Entrepreneurs banding to change the Springs scene

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The entrepreneurial landscape in Colorado Springs appears to be on the verge of change with local business leaders tearing down walls, sharing information and pledging to build a city with a national reputation for budding entrepreneurs.

It won’t happen overnight. But, the groundwork of support organizations has been laid, said John Stewart, co-founder of SpringsStartUp.com and COO of Tins.ly Inc., an Internet software company.

What’s happening now will be that infrastructure that attracts emerging entrepreneurs and venture capital to the Springs, he said.

“As the world is growing, people are becoming accustomed to entrepreneurialism — people are going after their own ideas,” Stewart said. “The resources are available and Colorado Springs and the organizations here have put themselves in a position for that growth to occur.”

For years, there have been a dozen Springs organizations from Peak Venture Group to SCORE to the Small Business Development Center, with the mission of growing entrepreneurs, small business and startups.

But, the horizon looked more like a city of silos, where no one group knew, or cared, what the other was doing. It created confusion and frustration among entrepreneurs trying to navigate the scene said Ian Lee, founder of Tins.ly and co-founder of SpringsStartUp.com, a website with news and information related to startup and entrepreneurial activity in the Springs area.

“The ecosystem didn’t have a sense of warmth,” Lee said. “And, that’s challenging.”

In recent months there has been a move to raze the silos, pool resources and share information. There are Pitch Nights, coffee meetings with successful entrepreneurs, beer nights, websites, and a Front Range initiative to connect entrepreneurs with mentors.

This month, PVG launched Regional Entrepreneurial Alliance, or REAL, with a mission of arming entrepreneurs with a roadmap to all the organizations — Peak Venture Group, Colorado Springs Technology Incubator, SCORE, Procurement Technical Assistance Center, Small Business Development Center and High Altitude Investors, to name a few.

REAL is a collaboration of all the groups, said Duane Fitch, Peak Venture Group director and REAL chair. What was happening was a business received mentoring from PVG and was ready for the next step, maybe a slot at the Colorado Springs Technology Incubator, but conversations broke down, he said.

Now, REAL can direct an entrepreneur to the right organization, Fitch said. The group also plans to host eNights, where attorneys, CPAs, and other business experts meet with entrepreneurs for free.

“This is so exciting and so powerful,” Fitch said. “What we are trying to eventually do is change the culture in Colorado Springs to be business friendly.”

Roadblocks down

It took years of schmoozing, mingling and networking to break down the defensive stance individual groups held. Some say the new allied effort was bolstered with Operation 60ThirtyFive, a 2010 government and business study on economic development.

“There are a lot f folks who have been working three to four years to build relationships among the entities,” said Chris Franz, president of IPS, a company that integrates technology for commercial and government entities. “Operation 60ThirtyFive put the groups together to start talking.”

Then, one of Colorado’s leading experts in entrepreneurialism, Brad Feld, helped local entrepreneurs make an outline to change the entrepreneurial culture, which mostly revolves around the idea of sharing information, success stories and obstacles. The key is to have structure in the entrepreneurial environment so that a person with an idea knows where to begin and a person with a successful startup knows how to exit.

“We had a number of efforts in the last year or two but there was nothing continuous about it,” Franz said.

On the horizon

The excitement around entrepreneurs and small business is building, said Robin Roberts, president of Pikes Peak National Bank and a member of PVG and SCORE. She launches a radio show Jan. 7 with co-host Don Cochell on KRDO called “Let’s get down to business” with a focus on small business and startups.

Small business had been ignored, she said. Now, she said she feels a collective “hey, we have to do something,” she said.

“I think we are right on the edge of busting it wide open,” Roberts said.

Local entrepreneur Jan Horsfall, founder of Gelazzi, a gelato restaurant chain that has plans to open in several U.S. cities, helped launch Startup Colorado, an effort to connect entrepreneurs to the capital and technological resources all along the Front Range.

Three local entrepreneurs launched Springs Startup, a website for local entrepreneurial meetings and social groups. They also started a series of coffee and happy-hour meetings, bringing in successful entrepreneurs to share their secrets of success.

“Let’s stop talking about the groups we belong to and let’s start talking about it from the perspective that we are all entrepreneurs,” Lee said.

Sharing experiences is more than networking, he said. It’s a chance for experienced entrepreneurs to share how they made their company work. The goal is to get entrepreneurs operating from a similar blueprint, or term sheet. So, when angel or Venture Capital investors look at Colorado Springs startups, there is a structure they can trust.

“Then, there is less feeling of slight of hand and an ecosystem that is a machine,” he said.

Now is the time, Franz said. In a down economy, more people are willing to take a risk on their own ideas. Resources are less expensive and young engineers will work for the experience. And now, Colorado Springs has a critical mass of people and resources in play, he said.

“The philosophy that a lot of us are trying to take is that this is a 15-year endeavor to create a vibrant entrepreneurial community,” Franz said. “This is kind of our birth year.”