of the current system and the lack of support for new companies. We’re sick of hearing about people always yapping about how important jobs and businesses are in Colorado and then not putting their money where their mouths are. This is a set of cooperative, ‘get it done’ approaches to the problems entrepreneurs are trying to overcome, not a slow bureaucratic/elitist approach.
What does Colorado Springs stand to gain from Startup Colorado? What do other cities stand to gain by connecting with Colorado Springs?
Essentially Startup Colorado is the place to go for any Colorado entrepreneur in the various early stages of their company’s gestation period in order to find the nearby resources they need to crank up their business or idea. We’re appreciative that a two-hour drive isn’t a barrier to entrepreneurs, so we’re going to identify assets from Colorado Springs to Denver to Boulder to Fort Collins — the ‘corridor’ if you will. Then a new company can get plugged into this denser network of real assets — not bureaucratic or faux assets — and lock and load as they ramp. You don’t need to be held hostage to a narrow mind set, but rather all of the great thinking that runs up and down the Front Range.
For Colorado Springs — and other cities cooperating within this new ecosystem — the benefits are huge. First, we can copy best practices from the overall Front Range and put them to work here. You’re already seeing that in our monthly 5-Minute Pitch Nights (available on Meetup.com) — they’re electrifying and they’re not filled up with elitists, bureaucrats or non-doers, rather they’re buzzing with a room full of entrepreneurial doers. Robert Reich, who runs the Boulder versions, downloaded everything he had learned over five years so that we didn’t have to hit the same guard rails. They have 400-plus people at each monthly pitch night. We’ve gone from 15 people to over 75 people at our last version using the lessons he generously provided. More important than the numbers is the fact that we’re pulling all of the great entrepreneurs out of the woodwork. We like to suggest from on high that these entrepreneurs aren’t really here in The Springs, when the reality is that they’re here in droves. Unfortunately all of the city’s endless research projects, commissions and agencies aren’t in a position to bring them together or even understand what to do next with them. Startup Colorado helps greatly in that regard because it’s run by the same type of people it’s trying to help and by nature we get sh*t done.
I’ve been a part of some of the largest entrepreneurial communities in Boston, New York (from which our family relocated) and Silicon Valley. The one thing that drives these ideation centers is a positive, inclusive, knowledgeable support structure integrated in with the entrepreneur community (angel investors, venture capital funds, incubators, accelerators, universities, service providers, etal). Colorado is a nicer place to live — no doubt — but we can supercharge that fact by really committing ourselves as individuals to helping in the effort to make the business climate work for these new companies.
The great thing about Startup Colorado is that the best entrepreneurs in the state are going all out to help each other. People keep asking me what’s in it for people like me. The answer is what’s in it for all of us: the creation of a noted ideation center on par with Austin, Seattle, Silicon Valley and Boston. In 10 years, I want them thinking The Springs, Boulder, Denver, Fort Collins just as quickly as they’re thinking Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale and San Jose. The only way we get there is to work together and be truly supportive and giving. If people are hung up on the difference in political culture between Boulder and Colorado Springs, then they don’t get it. The common language of entrepreneurs doesn’t include wasting time on those labels. We’re too fixated on creating and building businesses with other entrepreneurs.
Why do you believe it has been so difficult for Colorado Springs to connect with the state’s entrepreneurial hubs of Denver and Boulder?
Frankly, we have a lot to learn in The Springs about how to play a role in this overall entrepreneurial community. We tend to be far too conservative and dismissive about what this support really needs to look like. I see a lot of box checking without results. I’ve seen angel investors in Colorado Springs rip up and spit out brand new area entrepreneurs — hammering them in the early stage funding process instead of supporting them with a sense of commitment and energy — and so in some ways this is about education and cooperation. You can walk around all day long telling people you’re supportive of new companies and job creation, but what does that mean? It means you’re going to go all out to support 10 to 12 companies with a modicum of funding and you’re going to be there financially when they need help. It means you’re going to invest and believe in big ideas and big outcomes and stick with it. It means you’re going to understand that if we want to build a larger, denser fabric of entrepreneurial new companies in The Springs, then you can’t throw nickels around like manhole covers. It means you need to personally help these firms and their risk-takers. Part of this process will help bring some new thinking and statewide examples to some people down here who could really be king makers.
I firmly believe that when our area investors and support system players see the job-creation and brand-creation benefits which come from a more aggressive and committed mindset — as we clearly see in Boulder — that they’ll wake up and start to understand how this thing works. The toe dipping and lip service has to give way to some cannonballs from some influential and wealthy leaders in this community who could make a huge difference in peoples’ lives and in this city in general. This is not a race track in which the horse simply goes back to the stable if they lose. If you’re an entrepreneur and you lose, it’s life-changing for you and your family. You either feel supported or you don’t. There’s no middle ground. We still have people who seem obtuse to this fact. In the end, the giving and support for entrepreneurs which is very real in Boulder has to find its way here to Colorado Springs. Our safety net still has too many holes in it and we’re letting great companies die because in many ways we simply don’t care or appreciate the loss. When companies lose here, the individuals at the heart of these activities will leave and head back to the other ideation centers where the support is in place — including other cities in Colorado. I know this all too well. The Springs might not get a bill for that, but there’s a huge cost attached for this metro area when this takes place. On the other hand, when benefactors stand up and personally become part of the support structure, the opposite happens: we start growing organically — no tax breaks necessary.
How will you measure the program’s success? What would define successful participation for Colorado Springs?
I’m already seeing the success, in part because we’ve galvanized the real entrepreneurs in The Springs. They love the fact that we’re tying the Front Range together and introducing them to other like-minded entrepreneurial leaders up and down the Front Range. I’ve already seen it make a difference in over a dozen instances. We’re creating a denser entrepreneurial network already. We just announced this week additional Colorado Springs projects which will debut in the next month. We’ll be doing Open Coffee Clubs the first and third Thursdays of every month and our first session will be packed. We’ll use these more intimate sessions featuring different entrepreneurial leaders to answer entrepreneurial issues and questions over coffee. We’re also introducing Colorado Springs Startup Cheers, which is simply a beer drinking affair for entrepreneurs to hook up once a month. No reason not to come! In the near term, we’ll be setting up the first Open Office Hours in which service providers (i.e. patent lawyers, pro forma builders) and entrepreneur leaders will schedule two hour blocks broken into fifteen minute segments for individual entrepreneurs once a quarter to give free advice. We set it up. Entrepreneurs grab the 15-minute blocks. Our business leaders and providers impart advice and form a bond for future business transactions. How cool is that? So as long as the entrepreneurial network is getting denser, I believe it’s a precursor for eventual success.
Said again, you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem. We’re looking to include individuals who want to make a huge difference — a real difference — to these young companies. They’re tomorrow’s business leaders and we need to treat them that way. We’d love to see this leadership group expand at a fast rate. That way, in ten years, we’ll have more happening in The Springs than we know what to do with. Ask the next person you see what their passion is. Then send them to Startup Colorado and be part of the solution. The late, great female surfer Rell Sun once said, “You give and give and give until you can’t give anymore — then you give again.” I’m looking for some of that from our real leaders as Startup Colorado kicks in.