Entrepreneurial ecosystem building in Springs

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When Colorado’s entrepreneurial superstar Brad Feld told a group of Colorado Springs entrepreneurs it would take 20 years to create a thriving entrepreneurial community, they didn’t flinch.

They got to work.

Nearly two years later, there is movement and friction in Colorado Springs’ entrepreneurial community. Angel and venture capitalists are taking a good look at companies, some of which are in negotiations now. There are Pitch Nights and coffee meetings for budding entrepreneurs to talk about their ideas. But there is no hierarchy and no government involvement. It’s an entrepreneurial movement started by and led by entrepreneurs.

It’s happening just like Feld — a managing director at Foundry Group venture capital firm that invests in early-stage software and Internet companies — said it could.

“It’s just this sort of messy thing and the glory of it is its messiness,” Feld said about how a thriving entrepreneurial community acts.

There has been more movement in the past year to create an entrepreneurial community in Colorado Springs than in the previous four years combined, said Jan Horsfall, co-chair of Startup Colorado, which is an offshoot of Startup America’s national network of startup communities. Entrepreneurs and startups in this community are defined as companies with high-growth potential.

“The activity is snowballing,” Horsfall said. “I think that is the value of Startup America — I see those guys as finding and collecting the best practices and bringing people together to talk about what regions are doing.”

Part of the intrigue in the Springs is a more grassroots effort, he said. In the past, efforts to jump-start the entrepreneurial community followed a top-down model. It felt too structured, too formal, Horsfall said. Now, no one is telling entrepreneurs how they should be doing business.

“By starting this from the entrepreneurs out, that is the primary difference that has taken place,” Horsfall said. “We are not trying to talk down to people — that has resonated.”

Feld spoke to about 80 local entrepreneurs this month via Skype. He was the first guest speaker in a six-part speaker series that aims to bring expert entrepreneurs from around the country into the room via technology, allowing entrepreneurs to ask questions and dive deep into issues important to them.

Feld, who just released his book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City, has been sharing examples of how his hometown, Boulder, grew into a leading startup community during the past 20 years.

When he moved to Boulder in 1995, he didn’t know anyone. He thought of himself as an angel investor and started hanging out with other entrepreneurs. As a group, the entrepreneurial community was confused and had ups and downs with no real cohesiveness.

By 1999, Boulder was recognized as a tech hot spot, and its entrepreneurial community and national reputation grew from there.

But what made it work? Feld sees four key components: entrepreneurial activity was led by entrepreneurs; the group took a long-term view, like 20 years; the group was inclusive of everyone; and they engaged everyone in entrepreneurial events.

Colorado Springs has taken that roadmap and put together its version of the four components, said Chris Franz, Startup Colorado board member and co-founder of Startup Colorado Springs.

“We’ve intentionally been following that path,” he said. “It’s got to be run by entrepreneurs — those are the people who stick around the longest. This is what we do.”

The end game is to have a self-sustaining community, where college graduates come in with ideas and enthusiasm and are mentored by those who came before them with their startups. The more startups, the more angel and venture capital interest, Franz said.

“That’s why it’s important to have a long-term vision,” he said. “We know it’s a slow, methodical effort that will grow over time.”

Colorado Springs entrepreneurs feel they are benefiting from Boulder’s experience. They believe they can replicate the ideas that worked and skip the ideas that didn’t.

“It wouldn’t shock me at all if in five years we pull our heads up from the work we are doing and find Colorado Springs in the top five technology communities,” Horsfall said. “That’s the way we need to think about it.”

On the horizon

Startup Colorado Springs will host a Startup Weekend 2013 event, where entrepreneurs from across the state meet to pitch their best startup ideas, and then work over 54 hours to create a viable business plan. Startup Weekend, a nonprofit headquartered in Seattle, is a grassroots movement started in 2007 for entrepreneurs to learn the basics of launching successful ventures. Startup Weekends have been hosted in more than 200 cities. Check www.springsstartup.com for details.